Richard A. Posner
FUTURECASTS online magazine
Vol. 5, No. 5, 5/1/03.
| In "Public Intellectuals: A Study
of Decline," Richard A. Posner - a Harvard trained Judge on the U.S.
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals - and, in the interests of full disclosure, a
classmate of the publisher of FUTURECASTS - proceeds in a rigorously logical
sometimes fascinating and sometimes tediously thorough - through the
caliginous bog of modern public intellectual discourse.
This book is evidently a marvelous opportunity
for Posner to finally strike back - no
matter how futilely - after a lifetime of being subjected to the vast accretions
of garbage fobbed off on a credulous public by politically and ideologically
inspired intellectual commentators. (The opportunity to
strike occasional blows at the producers of the smothering heap of intellectual
rubbish is one of the joys of publishing FUTURECASTS.)
"[T]heir comments tend to be opinionated, judgmental, sometimes condescending and often waspish. - - - Public intellectuals are often careless with facts and rash in predictions."
A working definition of the nebulous term "public intellectual" - limited to the particular purposes of this book - is the logical first order of business. Posner dedicates many pages to this essential task, and succeeds in indicating many of the nuances intended. But - alas - a book review must be content with a blunter statement.
In short, a public intellectual writes for a general educated audience, with some specific political or ideological angle.
Relative prominence of public
intellectuals was determined objectively by measurement of popular media
mentions and web hits. Web hits relied upon were derived from the Google search
engine. Media mentions were derived from three Lexis/Nexus databases for a five
year period. Scholarly citations were derived from three scholarly citation
indexes for five years - from 1995 to 2000.
Nevertheless, Posner is probably correct when he speculates that this concentration on a handful of "stars" may be evidence of a "herd instinct" among this audience, and the predominant importance of entertainment value and confirmation of biases over "sources of information and insight." Star public intellectuals become "a focus of discussion, a rallying point, the node of a social network, a personification of [a] community's position."
The list of 546 public
intellectuals is incomplete and probably not representative as to
intellectual specialties and demographic categories, the author concedes. Nevertheless, it
"probably includes most public intellectuals who enjoy prominence today in
the United States, and is at least a representative sample of them."
There are inevitably some omissions. But
at least Posner's lists include a representative group - which is all that is
needed for the purposes of the book.
There is no evidence that the media is discriminating in favor of left-leaning public intellectuals.
"Public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship."
The lists reveal that, during the 20th
century, the proportion represented by female and black intellectuals increased,
and more intellectuals were affiliated with institutions - colleges, universities
and think tanks - than were independent. The average age of living public
intellectuals is 64, indicating that prominence generally takes time.
But there is no evidence that the media is discriminating
in favor of left-leaning public intellectuals.
The quality of expressive activity:
Problems with the quality of output arise most frequently when
The danger of exaggeration, distortion, and inaccuracy increases the further outside the area of their specialization, and the further from scholarly processes, that they wander.
This does not mean that there is not some
good work done in these instances. After all, as Posner concedes, he himself is
a public intellectual - No. 70 on the list -
commenting on subject matter often outside his area of specialization.
"In the public-intellectual arena, [public intellectuals] operate without any significant constraints; there is nothing to call them to account."
In this book, the author is dealing with
tendencies rather than absolutes. As such, he explains the problem - especially
with respect to academic public intellectuals.
The public - the highly educated public that is their target audience - seems largely uninfluenced by the work output of public intellectuals. - perhaps due to a vague understanding of the unreliability of the product.
The saving grace is that public intellectuals actual lack influence, Posner asserts. The public - the highly educated public that is their target audience - seems largely uninfluenced by the work output of public intellectuals - perhaps due to a vague understanding of the unreliability of the product.
The economics of the market:
An analysis in economic terms begins the substantive material in this book - a common approach for this author.
| The "informational
aspect of public intellectual work" is emphasized by the author. He distinguishes between
"truth" and "quality" of product - which are not necessarily
synonymous. Commitment, credibility and quality are primary factors.
| Demand for public intellectuals has
ballooned in recent years with the rapid proliferation of media outlets and
ongoing needs for event speakers. Posner believes that this must reflect an
expanding public demand for their informational work. However, perhaps not.
