The Winter 2010 issue of Dissent is running a nice symposium entitled “Intellectuals and Their America.” The editors have asked several prominent left-leaning public intellectuals to comment on the current state of American life.
In our own uncertain era, it is useful for women and men with a reputation for thoughtfulness and creativity to reflect on issues that bear profoundly on both their craft and their country.
The symposium features short essays by E.J. Dionne Jr., Alice Kessler-Harris, Jackson Lears, Martha Nussbaum, Katha Pollitt, Michael Tomasky, Katrina vanded Heuvel, and Leon Wieseltier.
They were asked to respond to one or more of the following questions:
1. What relationship should American intellectuals have toward mass culture: television, films, mass-market books, popular music, and the Internet? 2. Does the academy further or retard the engagement of intellectuals with American society? 3. How should American intellectuals participate in American politics? 4. Do you consider yourself a patriot, a world citizen, or do you have some other allegiance that helps shape your political opinions?
Here is a what I got out of each response:
Dionne: Progressives and liberals are finally beginning to learn, thanks to Barack Obama, that in order to create change in a participatory democracy they need to stop debating about texts in the isolation of the English Department and start hitting the streets with their ideas.
Kessler-Harris: Is not happy with Obama’s first year. He has not delivered on the “change” that he has promised. His grand vision has been “obscured by the daily political battles in Washington as well as the failure of the Obama administration to adequately articulate principled and ethical aspirations.” The Left needs to help Obama better articulate his vision by developing a unified language of social change and bringing it to a larger public. Michael Moore, the television show Law and Order, Rachel Maddow, and Bruce Springsteen are all mentioned as figures that the intellectual left can learn from.
Lears: Like Dionne and Kessler-Harris, Lears, laments the fact that the Right has taken over the public sphere while the Left has simply watched them do it with no real response. He calls for public intellectuals who critique, rather than serve, the interests of government.
Nussbaum: Liberals should be engaged with mass culture, but in doing so they should not give up “slow reading.” We “need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.”
Pollitt: Patriotism is bad for America because it “prevents us from seeing ourselves the way other see us.” It blinds us to the country’s real social problems. Instead, we should cultivate a cosmopolitanism that takes “seriously the idea of one world.”
Tomasky: The historic liberal critique of mass culture is silly. Mass culture is our friend. By engaging with it we become “part of something.” Intellectuals need to be engaged. They need to “get out there.” They need to go to Home Depot, Applebees, and high school football games. Such engagement is the “first prerequisite of true political participation these days.” This, Tomasky believed, is the essence of true patriotism.
vanden Heuvel: We have no true intellectuals today because “most of the commercial boundaries between high-brow and low-brow culture have long since dissolved.” Intellectuals should thus make a “critical embrace” of the culture.
Wieseltier: Intellectuals need to embrace mass culture because it can contain “wise and deep expression of the human spirit;” it is essential to being a legitimate critic of culture; and it provides pleasure and enjoyment. He also affirms his identity as a patriot and a world citizen.
I found myself resonating most strongly with Tomasky. Dionne’s piece references Michael Walzer in arguing that the most effective cultural critics are “embedded in their societies and operate as much out of love as from alienation.” It seems that Tomasky’s thoughts best reflect this, although nearly all of the intellectuals surveyed affirm his idea in one way or another.
Why aren’t more cultural critics participating in mass culture? Do you want to be a good cultural critic? Then I invite you join me at my local Outback Steakhouse (we will order a “bloomin’ onion–well done) or take a walk with me on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey!