The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, held annually in New York, is particularly good this year. I am attending a number of sessions, and the first will be "The Public Intellectual" on Monday, April 25.
I want to put down some thoughts on the subject beforehand.
What is a public intellectual? An intellectual is someone who thinks about things and comes up with ideas and may even work on solutions to public problems.
What is the public? Ah, that is a more difficult question in the United States.
Can an essentially European concept like "public intellectual" work in the United States?
The United States has existed since its inception in the tension between public and private, starting with Jefferson versus Hamilton.
Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan poet and liberation theologist, said at a poetry reading in New York during the depths of the Reagan era: "There is America, and then there is the other America." He loved the America of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg but fought against the America of the corporations that created banana republics. Cardenal will be reading with other poets during the PEN World Voices Festival on Friday, April 29.
It would be good to translate the European concept of the public intellectual into American terms.
So a few basic tenets:
To have intellectuals you need a system that values truth.
To have public intellectuals, you need a public and a public sphere.
There have been a number of bona fide American public intellectuals.
Noam Chomsky is our pre-eminent living example.
Susan Sontag modeled herself on European public intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Eliot Weinberger is one, in such books as What I Heard About Iraq.
I would contend that Steven Colbert is one. If you doubt that a fake news commentator can be a public intellectual, I refer you to his performance as the emcee of the 2006 White House Correspondents' dinner, when for a half hour he exposed the cruelty and stupidity of George W. Bush, who was sitting a few feet away, and the cowardice of the White House press corps filling the rest of the room.
If Colbert is a public intellectual, so are Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman. All exist in the public sphere of basic cable.
A public intellectual must exist in a public, but the public of the United States since 1968 has been beaten down by corporatism. In 1968 the average president of a company earned 20 times what the average worker in his company earned. The gap widened year by year. In order to accommodate the increasingly monstrous gap, the term CEO was invented in the 1970s. By the year 2000, the average CEO earned 400 times what the average worker in his company earned. Eight years of Bush surely doubled the gap.
Because we must work so hard, there is little time to think.
Corporatism has caused most of the most destructive events in the world, from the increase in poverty to climate change to the collapse of the financial system.
Privatization has become the weapon of corporatism.
And where does that leave the public?
Where is the public in a corporate state, which wants only consumers and not citizen thinkers?
I would like to define the American public intellectual as someone who is reasonably independent of the corporate state. Thus, for example, some highly intelligent people may be public relations spokepersons for giant corporations, but they are not public intellectuals.
I look forward to the PEN symposium next Monday when six writers from Europe but not the United States will examine the question. I will report back on relevant findings.