Demand is fueled by "the range of academic disciplines that produce knowledge or opinion in which the general public has a potential interest," and the frequency with which public interest erupts in an issue of previous little interest.
The rapid pace of change also generates issues for which academics have as yet not crafted a conventional wisdom, forcing media to present the ongoing dispute as only the cognizant academics can.
There are also many issues of public interest that remain hotly disputed.
With media production costs rapidly declining -
the author also recognizes that it may simply be increasingly cost effective to
divide existing demand into smaller and more specialized niches. But such
factors as a growing population, increased average years of schooling, growing
numbers of "leisured, educated elderly persons," and the increasing
size and impacts of government are all reasons to expect an increase in public
demand for intellectual discourse.
There are also entertainment and ideological solidarity functions that can best be fulfilled by the public intellectuals.
There are other roles that public intellectuals play
that enhance their marketability and maintain it even for familiar issues that
can be competently handled by journalists and commentators. There are
entertainment and ideological solidarity functions that can best be fulfilled by
the public intellectuals.
In this age of specialization, expertise can be so narrowly based that the most brilliant intellectuals can remain broadly ignorant outside their narrow areas of specialty even within their own general fields.
The authority of public intellectuals can be misleading
on many accounts. Posner points out that they can be both brilliant and stupid.
However, the entertainment and "solidarity value" are, for many people, of major importance. They care less about the actual ideas expressed than the rhetorical performance.
Specialization undermines "the quality and impact of intellectuals' interventions in public debate."
| Specialization increasingly undermines public
intellectual discourse. Specialization undermines "the quality and
impact of intellectuals' interventions in public debate," and increases the
domination of academics over nonacademic intellectuals.
Moreover, even as specialization reduces the ability of nonacademic intellectuals "to get a public hearing, it reduces the ability of academic intellectuals to speak clearly to general public issues." Also, it reduces the ability of the "general educated public to understand arguments about public issues."
Most nonacademic intellectuals are excluded from pertinent fields and find it increasingly difficult to obtain the specialist credential needed to impress a general audience.
Specialization creates peer groups that speak to each other in an esoteric jargon inaccessible to the general public. The mathematization of economics is a prominent example noted by the author.
The author deplores "the absurdity of word and
syntax of much of the current writing in the humanities." Thus, most
academics lose or never develop the ability to communicate their knowledge to
the general public. Even more important, most nonacademic intellectuals who can
communicate are excluded from pertinent fields and find it increasingly
difficult to obtain the specialist credential needed to impress a general
Nonacademic intellectuals - like Victor Hugo,
George Bernard Shaw, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emile Zola, Thomas and Heinrich
Mann, Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin - were a major
component of public intellectual discourse. Dickens, Swift and Orwell were
influential political satirists. Unfortunately, the scope of action for their
modern day equivalents has been narrowed considerably by specialization.
Nevertheless, "as the natural and social sciences mature, the room for amateur contributions contracts."
The audience has also been dramatically impacted by
specialization. The audience is also increasingly specialized, few members of which
will know enough on any particular subject to catch errors. "The media do
some screening, but not much." (FUTURECASTS' "Debunking of
Authoritative Myths" - and its accurate, complete and uncompromising Book
Reviews - are dedicated to filling an important segment of that
For both academic and non academic intellectuals, there is little at stake in the event of forced exit from the market.
The public - sensing the lack of practical commitment - thus views skeptically the opinions of public intellectuals.
There is little personal risk for erroneous work. For both academic and non academic intellectuals, there is little at
stake in the event of forced exit from the market. Academics have tenure.
(Lester Thurow remains a prominent tenured professor even after the debacle of
his advocacy of government "industrial policy" in the 1980s. John
Kenneth Galbraith remains an honored emeritus professor at Harvard even after a
lifetime of demonstrated stupidity in support of his socialist proclivities.)
Non academics earn their living in narrower pursuits. (Al Sharpton became
politically influential with a New York City constituency even after a similar
Technology has provided "new opportunities for less prominent intellectuals to reach niche audiences."
| Proliferation and technological advances in
media outlets have increased the ability of the most interesting public intellectuals to
dominate their markets, and have also created "new opportunities for less
prominent intellectuals to reach niche audiences."
