Live in Conversation, Chicago 4/25/02

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At the end of April, I attended The Center for Public Intellectuals' debate between Richard Rorty and Richard Posner on the role and status of the public intellectual in American society today.

Richard Rorty and Richard Posner

Jayson Harsin

Monday, June 17 2002, 6:12 PM

At the end of April, I attended The Center for Public Intellectuals' debate between Richard Rorty and Richard Posner on the role and status of the public intellectual in American society today.

With these three prunish doyens of public intellectualism perched on stage, it looked like a set for a Viagra ad. At times it appeared both Rorty and Posner had to be awakened in their turns to respond. But enough already with the ad hominems. There are more substantive things to attack them for, such as the fact that none of them moved passed a very general set of claims and definitions.

Stanley Fish was the nominal moderator. Fish, now Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and head of the newly inaugurated Center for Public Intellectuals at the University of Illinois at Chicago, made his splash into the public intellectual pool a few years ago debating Dinesh Dsouza on the topic of affirmative action. Richard Rorty, famous pragmatist philosopher, is now located at Stanford University and frequently contributes articles and book reviews to The Nation, the New York Times, Harper's, and others. Richard Posner, senior lecturer at University of Chicago law school (emphasis on "senior"), originator of the law and economics legal movement, and judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, is author of the recent Public Intellectuals:A Study of Decline.

Moderator Stanley Fish ended the debate by claiming that Rorty and Posner had demonstrated one of the key aspects of the public intellectual (common to the many competing definitions of the term)--accessibility. But after listening to them talk past each other and in great generality for an hour and a half, I wondered what kind of a virtue accessibility was at the cost of substance. I recalled that the Gore-Bush debates were also supposedly accessible. Is it really a zero sum game?

It's not as if the topic didn't have potential. We live in a country whose education system has largely evacuated the vision of participatory democracy (in favor of global economy-friendly vocational skills and global economy friendly raw unskilled bodies), an evacuation which has the effect of alienating people from the political process and their sense of their own citizenship. The real question I would like to have seen debated was how public intellectualism related to this historical problem, where we continue to have rhetorical commitments to democracy, freedom, and public participation but no infrastructure for the dream in practice.

What both of these Fish-appointed public intellectuals had in common in the "debate" was the readiness to discuss public intellectualism within the parameters of technocracy. Posner defined public intellectuals as using ideas from their academic expertise which are pertinent to public affairs and, necessarily he emphasized, wanting to reach the public with those ideas. Rorty simply defined the public intellectual as someone who attracts publicity by publishing a book on some topic (presumably academic) and then using that publicity to "sound off on issues of public concern."

Posner has a very disarming style of speech, a sort of calm, cool, knuckle sandwich with a smile that so many of us strive for unsuccesfully without the assistance of medication (Bob Novak springs to mind). Rorty, red-faced but also calm, spoke in a kind of slow lilt, whose efficaciousness seems to rest on how much you enjoyed listening to Thurston Howell III talk on Gilligan's Island.

Posner opened the debate by bringing up the following three issues: First, defining what it means to be a public intellectual (see above); second, claiming that the public intellectual is diminishing in significance; and third, arguing that public intellectuals need to improve their performance.

Posner elaborated by way of assertions (he had but 10 minutes to open with) that public intellectuals performed poorly in three recent episodes of public concern: the Clinton impeachment, the election deadlock, and the responses to 9/11. Only on the latter did he offer even the most minimal support by citing the "we deserved it" response.

But what bothers Posner most seems to be exactly what Rorty accepted: the claim that celebrated scholars are speaking outside their expertise on matters of public concern. Cornel West was someone he mentioned more than once, whom he accused of giving some 150 speeches while on leave (at $15,000 per speech) from Harvard and for allegedly supporting Al Sharpton for president in 2004 (I have only been able to find articles claiming he is on Sharpton's "exploratory commission for president," though admittedly that is curious). That hardly seems to constitute a shaming of the public intellectual role from my perspective.

