Saturday, March 01, 2008

A little intellect goes a long way

After somewhat carefully reading Stephen Mack's entries in his blog on the public intellectual (here and here) I was left with one overriding sentiment: You're never going to convince people of anything if they fundamentally disagree with you. Case in point, Mack and I had a discussion as to whether or not Sean Hannity is a public intellectual. My argument was that he makes political statements, supported by facts, and has a wide audience who pays attention to what he says.

Mack, who suffice it to say is not a regularly listener to Mr. Hannity, was not convinced. Paraphrasing here, he said something to the effect of, "Just because many people listen to you doesn't mean your a public intellectual." This is where he and I disagree.

The value of a public intellectual is found in his ability to inform and convince me to agree with him. Now let me defend my definition. I think Mr. Mack would have a hard time disagreeing with me that a public intellectual who cannot change the mind of his audience is of much value. Thus, just being informed may make you an intellectual, and just being published may make you public, but you can hardly be called a public intellectual if you're just preaching to the converted all the time.

That being said, I think it's unfair to argue that the polar opposite of the ivory tower type I just described is not a public intellectual. Our friend over at Politosaurus Rex helped me with my research here: "Ralph Waldo Emerson described the public intellectual as an active force in society. They should be knowledgeable in history, but only because of its relevance in today’s world." Sean Hannity clearly fits that description. It's his job to tell it like it is, to convince his viewers, listeners and yes, readers to see the world the way he does. The only difference between Hannity and Ralph Waldo Emerson is what they're trying to convince me of.

Now, that may sound glib, and it is. But here's the catch, and here's where this gets fun. The value of a public intellectual is in their ability to affect change in the republic. "The measure of a public intellectual is not whether the people are listening, but whether their hearing things worth talking about."

What Mack's essentially saying is that a public intellectual should critique what need critiquing. That it's the role of a good public intellectual to criticize the wisdom of others to make sure it's sound. "It is only because learning the processes of criticism and practicing them with some regularity are requisites for intellectual employment. It’s what we do at our day jobs." If there was ever someone whose day job it is to practice criticism, it's Sean Hannity.

Hannity role as a public intellectual is to examine what he thinks needs to be looked at, to poke and prod it to his viewer's delight. Talk radio hosts don't gain an audience cause they're always nice guys. They get paid the big bucks because they go after the other guys, and yes, it's fun to listen to. But here's the key. Every once in a while, every once in a while, they say something useful.

Every once in a while they show the millions of people who would otherwise not care about an issue of public concern. Something Mack's "public intellectuals" would also talk about. But without Hannity, without Rush, without Michael Savage, people who otherwise wouldn't be paying attention at all hear about what Mack wants them to pay attention to. Dittoheads they may be, but we're better off because these public figures make average Americans just a little bit more intellectual.

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