However, the balance has been decidedly in favor of a major increase in the supply of public intellectuals - as stated above - but only of the academic kind. The increasing attractiveness of the burgeoning academic world draws an increasing proportion of intellectuals into its ranks - and specialization makes it increasingly hard for non academics to gain sufficient credentials to be heard.
The author analyzes the supply and demand factors in traditional economic fashion, and similarly analyzes the applicable cost, output, price and income factors. The opportunity costs for academics of being public intellectuals are less than those for non academics "because academic employers do not buy an academic's full working time and because of complementaries between, for example, teaching and public-intellectual work."
Extreme positions improve marketability.
The academic emphasis on originality, and the superior marketability of extreme positions in the market for public-intellectual work, are frequently at war with the accuracy, utility, and practicality - - -."
Political correctness fosters an intolerance towards extreme conservative views that is not matched by intolerance towards "liberal or even extreme-left wing" views.
"[A] selective sense of justice, an insensitivity to context, a lack of perspective, a denigration of predecessors as lacking moral insight, an impatience with prudence and sobriety, a lack of realism, and excessive self-confidence," characterize output.
Posner lists the characteristic flaws prevalent among public intellectuals, although conceding that these generalities are far from absolutes.
Reaching for extreme examples, Posner argues that public intellectuals typically reject balance on politically or ideologically charged issues - such as examining slavery "in its historical context" and both the bad and the good in abolitionists, or acknowledging the "functional explanation for - to us - bizarre practices such as clitoridectomy and infibulation," or acknowledging that Nazis were also fanatical about public health and environmental matters (an obvious irrelevancy), "and that Bill Clinton was the consolidator of the Reagan Revolution." (Not willingly! That was a price he was willing to pay for his presidency - and the result of constraints imposed by a Republican Congress.)
"Missing are the conditions that ensure reasonable quality in other markets for credence goods."
All of this is compounded by the nature of their market.
The consuming public does not demand quality, since it largely ignores what public intellectuals say anyway. No one keeps a record of their predictions and contentions. Being made fools by historic results does not undermine academic standing.
The media provide a conduit for their product without filtering for
quality. (The media are conduits for authoritative misinformation.) The
consuming public does not demand quality, since it largely ignores what public
intellectuals say anyway. No one keeps a record of their predictions and
contentions. (FUTURECASTS has published an admittedly partial record of the
absurdities of some of the most authoritative mythmakers.)
Other similar markets impose real penalties - "real costs" -
for failure. Journalists, politicians, novel writers, and scholars contributing
to peer reviewed journals can be damaged in their full time occupations.
The educated public can no longer determine "whether to trust or distrust the public intellectual."
They most frequently are just preaching to the choir - entertaining them and solidifying their prejudgments.
The audience for the public intellectual is, of course, far more highly educated that the average for these other audiences. However, specialization has changed the nature of the educated audience.
The intellectual elite is no longer sufficiently current in such
subjects as science, history, political theory, and economics "to be able
to evaluate intelligently the science writer or the social critic."
The educated public can no longer determine "whether to trust or distrust
the public intellectual."
Lack of "care" and "insight:"
| Cloistered academic public
intellectuals are compared on point after point with George Orwell, whose life was rich in
the experiences of real world challenges and hardships and conflict against thugs and despots, among other things.
| There is a substantial
chapter on the pitfalls facing academics when they wander outside their fields
of expertise. Posner provides numerous examples demonstrating an abandonment of the
"care" and a lack of "insight" comparable to that on which
their reputations for work within their fields of expertise is dependent. Then,
he provides other examples where they are writing within their fields but still provide sloppy work for public consumption.
Based on Marxist beliefs of breathtaking stupidity, Chomsky has been continuously providing predictions of the imminent demise of capitalist systems.
Noam Chomsky is presented as Exhibit A for this point in
Posner's thesis. An expert in linguistics and cognitive science, Chomsky has for
decades been providing absurd tirades against the United States and capitalism in
support of an ideology that Posner describes as "anarcho-pacifist." Based on Marxist beliefs of breathtaking stupidity, Chomsky has been
continuously providing predictions of the imminent demise of capitalist systems.
Needless to say, these predictions have just as continuously been refuted by a
reality that perversely refuses to conform to his ideological expectations.
| Eminent scientists Steven Weinberg and
Stephen Jay Gould are criticized for "naïve" ventures into theology and
philosophy. However, Posner acknowledges that they operate at a considerably more
responsible level than Chomsky.
