Media and intellectuals

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST


Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline by Richard A. Posner; Harvard University Press; pages 408; $29.95.

RICHARD A. POSNER is a federal judge, a law professor and author. Justices G.B. Pattanaik and Ruma Pal berated Arundhati Roy, whom they described as one "stated to be an author of name and fame", for "drifting away from the path on which she was traversing by contributing to the art and literature." A litterateur is not supposed to speak on public affairs, apparently.

The target of Posner's wrath is different. It is the specialist who talks on a subject on which he knows little, especially the ones who provide instant comment. He has a point. There is a loss of quality as well as dignity in, say, a lawyer giving instant opinion to the media on a complex question of law on which he has had little time even for a modicum of study and reflection. Like some campaigners, Posner is given to excesses of his own in his sweeping censures of "academics" writing outside their field or, "what often turns out to be the same thing, writing for a general audience." Why not, if they know what they are talking about? For instance, Arundhati Roy's utterances on the Narmada Dam reveal that she had bothered to visit the site, listen to the grievances of the people affected and familiarise herself with the facts and the issues involved. Does the fact that her chosen field is literature debar her from commenting on the dam?

Posner was provoked by the "surprisingly low quality" of public commentary on Bill Clinton's impeachment trial - which he supported - "by philosophers, historians and law professors" (emphasis added, throughout). So, even specialists can lapse into "low quality". Posner wrote a book, An Affair of the State, on the impeachment. His "public intellectuals" are "intellectuals who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern". Another provocation was his appointment as mediator in the complex Microsoft anti-trust case. It drew "a raft of public commentary from economists and law professors... most of the commentary by this segment of public intellectual community, to the extent disinterested, reflected only a superficial engagement with the facts..."

This, then, is not a warning to the cobbler to stick to the last - since even the specialists lapsed - but a counsel to all who come to perform competently and honestly. A footnote says: "Some of the commentators were in the pay of Microsoft or its competitors."

The author disavows "blanket condemnation of the modern public intellectual". A major cause of disappointment with such, he holds, is the rise of the modern university and the think-tank "and the concomitant trend to an ever greater specialisation of knowledge". For, "the depth of knowledge that specialisation enables is purchased at the expense of breadth, while the working conditions of the modern university, in particular the principle of academic freedom backed by the tenure contract, make the intellectual's career a safe, comfortable one, which can breed aloofness and complacency. These tendencies are furthest advanced in American universities. That may be why so many of the most distinguished academic public intellectuals active in the second half of the 20th century were foreigners - such as Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Hebermas, Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss and Amartya Sen - even though American universities achieved ascendancy over foreign universities during this period. But of course they did so in part by hiring refugees, such as Aremdt and Strauss, and other foreigners, such as Sen."

Not all the references are as polite. "Nowadays, moreover, because of the information overload under which the public sweats and groans, to gain traction as a public intellectual an academic normally must have achieved, however adventitiously, a degree of public fame or notoriety. Without that it is difficult to arouse the interest of even a sliver of the nonacademic public in one's opinions on matters of concern to that public. Many public intellectuals are academics of modest distinction fortuitously thrust into the limelight, acquiring by virtue of that accident, sufficient name and recognition to become sought-after commentators on current events. Some of them are what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls le Fast Talker... Perhaps including Bourdieu himself, though he is a distinguished scholar. His book Acts of Resistance Against the Tyranny of the Market (1998)... is in fact a superficial left-wing rant against the market economy."

The plaint is spread out with copious naming of names. One gets a good flavour of some intellectual currents in the United States, but it seems that in most cases the ones he finds agreeable are those who agree with him. His elaborate attacks on Ronald Dworkin reflect the trait.

Posner's remarks on judges reveal a lot about himself. Judges have not become "political eunuchs". During the Reagan and Bush administrations, several conservative academics (myself included) were appointed to federal courts of appeals in the hope of correcting a perceived liberal ideological tilt in those courts. One of these academic lawyers made it to the Supreme Court (Scalia) and another (Bork) was tripped up at the threshold... Recently a number of Reagan and Bush judicial appointees have been criticised for accepting invitations to seminars sponsored by conservative think-tanks; it has even been argued that some of their votes in cases have been swayed by the conservative 'brainwashing' they received there. Some conservative judges socialise with conservative public intellectuals, moreover - and some liberal judges with liberal public intellectuals...

"At the higher levels of the judiciary, where the conventional materials of decision cannot resolve a case and the judge must fall back on his values, his intuitions, and, on occasion, his ideology, public-intellectual work may have an effect on the judicial process. How large an effect one cannot say. But what is clear is that the work of public intellectuals is only one of the non-legal influences on judges, others being temperament, life experiences, moral principles, party politics, religious belief or non-belief, and academic ideas." The politicisation of the U.S. Supreme Court was revealed in the dishonest majority ruling in the case concerning the presidential election. The book is fascinating and exasperating; instructive in some parts and pretentious in some others.

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