Archive for Wednesday, June 5, 2002

TV creates news celebrities

June 5, 2002


I have been reading a fascinating recent book written by Judge Richard Posner, "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline." Judge Posner, a former law professor at the University of Chicago Law School and now a federal judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, has played an important role in the development of legal theory in the past few decades. He was and is one of the great champions of the law and economics movement and has been more recently one of the legal scholars who has taken a role in reviving pragmatic legal philosophy. He has also been strongly aligned with conservative political movements and has been especially critical of attempts by liberal law professors to condemn the United States Supreme Court for its role in the presidential election of 2000.

It seems likely that his irritation with the law professorate over the debates about the propriety of the Supreme Court's ruling in Bush v. Gore is responsible, in part, for this diatribe against the growing influence of those who have come to be called "public intellectuals" Indeed, one university in Florida has already begun to offer a PhD in "public intellectual studies" a notion which Judge Posner (and I) find rather absurd.

Posner's book is, perhaps, most useful, because he attempts to understand the development of the public intellectual in market terms. To Posner, there would be no public intellectuals but for the fact that people are willing to listen to them and, in fact, pay them to be pundits. At one point, Judge Posner suggests that a better term for these folks would be "celebrity intellectuals."

In essence, a public intellectual is someone who attempts to make his or her ideas accessible to a wider public than does the normal academic and in so doing both seeks celebrity and income. Posner also suggests that most public intellectuals tend to speak out on matters of current political or social interest and, thereby, excludes scientists, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tend to interested in scientific rather than political topics (although Gould spoke often about evolution and its social setting). Posner's criticism of these public intellectuals is not that they are celebrities, but rather that their ideas tend to be trivial and often uninformed, if not plain wrong.

Certainly, Judge Posner makes some good points. But in many ways the most interesting questions about the rise of public intellectuals in the United States in recent years are more sociological and psychological than economic. I have been struck particularly by a simple question: does anybody really care about what these folks have to say? Who is paying them for their opinions?

I think that the answer is that some people on the East and West coasts care and that the media pays them. I have been particularly interested in the goings on of one Harvard professor whom I knew when we were both graduate students in the early 1970s. Skip Gates was and is a brilliant man. He is also a natural entertainer and entrepreneur. I remember 30 years ago when he literally held court in a little coffee shop every day at 10 a.m. He had a coterie of about a dozen followers who hung on his every word and Skip had something to say about almost everything.

Since those days he has gone on to distinguished professorships at Duke and at Harvard, among other institutions. Today, he is the head of the African-American Studies Program at Harvard. He is also, without doubt, a leading literary critic and has done more to revive the study of African-American literature than anyone else. He's also hosted a series on PBS on Africa which I watched and enjoyed.

But given all of that, is Gates so important a national figure that the New York Times feels it is necessary to run frequent articles as to whether he is thinking about leaving Harvard for Princeton? And what are his qualifications to opine on subjects other than those in which he has specialized? Why does an expert in one field suddenly become an expert in everything?

More and more I am coming to think that public intellectuals are, in fact, creations of the media and, unfortunately, of universities. The media wants talking heads. With the advent of 24-hour news shows there is so much air time to fill, they are necessary. Universities have decided, it would seem, that media coverage helps them as well and thus encourage their "star" faculty to become celebrities and to make as many appearances as possible. Certainly, it would seem to pay well. A classmate of mine from law school, Stephen Carter, just received a $4 million advance for his first mystery novel! Not bad. (By the way, Steve's a great guy and a talented writer and deserves whatever he earns.)

In the end I suppose that the rise (and decline) of public intellectuals really doesn't matter very much. Indeed, these folks probably provide some degree of comic relief from the increasingly bad news we hear each day. But let those who aspire to be public intellectuals remember the old saying that celebrity is brief and that the public is fickle. After all, what do you do after you've been on CNN?

Mike Hoeflich is a professor in the Kansas University School of Law.

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