Along the way, Posner inevitably examines the propensity of public intellectuals to indulge in various propaganda ploys - like the false evenhanded observer ploy.
Stephen Jay Gould on religion and Laurence Tribe on abortion assume the stance of objective analyst "above the fray," but invariably proceed to give all the good arguments for one side while conveniently neglecting many on the other side.
Posner examines at considerable length Gould's criticism of IQ tests
and his dispute on that subject with Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray,
authors of "The Bell Curve." Gould, a paleontologist, has no academic
expertise in the subject of human intelligence. His popular book on the subject,
"The Mismeasure of Man," has been criticized by scholars "for
tendentiousness, political bias, sundry distortions, and, in particular, for
denying that there is any such thing as IQ" that involves "general
intelligence having a substantial hereditary component."
Posner notes that there was no real need for Herrnstein and Murray to
even discuss IQ and race in their book -- unless they were looking for just this
kind of dispute to add to its notoriety and marketability.
Economist Paul Krugman is a public intellectual popularizing
knowledge within his field of expertise. However, popularizing such specialist
knowledge is no guarantee of consistently high quality either.
"[A]cademics tend to think of themselves as being on holiday when they are writing for the general public."
Krugman and another prominent economist, Gary Becker, have
ventured legal commentary with similar lack of "care and insight."
Here, they have entered into Posner's field of expertise, and he does not let
their transgressions escape without mention.
A similar lack of "care and insight" is demonstrated in Krugman's N.Y. Times column by his mischaracterization of the Robinson-Patman Act as applicable to price discrimination in relation to certain pricing practices of Amazon.com. Also incorrect is characterization of price discrimination as "unfair." In fact, price discrimination is a widely accepted commercial practice.
Considerable numbers of fine enlightening books have in fact been written by public intellectuals for public consumption, Posner readily acknowledges. But many of them have been for the purpose of "undoing the damage caused by other public intellectuals." And, some include examples of both the best and the worst of the genre. He notes the widespread acceptance of the "automation" or "over-productivity" scare that continues to appear in many otherwise competent works.
Real time commentary:
Commentary on breaking events must be viewed skeptically.
The quality of real time commentary by academic intellectuals is especially suspect. Posner carefully repeats that this is not an absolute - but nevertheless a major tendency. He is also mindful that the commentary on breaking events by non academics must also be viewed skeptically.
Scholars and other intellectuals heaped inapt criticism on the impeachment proceedings in their propaganda efforts to protect the President. For partisan and political reasons, they reached for any arguments that were handy - disdainful of rationality. Most ignored the fact that the case was about lying under oath and obstruction of justice - not some minor sexual offense.
The historians' advertisement was a political act - not an act of scholarship - so signers were content to lend their reputations to the effort without concern for its faults.
By signing the letter as law professors, they falsely represented themselves as having a "professionally responsible opinion" - which very few of them in fact had, as impeachment law is an esoteric specialty with which very few lawyers are familiar.
Discussing commentary about the Clinton impeachment, the author is both precise and scathing. Scholars and other intellectuals heaped inapt criticism on the proceedings in their propaganda efforts to protect the President. For partisan and political reasons, they reached for any arguments that were handy - disdainful of rationality. Most ignored the fact that the case was about lying under oath and obstruction of justice - not some minor sexual offense.
Posner criticizes Michael Sandel and John B. Judis for rushing to judgment to criticize the prosecution before the evidence was in - only to be confronted by semen stains. Of course, they never deigned to admit their error. Immanuel Kant was cited - erroneously - to defend Clinton's "misleading" statements. Kant did reject the notion of a duty of candor, but would never have condoned lying under oath.
A large number of historians signed a full page N.Y. Times
advertisement asserting "the current charges - - - depart from what the
Framers saw as grounds for impeachment," and that the theory of impeachment
relied upon was "unprecedented in history." There was no effort to
support the first statement, and no statement on what the theory was. For
obstruction of justice, there was the precedent of the Nixon impeachment. If
"political impeachment," there was the precedent of the Jeffersonian
Republican effort to impeach Federalist judges like Samuel Chase, and the
radical Republican effort to impeach Pres. Andrew Johnson.
