The Extinction of the Public Intellectual

Books and Digest Editor

Televised debates have become a ratings-driven sparring ground; and they may also be destroying hope for more necessary bipartisan conversations.

Orwell Vs. Orwell

In the wake of the inauguration of Donald Trump, and after his advisor Kellyanne Conway introduced “alternative facts” to the public psyche, a classic literary work leaped ahead of self-help megasellers You Are a Badass and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck to become the number one title on Amazon. People needing to understand the dystopia that America seemed on the brink of becoming bought George Orwell’s 1984 in droves. Orwell’s novel envisions the populace of Great Britain living under the thumb of the dictatorial Big Brother and the Inner Party, whose “newspeak” and “doublethink” presents a chilling precursor to Trump’s “fake news” and Conway’s “alternative facts.” Within weeks of Trump taking office, 1984 was ubiquitous: slated for a Broadway adaptation, screened at theaters, given away by anonymous donors, and declared on numerous sites as the most vital read of the year.
“Not surprisingly, 1984 has found a nervous readership in today’s ‘post-truth’ era,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, “in which misinformation and fake news have proliferated on the web … and reporters scramble to sort out a cascade of lies and falsehoods told by President Trump and his aides.” In likening Trump’s America to Orwell’s Oceania, Kakutani confirms a societal nightmare: the possibility that the Iron Curtain was now descending upon the West.

Moderate and right-wing voices disagreed. “It’s popular in many circles to claim Orwell would look at the United States of today and shudder,” wrote Jim Geraghty for the centrist publication The National Review, “but I suspect he would probably be content to mock President Trump on Twitter, while keeping his attention focused on the real threats to freedom, far from a free and democratic America where constitutional checks and balances remain in place.”

Geraghty comes off as a stick-in-the-mud, whereas Breitbart’s Charles Hurt scooped that mud up and slung it. “The precious political ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ are gobbling up copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 about ‘the perils of a totalitarian police state,” he wrote. “Most of us, of course, did not need to rush out and buy a copy of 1984 after Obamacare was jammed through Congress because, well, because we all still have our copies from when we first read it as teenagers.” By Hurt’s logic, which cites numerous offenses by the “superstate of President Obama,” 1984 had arrived long ago.

Orwell isn’t alive to agree or disagree, though taking a look into his own accounts, he would have been deeply disturbed by American neo-jingoism. In his polemic essay “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell decries the dangers of chauvinism, highlighting the now common “us vs. them” binary that justifies actions as good or bad “not on their own merits, but according to who does them.” Responding to a 1944 letter in which a reader asked Orwell “whether totalitarianism, leader-worship etc. are really on the up-grade,” the British novelist confirmed that he not only believed it, but feared it as well, stating, “All the national movements everywhere seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman führer and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means.”

But Orwell was equally disturbed by what he saw as a decline of intellectualism to respond to such crises. “I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth,” he wrote in his diary. “Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a ‘case’ with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself.”

Send in the Pundits

Orwell could as easily have been bemoaning the rise of modern punditry—those talking heads on TV and online who chew the fat or volley barbarous exchanges on the hot-button issues du jour. 1984 doesn’t account for the pundit—totalitarianism has no need for opinions—but it could be that it’s not propaganda destroying “truth,” but rather the descent of political and cultural debate into simplistic, inflammatory arguments meant primarily as entertainment.

But veracity, at least in American culture, is always toeing the line of parody. As a sleazy realtor once declared on The Simpsons, there’s the “truth” (glaring head-shake for no) and the “truth” (cheerful nod for yes). Rather than reveal wrongdoing and working to setting it right, facts have evolved (or devolved) into correctness, where commentators spar Godzilla-like to win over opinions, regardless of what they stand for. In a recent New Yorker profile of Tucker Carlson, who is the Fox News pundit du jour and attracts ratings by slaying the certitudes of his guests, the writer Kelefa Sanneh cites or quotes him as a “contrarian” nearly half a dozen times, someone who “has carefully positioned himself as not uniformly pro-Trump, but certainly anti-anti-Trump—scornful of all the experts who were sure that the Trump Presidency would be a catastrophe, and who think that they have already been proved right.”
“Scornful” is an apt word—the exchanges on these types of programs are anything but polite. Which is why more people prefer the relative safety of think pieces that reaffirm their own views of perceived societal flaws or political transgressions, rather than engage with dissenting views. Anyone with a relative who voted for a candidate contra to their own (myself included) can tell you how quickly civility is lost in such engagements. “Don’t talk politics at the dinner table,” was one prescribed suggestion made last year by the Los Angeles Times in its roundup of post-election Thanksgiving strategies.

The most hopeful sign of progression happens under that rare phenomenon known as bipartisanship. Variations of the phrase “We must come together as a nation,” have long been used in the inaugural speeches of incumbent presidents. But there is a reason political discussions are taboo at the table: so rare is it for an individual to survive the cultural crossfire and appeal to a broad spectrum of people, that the ability to do so seems also facetious. It has happened, albeit briefly, after the 2008 election of Barack Obama when many pundits from the Left and Right came together under the “Shangri Lalic” banner of “post-racial, post-partisan America.” But a more revealing sentiment came from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews who quipped: “You know, for about an hour I forgot he was black.” America was never post-racial; it had just been temporarily colorblind.

