Public intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will are rare


His physical remains were buried in Connecticut, but William F. Buckley Jr.’s virtual resting place is the website of the Hoover Institution, which maintains an archive of some 1,500 “Firing Line” episodes.

There, when one becomes nostalgic for a scholarly conversation with “presidential hopeful” Ronald Reagan or a nuanced discussion of American policy in Rhodesia, Buckley continues to move forward with the formidable brain, respectful demeanor and tweed gaze. and bow tie that put him at the forefront of a seemingly endangered class: the public intellectual.

When Buckley died at his office in 2008, he left his papers, weighing seven tons, at Yale University. He also left a world in which there was still a large stock of public intellectuals.

Now, in the shockingly short span of 13 years, the public intellectual seems to have yielded the floor to the thought leader, who is more educated than the influencer (but not by much) and makes up for the lack of academic credentials. higher education with multiple social skills. media accounts.

Not that there is anything wrong with opinion leaders. But many lack the “polysyllabic exuberance” attributed to Buckley in his New York Times obituary. In their TED Talks, thought leaders are usually just exuberant, leaving those of us who long for you “Firing Line” from yesteryear with a question: Where are today’s public intellectuals?

I posed the question to George F. Will, the venerable Washington Post columnist who shares Buckley’s penchant for $ 10 words, old-fashioned politeness, and the august middle initial.

Cleverly dodging the question, Will said he first wanted to define what a public intellectual is.

I have suggested that a public intellectual is an exceptionally learned person with advanced degrees; someone who has spoken to the public, not just to the academy; someone who presented such thoughtful and convincing arguments that they rarely angered anyone and could even change someone’s mind.

In my opinion, Will fits the description. Also, Camille Paglia of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Thomas Sowell, whose remarkable career is recounted in the new book “Maverick” by Jason Riley.

In his 2001 book “Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline”, Richard A. Posner spent several pages trying to define a public intellectual, but ultimately reduced the term to its simplest components: an influential thinker who writes for a large audience on political and cultural issues. The occupation, Posner said, has become “less distinctive, less interesting and less important.”

This did not prevent him from devoting an entire chapter to people he regards as “distinguished adornments of American public life,” including Henry Kissinger and the late James Q. Wilson and Patrick Moynihan.

The public intellectual, according to Posner, peddles both entertainment and information. He believes that the decrease in their ranks is due, in part, to the increasing specialization of knowledge; That is, an academic could devote his entire career to the philosophical implications of quantum theory and thus lack the breadth of knowledge required by public intellectualism. (Posner doesn’t demand impressive degrees from his public intellectuals. He says Charles Dickens was one in the 19th century, George Orwell in the 20th; none of them went to college.)

Will said the term was originally used to distinguish academy intellectuals from those whose audiences were the ordinary American. “But I guess you want names.” He stopped himself. “I’m having trouble,” he said.

Will claimed that there was “a critical mass” of public intellectuals in Manhattan, starting in the 1950s, writing for journals such as Partisan Review and The Public Interest. “But I don’t think they’re there now, and I don’t know why.”

I asked if the proliferation of think tanks could have subsumed the individual thinker. “It’s an interesting theory,” Will said. “It’s analogous to large industrial laboratories like Bell Lab which take up the innovation and invention of the solitary inventor of the Edison type. … Maybe they got absorbed by AEI or Brookings.

But the think tank talk led Will to a name: “Jonathan Rauch at Brookings is constantly interesting, constantly relevant, constantly intelligent. It would count, I think.

And that led to others: Andrew Sullivan, “extremely talented”, and Bari Weiss, “who left the New York Times for greener pastures”. Will then mentioned a Stanford University podcast he had recently participated in: “GoodFellows”, featuring Niall Ferguson, HR McMaster and John Cochrane, senior researchers at the Hoover Institution.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist named one of Washington’s most influential people in 2021 by Washingtonian magazine, recently published a science book with the populist title: “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.”

Praising the work, an academic from the Brookings Institution described Drutman as “a first-rate scholar and public intellectual.”

While Drutman enjoyed the praise, he is a bit embarrassed by the designation. “It seems a little pretentious to me, and I suffer from enough pretension like that,” he told me.

Like Will, Drutman hesitated when asked to name names of people he considers public intellectuals. He ultimately settled not on one person, but on a genre: podcasts. This is where public intellectuals intellectualize themselves.