In Congressional testimony, Sean Willentz on the left claimed "as
a historian" that impeachment would do "great damage" to our
public institutions and the rule of law. Clinton was impeached without any
observable damage to the rule of law or the Presidency. But there was Robert
Bork on the right warning that failure to remove Clinton would be "a clear
sign that we have turned a corner, that American morality, including but not
limited to our political morality, is in free fall." Clinton was not
removed - without observable reduction in his ability to govern or the status of
Similar letter writing campaigns on other issues - afflicted with equal absurdities - included:
The ultimate decision of the U.S. Supreme Court may or may not have been correct, but it was not demonstrably incorrect and did not justify the disdain of its instant - and very partisan - critics.
But the election crisis of 2000 provided the worst examples. Posner spends about 10 pages detailing the illogic and ignorance displayed in the hurried rabid propaganda campaigns of letter writing, article writing and advertisements. He notes that the ultimate decision of the U.S. Supreme Court may or may not have been correct, but it was not demonstrably incorrect and did not justify the disdain of its instant - and very partisan - critics.
Similarly, the view that the U.S. Constitution prevented a state court
from altering the electoral procedure established by the state legislature
"was not demonstrably correct, but it was not so far out that it merited
the intemperate abuse heaped upon it by one of our leading public-interest
magazines before the abusers could have analyzed the issues in sufficient depth
and with sufficient calm to write responsibly."
Prominent public intellectuals involved in these propaganda efforts
included Jeffrey Rosen, Bruce Acerman, Sean Wilents, Ronald Dworkin, Cass
Sunstein, and Michael Walzer. That liberals have no monopoly on such stupidity
was demonstrated by Stephen Bronars and John R. Lott, Jr.
Dershowitz also stooped to use of the "perfect virtue" propaganda ploy. He asserted that because Congress was prone to various imperfections, it had no right to judge Clinton.
A telling blast at Alan Dershowitz closes this chapter. Dershowitz evaluated Clinton's behavior solely as to tactics - without any concern for whether he was actually guilty of obstructing justice. He also stooped to use of the "perfect virtue" propaganda ploy. He asserted before Congress that because Congress was prone to various imperfections, it had no right to judge Clinton.
| Prediction is the ultimate test of the validity of
understanding - of the validity of theory. While no one can expect scientific
certitude from public intellectuals, a fairly high level of success should be
Many public intellectuals leave behind a long trail of failed predictions without any apparent embarrassment or loss of status. Predictions of various catastrophes - demographic, environmental, political, economic - are commonplace.
The most frequent error of public intellectual predictions is the "fallacy of induction" - due to naïve extrapolation.
However, not only is success rare, but nobody seems to care
enough to even keep score. "Although keeping score on a forecaster thus is
important after all to evaluating the quality of his insights, it is rarely done
on public intellectuals."
The most frequent error of public intellectual predictions is the "fallacy of induction" - due to naïve extrapolation - the tendency to generalize trends without sufficient understanding of their causal forces or limits.
"The views of public intellectuals are not important to most people, even those who read their books and articles."
Just about all these public intellectuals keep selling books loaded with predictions already proven false. "These are clues to the ability of public intellectuals to survive the falsification of their predictions." Posner offers the following explanation of their ability to survive such demonstrated incompetence.
Other reasons include that nobody is keeping score, and that nobody is
really paying that much attention to what they are saying. "The views of
public intellectuals are not important to most people, even those who read their
books and articles."
The influence of public intellectuals:
"Public intellectuals are read for information but also for entertainment - - - and for buttressing the reader's predispositions."
So, why do people continue to read and listen to them? Posner offers an explanation.
"The public intellectual's predictions - - - are almost a parody of scientific hypotheses."
Since these predictions are not relied upon as a basis for action, no one suffers any costs as a result of their error. Otherwise, they would be discredited - like the securities analysts whose errors recently resulted in major losses for clients.
The main problem from the point of view of economic analysis is that there is so little "benefit" from ascertaining the accuracy of public intellectual information and prediction "that even inexpensive means of assessing the reliability of public intellectuals, such as by tracking their predictions, are evidently not cost-justified."
The impact of public intellectual rhetoric on public controversies over civil rights, the Vietnam War, animal rights, globalization, Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination, competitive politics within despotisms or democracies, are extensively discussed by Posner, who finds a mixed bag. Much of this discourse is generated by the need to refute other intellectuals.