Rereading 1984 and “Notes on Nationalism,” I’m especially struck by how contemporary it feels against the backdrop of Brexit more so than the USA. Orwell’s concerns of totalitarianism seldom touch upon the thunderous clash of race issues that divide America, which isn’t his fault. As a British friend told me, “It’s not that race isn’t an issue in the UK, it’s that it is THE issue of the US.” So while Big Brother makes for an uncomfortably spot-on analogy to the irrational, boarish, and menacing Trump administration, it stops short in providing any context for the age-old American culture wars. So then who is the George Orwell of race? What is the American 1984?

Around the same time that 1984 was seeing a newsworthy uptick in sales after Trump’s inauguration, the work of another literary figure was being revisited—not on the page, but on screen. I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, brought to the fore the open and horrific racial prejudices faced by black Americans prior to and during the Civil Rights movement. But set as it was in history, the ties Peck made from our racial past to our neo-racial present (and the revived racial antagonisms now proliferating in this country) wasn’t just timely, but massively disheartening. Only his subject seemed to be able to make sense of it all to the masses. So how come it’s been so difficult to find someone to fill Baldwin’s shoes?
For one thing, Baldwin—who already enjoyed widespread popularity as a writer and a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement at the time of the film—had been given a rare platform: mainstream television. In one stirring clip, Baldwin appears on The Dick Cavett Show, speaking solemnly and passionately on racial inequality, and graciously taking the conservative philosopher Paul Weiss to task (“you assure me of an idealism that exists in America, but that I have never seen”) without having to crack a joke or cut every five minutes to a commercial break. In today’s ratings-driven entertainment industry, this kind of programming is a nostalgic dream.

The splintering of televised American intellectualism can be traced back as far as a 1968 debate, hosted by ABC, between the writer Gore Vidal and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., which ended in a name-calling spat—Vidal suggesting that Buckley was a “crypto-Nazi,” and the Buckley volleying back that Vidal was a “goddamn queer.” Buckley, as equally complicit as he was, tried to sue Vidal for his obloquy. As Jim Holt noted in a retrospective piece on the event for New York: “It was the beginning of a long decline in the quality of political discourse on TV and other media—that it was, as one observer puts it in the documentary, ‘a harbinger of an unhappy future.’”

A Baby Shower for the Public Intellectual

But to paraphrase another public intellectual of yore, the reports of the death of effective public intellectualism may be overexaggerated. The same month Holt was lamenting the passing of public thinkers, the mantel of Baldwin would find its inheritor: the journalist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. When his book-length-essay Between the World and Me appeared in July 2015, it became a seminal touchstone in the racial conflicts plaguing the United States—conflicts with fresh wounds from Dylann Roof’s massacre of a black church congregation in Charleston. “Here is what I would like for you to know,” Coates writes to his son, to whom the book is addressed, “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

Coates has appeared on numerous late-night talk shows, his face has graced the cover of magazines, and he has held a series of interviews with Barack Obama that, though at times rigorous and critical, always remained civil and genial. The recipient of many awards and accolades, Between the World and Me has topped the New York Times Best Seller list on two separate occasions, but its impact was perhaps best articulated by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” she wrote in an email to Coates’s editor Christopher Jackson. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
Racial, gender, and identity politics remain less challenging to navigate than the increasingly antagonistic left-vs-right cultural wars that erupted after the election of Barack Obama and the reactionary formation of the Tea Party movement. And that gulf may be our biggest danger. In a New Yorker article ominously titled “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War,” a former KGB general highlighted what he saw as America’s Achilles heel: individual liberties. He wrote, “Free societies are often split because people have their own views, and that’s what former Soviet and current Russian intelligence tries to take advantage of.” It’s frightening to think that what we hold most sacred could be so easily exploited.

As intellectuals exist upon a spectrum of advocacy, one can position public thinkers and writers upon a dependable social and political line, upheld on the left by Democratic Socialists Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and Barbara Ehrenreich; in the middle by so-called “Conservatarians” Roger Scruton and Charles C. W. Cooke; and on the right by neo-reactionaries Michael Anton and Curtis Yarvin. Every one of these ideologues have outlined what they view as the ailments of society and the ways to resolve them. Since it is political candidates that most often embody these arguments, it may be good to know who is reading what before going to the polling booth, or in the case of Steve Bannon’s published reading list, to know what works are being sourced to guide the nation.

Which is why Orwell’s 1984 remains so popular in the mainstream. It’s the litmus test to see whether we are living under an evil government, even if what constitutes “evil” can’t be agreed: Trump’s America for the left, Obama’s America for the right. People will be debating that for years—a distraction from the real dangers to our inalienable rights. If we don’t figure out a way to agree on the warnings laid before us, there won’t be a country to save from Big Brother.

This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.

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