Drutman mentioned “The Ezra Klein Show” in particular. “There are a lot of really thoughtful ideas that are discussed in podcasts,” he said. (Full disclosure: Drutman is part of a podcast titled “The Politics in Question.”)

It reminded me of the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who probes the minds of influential thinkers like Ryan T. Anderson, Joseph Bottum, and Martin E. Marty on his “Thinking in Public” podcast.

And Christian apologist Justin Brierley, whose “Unbelievable?” The UK podcast features academics politely sorting out each other’s arguments on social issues, as well as what a famous public intellectual, sadly long dead, once called “mere” Christianity.

All that is missing from this “Firing Line” atmosphere for these shows is a live audience and the opening notes of a Brandenburg concerto.

But here’s the problem: Podcasts, while generally free and available to anyone with a computer or smartphone, aren’t as public as public television was when Buckley’s “Firing Line” aired from 1966 to 1999.

Competition acts to obscure them. A critical mass of people can listen to Klein; less, “GoodFellows”.

While podcasting can be a hideout for public intellectuals, the internet in general has not been good for their genre, according to historian George Marsden, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, and a bona fide public intellectual. himself.

“There are perhaps more good public intellectuals than ever before. But the internet means that there are also others that can nonetheless attract attention, ”Marsden said in an email. “So the extent or impact is probably a little less than in the days of Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, etc.”

Ross Douthat of the New York Times wrote even darker for New Statesman about what he considers “intellectual torpor” in the world today. “I can’t imagine anyone making a confident statement about contemporary philosophers, religious thinkers and future scientists of human nature who rank them with Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx or even Sigmund Freud, with Søren Kierkegaard and John Henry Newman He wrote. .

Douthat went on to compile a list of people he considers to be the most important thinkers of the past 20 years, “evaluated solely for their influence, without any comment on quality.” Among them: Ibram X. Kendi, Peter Thiel, Steven Pinker, Michelle Alexander, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, Samantha Power and Thomas Friedman.

“Some of these writers are awesome; others less, “Douthat wrote, adding:” Will many of them adorn a ledger program in 2075, if such an archaic thing exists? I am skeptical.

It could be argued that the smartest people among us have finally understood, some 2,420 years after Socrates drank hemlock, that it’s best to keep their wits to ourselves. Be an intellectual if you want, but stay out of the public square.

“There are psychic costs for thin-skinned academics who have skeletons in their closets and therefore dare not invite publicity,” Posner wrote. “There are also reputational costs, because the risk of error in public intellectual activity is very high.”

This is even more true now than in 2001 when those words were written. Even Paglia, who always seemed ready to step out of the Ivory Tower for a good fight, has remained silent since 2019, when a group of college students tried to get her fired for inflammatory views she had been expressing for over 30 years.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Milton Friedman or CS Lewis slowly stepping away from the lectern, even though there had been crowds on Twitter in their time. The biggest problem seems to be that the existing field of public intellectuals is aging without an equal number storming the field to take their place. Will is 80 years old. Sowell is 90 years old as of this writing. Paglia, a 74-year-old.

In a last hopeful offer, I reached out to Christopher Buckley, the only son of William F. Buckley Jr., who might have been a public intellectual had he not made a career out of writing satirical novels such as ” Make Russia Great Again ”.

“The answer, short, as WFB might say: No, I don’t think there is a ‘Firing Line’ equivalent these days, ”young Buckley wrote in an email. “There is, I hasten to point out, a ‘Firing Line’ show, hosted by the talented Margaret Hoover, but it is very different from its namesake.

“I have to say I miss Charlie Rose. The excellent George Will was canceled from Fox News for criticizing Donald Trump. And my dear Christopher Hitchens is long gone. How’s the line going? ‘Choirs in bare ruins, where late the sweet birds were singing.‘”

“Cheers,” Buckley said, though his post was not at all cheerful, leaving me on YouTube and a Twitter account of Thomas Sowell, who has 709,000 subscribers and is run by a fan who has never met. the scholar.

The popularity of the account, however, offers a vague little hope that the market still exists among the general public for high-level critical thinking. At least up to 280 characters.

But then I searched for a similar William F. Buckley Jr. account and found one. It was the right Buckley. He said he was Christopher’s father and the founder of National Review. Among the most recent tweets was a video of a dog skipping rope in a park, retweeted by WeRateDogs.

On second thought, the last public intellectual in America please turn off the lights? Quite short.


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