The result is widespread disappointment in the quality of the product
(and perhaps widespread disappointment by the public intellectuals in the paltry
results of their efforts). With this in mind, Posner tries "simply to place
the public-intellectual market in perspective by showing that, and why, its
average quality is low - 'disappointing' - and perhaps failing.
| For his first example, Posner examines literary critics
as public intellectuals. He confines this chapter to those who apply a moralist
viewpoint. Any critic that just judges on the basis of aesthetics is excluded
because that "does not contribute to public discourse on political or
Modern academic literary studies have moved sharply to the cultural
left, the author notes, and have adopted "a forbidding jargon and an
unappetizing selection of works to study - - -." Thus, the two prominent
critics he discusses - Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum - "are not in the
mainstream of contemporary studies."
|George Orwell's great satire, "1984" - discussed next by Posner - is an "overproduction school" fallacy. (Here, too, we see the noxious influence of the imbecilic "scientific" expectations of Karl Marx.) He compares its presentation of technology unfavorably with that of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." He notes:
"[N]ot only [does competition remain] a more efficient method of organizing production than central planning but - - - the more technologically advanced the economy, the greater the advantages of competition."
"[T]echnology seems to have increased rather than diminished popular control of government, - - -"
Technology leads to increases in "both economic inequality and political stability," contrary to one of the Orwell's main themes.
Thought control has proven far less effective than feared.
That technology would destroy both economic and political
competition - both competitive markets and democracy - was a left wing
Marxist fallacy that both Orwell and Huxley fell victim to - as did so many other
credulous intellectuals of their times. They believed that economies of scale and scope would make
centralized control by technocrats increasingly efficient - ultimately reaching
a point where centralized control would become the dominant form of
"1984" was as much about the Catholic Church as about Communist Russia - and both have failed to control minds by means of brain washing.
Posner provides an interesting commentary on these two
commentaries. He compares and contrasts them and deals with their unique
characteristics - including their attitudes towards sexuality, the family,
technology, and religion.
"1984" is not about technology, but about "technocracy."
The displacement of the independent public intellectual by academic public intellectuals will materially reduce the likelihood of new great satire being written on our time.
Indeed, "the economics in both novels is terrible -- and
another sign of the diminishing scope for public intellectuality: no longer is
economics an appropriate subject for amateurs' speculations." (Given the
atrocious forecasting record of professional economists during the last half
century, economics is apparently no longer an appropriate subject for
professional speculation, either.)
Because of its artistry, classic satire survives even after most of its commentary becomes dated.
For the last 2500 years of recorded history, the human race has been viewed by these Jeremiahs as descending into moral decay.
"The Jeremiah School" is comprised of public intellectuals who view the past as including a golden age - the present as full of moral decay and descent into barbarism - and the future as bleak. In short, for the last 2500 years of recorded history, the human race has been viewed by these Jeremiahs as descending into moral decay.
A primary fallacy is "the assumption of cultural unity." If there is weakness perceived in law, popular or elite culture, religion, family structure, "even etiquette," it is presented as proof that the whole structure is falling apart.
Conservative public intellectuals Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Bork are prominent examples - as are liberal public intellectuals Robert Putnam, Richard Rorty, and many others. Ecological pessimists - such as Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Ehrlich - are invariably leftists. Ecological pessimism, such as that of Ehrlich, is a "thriving genre of doom prophecy."
The invariable "systematic
slanting in favor of the decline thesis" in the use of both anecdote
and selective statistics is a second obvious weakness. Logic and consistency are generally weak. Evidence is
invariably handled with casualness. (The advocacy scholar paints with a broad
brush. He cannot be bothered with inconvenient details.)
Posner dissects Bork's antiabortion arguments at some length, as well
as several other arguments.
| There is often considerable hyperbole. Leftist public
intellectuals frequently compare pertinent modern conservative ideological views
with those of fascism - conservatives similarly frequently compare modern
leftist ideological views with those of communism. We will descend into a
new "Dark Ages" - or at least to Third World status.
A perceived need for "a more bracing concept of national
purpose than liberalism, with its pluralism and tolerance, its materialism
and anti materialism, affords," is felt by both extreme right and extreme
left wing declinists. They are both "antiliberal."