Rorty made the mistake of not distinguishing between different types of celebrities who "sound off on public concern." There are pop music stars, like REM's Michael Stipe, for example, who get publicity for political issues. And they are not in the same category as Rorty or Posner, who later agreed at Fish's suggestion that public intellectuals are a sort of club. Rorty and Posner are experts in different fields, but they both travel around in the domain of (a version of) Sartre's "engaged intellectuals." They listen to and read articles by all sorts of experts which they use to inform their own positions that they sound off on. This sort of professional citizen is the remnant of the old renaissance man and possibly the democratic Athenian citizen. It gets some lip service in American politics, but not a lot on the policy end. Here in my opinion is the real crux of the issue of public intellectuals.

We are talking about different levels of interest in and distillation of ideas about issues of public concern. A problem arrives on the public scene, say drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Reserve or in anti-missle misslle defense, both of which were broached during the debate. According to Posner, experts should deal with these matters, but experts whose expertise is actually pertinent. The opposite, he accuses, is too much the case. Rorty is more sympathetic to a "middlebrow" (a term he used) intellectual, something like the Walter Lippmann intellectual's journalist. For Posner, public debate is evacuated to the experts. For Rorty, it is evacuated to the public intellectual middle man. But both of them evacuate the dream of active citizenship to a cadre of professionals. And one gets the sense that for Posner there is something anti-democratic in his love for the expert who gets dibs on public debate. Rorty at least seems to think that if enough middlebrow public intellectuals get their word out, the larger public will see the force of the stronger argument.

Posner's response was more troubling. He at first jumps on the attack of Rorty for being able to speak while the cab driver can not, apparently because it's convenient to score points on Rorty. But only minutes later, the judge begins to go after those who speak on matters they know nothing about. "These are really complex issues," he emphasized by talking about the Arctic drilling issue. So, either he favors letting cab drivers into public debate in a visible way or he favors more stringent demands of expertise for speakers--he can't have it both ways. He shows no interest in a well-informed cab driver, or doctor for that matter, who can make decisions about what is the interest of the country, state, or city. Quacks with a penchant for demagoguery are no doubt unhealthy for a polity, but do they represent all that democracy can be?

At the bottom of Posner's celebration of expertise is a critique of public speakers' credentials, a critique that led to an ultimate disgust for civic life in the thought of Plato, particularly in his Gorgias, Republic, and Apology. Among his lines of critique in those dialogues is his dislike for people speaking about things they don't know much about. At issue is the very faith in civic virtue, the very theory of democracy that ordinary people may participate in governments that rule them and may even make decisions that will affect their lives.

Thucydides reported this democratic vision in a speech by the Athenian Pericles, a vision our Western Civilization programs maintain we owe a great deal of our country's democratic experiment:

We find it possible for the same people to attend to private affairs and public affairs as well, and notwithstanding our varied occupations to be adequately informed about public affairs. For we are unique in regarding the man who does not participate in these affairs at all not as a man who minds his own business, but as useless. We ourselves decide matters or submit them to proper consideration, taking the view that debate is not harmful to action, but rather that it is harmful not to be informed, through discussion before we proceed to take the necessary action.

All opponents of democracy since Plato have questioned this capacity of ordinary people (non-specialists) to govern themselves, to rule and be ruled. Between the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, most of the Founders came to doubt that capacity. Abraham Lincoln's slogan of democratic government "of, by, and for the people," reapplied rhetorical faith in it. And now Posner appears in the long line of anti-democrats who will tell us that life is too complex for ordinary persons to rule themselves. Leave citizenship to the experts. He says this in so many words and yet, like so many politicians, wants to appeal to democratic slogans at times for inconsistent (emotional) support for his agenda. Let us address the question today as did Plato over two thousand years ago: can democracy work? If so, how have conditions changed so that people may be nurtured to participate effectively in democracy? What does it take to rule and be ruled? What is the role of education and the harder but necessarily related question of taxes in this contemporary understanding of democracy's preconditions?

Is democracy (even of the representative sort) a fantasy that sustains power relations of the present or is it a real possibility that may help to organize our public policies and values? That is maybe not the only question worth asking in terms of the role and fate of public intellectuals. But for those who specialize in democracy it is a crucial one.

Copyright © 2002 by Jason Harsin. All rights reserved.

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