Left wing declinists are frequently afflicted with Marxist idiocies. Many believe that capitalism inherently suffers instability that is chronic rather than just cyclical. This is due to overproduction and overcapacity. (Remember the automation scare of 40 years ago?) Prosperity, consumerism, and above all, inequality, are all purported ills of capitalism that must lead to economic disaster.
Both extremes advocate "practices or beliefs that they
themselves would find irksome, or even intolerable," which is enough in
itself to cast doubt on the soundness of their advocacy.
"Limousine liberals" think left but live right, while certain rigorous conservatives advocate orthodoxies they do not themselves believe in.
The extreme positions taken by public intellectuals is not a reflection of the body of the public and gives a false impression of a divided nation.
Both extremes need each other, since they provide examples of the dire trends they purport to reveal. This mutual criticism is useful, Posner suggests, and may even be valid - until it is accompanied by declinist propaganda. Bork seems to be trying to vindicate the leftist opposition to his Supreme Court nomination with "his advocacy of censorship, his proposal to amend the Constitution to allow Congress to overrule the Supreme Court's constitutional decisions, and his call for a return to Victorian morality and old-time religion."
The left is hostile to mainstream culture and society and is afflicted
with "millenarian dreams."
Most declinist literature reflects hopelessness. Since the golden age was 25 or 2500 years ago and cannot be retrieved, we are surely lost.
Both wings do usefully dissipate the energies of those who might be prone to more physical actions, and they both provide justification for each other.
As a result of their efforts, the left has stirred up some
"silly students" to riot against globalization, and has taken control
of and ruined some university English literature classes - and the right doesn't
occupy any "commanding heights" of culture or politics. However, they
are both fringe groups. They both embarrass their own liberal or conservative
wing of the political spectrum. But, they both do usefully dissipate the energies of those
who might be prone to more physical actions, and they both provide justification for each
Robert Putnam in "Bowling Alone," writing from a left
wing perspective, like Himmelfarb in "One Nation, Two Cultures," writing
from a right wing perspective, attacks excessive individualism as a threat to
society. However, Putnam's book is richly researched and sourced. This gives
Posner a target, which he hits at a few points for sloppy scholarship. Claims
that "road rage" causes 28,000 deaths a year - and that federal domestic
spending is only 2.2% of GNP - are clear factual errors, and Posner adds several
instances of weak reasoning.
David Riesman's book, "The Lonely
Crowd," is contrasted by Posner with that of Putnam. Instead of viewing the 1950s as some
golden age, Riesman deplored the "groupiness, the substitution of
cooperation - - - for competition, the heightened sensitivity to the opinion of
one's peers, the displacement of the highly individualized 'inner directed man'
- - - by men who were 'socialized, passive, and cooperative.'" Except for
passivity, Putnam views all these deplorable traits as assets essential for
prosperity and happiness.
The public philosopher:
| Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty are
the focus of a chapter on the American public philosopher. They follow in the
footsteps of John Stuart Mill.
Nussbaum's concerns include social justice
and such public policy concerns as multicultural education, the plight of women
in the third world, and homosexual rights. Rorty's concerns include
redistributive policies and trade unionism.
Philosophers used to be generalists, but are now an endangered
species because of the degree of specialization - within the field of philosophy
as well as in other intellectual fields. This is too bad, Posner notes, since
philosophy provides society with much needed gadflys. But he finds much to
criticize in these two modern philosophers.
To promote the liberal agenda as "rights," Nussbaum marshals philosophical arguments. She advocates a "capabilities" approach based on some objective standard of what people require "in order to enjoy a rich, fully human life."
The methodology of economic analysis is not amenable to alteration to suit new philosophical approaches.
Philosophical rhetoric can't change the blunt fact of socialist failure and market capitalism success.
The utility of philosophy for this kind of "constructive" role - which reaches beyond the more usual "purely critical" role - is viewed by Posner as dubious. Rejection of such a constructive role is based simply on the obvious fact that people do not adjust their approach to practical economic and political affairs in response to philosophical arguments. The methodology of economic analysis is not amenable to alteration to suit new philosophical approaches, and those not convinced by Nussbaum's liberal philosophy are not going to change their minds because of her impractical philosophical rationalizing.
Nussbaum also likes Aristotle - another ancient philosopher with a
negative view of women's capabilities. And, Aristotle viewed slavery with
Prominent aspects of Greek ideology included slavery, infanticide,
misogyny, and militarism.
| Rorty rejects Nussbaum's approach. Instead, he
depends on an experimental approach. Philosophical discourse that claims
certitude makes no room for "social experimentation."
Rorty is hopelessly ignorant of the realities of economics and politics, of pertinent sociological and anthropological factors.
We really don't know what will work, so we must be open to a "diversity of approaches."
Posner goes on at some length about the differences in philosophical
approach of these two who have such similar objectives. Ultimately, however,
Rorty's proposals are just "armchair proposals, and lack a knowledge
base." He is hopelessly ignorant of the realities of economics and politics
- of pertinent sociological and anthropological factors.
Nussbaum, in particular, tilts at philosophical windmills - while providing little examination of the practical aspects of her proposals.
Posner's philosophy is pragmatic - a concentration on the practical social, economic, and/or political consequences of proposed reforms. Nussbaum, in particular, tilts at philosophical windmills - while providing little examination of the practical aspects of her proposals. Posner has a very interesting view of utopians.
Posner accepts a subsidiary role for philosophy, in dealing with
issues at the margins of practicality - where religion, culture, and morality
may outweigh marginal economic benefits. He notes that Allan Bloom, "The
Closing of the American Mind," accepts Western philosophical tradition and
refers to it, as does Nussbaum, but draws the opposite conclusion from Nussbaum. Philosophy
should be confined to the academic sphere rather than used for public discourse
on practical matters. However, Rorty believes in renunciation of philosophical
The public intellectual and the law:
| As expert witnesses and as commentators,
public intellectuals commonly play roles in legal proceedings. As a prominent judge,
Posner is in his realm in examining these practices.
The truth is something public intellectuals do not take seriously - even when under oath.
"[A]cademics regard the courtroom as a political forum in which concerns for accuracy should play no part; the oath be damned."
With respect to expert testimony, Posner points out that public intellectual
testimony, affidavits and other official submissions are almost never relied
upon by judges in their written opinions - except in obscenity cases, where
evaluation of the existence of "redeeming social value" is an issue.
Judges prefer to avoid "political or otherwise ideological" sources as
authorities for their opinions.
Even when testifying about "redeeming social values," public
intellectual testimony is worthless, since even the worst junk will be supported
for the ideological purpose of always defeating censorship. The truth is
something public intellectuals do not take seriously - even when under oath.
Indeed, it appears that "academics regard the courtroom as a
political forum in which concerns for accuracy should play no part; the oath be
damned." (Well, what else can one expect, when courts make it so difficult
to prosecute perjury and the penalties as imposed are so light?)
For commentary about contemporary proceedings, Posner uses the
example of the impeachment proceedings against Pres. Clinton. He goes into
considerable detail about Ronald
Dworkin - an advocacy scholar-style law professor - providing legal analysis twisted in favor of the results he
Dworkin openly wishes to change the Judicial branch into a political organ of
government to achieve his liberal agenda.
All of Dworkin's predictions of the dire consequences that
would flow from impeachment failed to materialize - a typical result for public
intellectual forecasts. Hyperbole, inaccuracies and inconsistency is readily
found in Dworkin's writings about the proceedings - also typical of public
Attorneys, being advocates, are ill suited for objective evaluations.
The proper role of the public intellectual, according to the author, is to be "the bearer of bad tidings," or "difficult truths," that cut across political and ideological lines, and that may, at times, support positions at odds with those of the public intellectual himself. Attorneys, being advocates, are ill suited for this proper role.
The vanishing of the independent public intellectual is deplored by Posner. From their ranks came the essential "gadfly and counter puncher." Specialization has had a pernicious impact, as educated people - both academics and the college educated public - become more and more expert about less and less.
The media uncritically acts merely as conduits for authoritative
The resulting unreliability of the "credence goods" provided by academic public intellectuals is due to their carelessness once they are outside the constraints of their narrow academic specialties and peer reviewed media.
The basic problem is "lack of accountability." Intelligence
is not synonymous with "scrupulousness" or "good sense" or
"character," Posner points out. Brilliance in some narrow specialty
"does not imply a talent for government or politics."
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Copyright © 2003 Dan Blatt