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Cornering the Market in Chutzpah

PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS: A Study of Decline, By Richard A. Posner, Harvard University Press: 408 pp., $29.95

January 27, 2002|RUSSELL JACOBY

Did you know that if I were writing this review for big bucks, it would be better--at least according to Richard Posner? Posner adores the free market; his only regret is that salaried teachers like myself escape its beneficial imperatives. Posner is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals; he is a well-regarded professor at the University of Chicago Law School and an author who writes with astounding energy on an astounding number of topics. He has published books--just to stick to the A's--on aging, AIDS and antitrust law. Recently he has tackled former President Bill Clinton's impeachment and the 2000 Florida election debacle. Associated with a movement that applies economics to law, Posner belongs in the front ranks of legal thinkers in the United States today--and perhaps the qualifier "legal" suggests a specialization he has increasingly abandoned.

Indeed, in his latest book he assumes the role of wide-ranging social critic. Posner was "surprised" by the "low quality" of public commentary on the Clinton impeachment by philosophers, historians and law professors. The discussion was no better on the Microsoft antitrust case, in which he served as mediator. This spurred him to consider the nature of "public intellectuals," which, he claims, "has never been studied systematically before." With his usual industry and boldness, Posner seeks to remedy this deficiency and explain the sorry state of public intellectuals.

What is a public intellectual? (Disclosure alert: Posner credits me, in my "The Last Intellectuals," with coining the term, and I marginally figure in his book.) Standard accounts trace the term "intellectual" to 1890s France, when writers such as Emile Zola protested the framing of Alfred Dreyfus; they were "the intellectuals." In the course of the 20th century, especially in the United States, intellectuals migrated into expanding universities and became specialists and teachers; they were still intellectuals, but they addressed themselves to colleagues and students. Only a few of them, the "public intellectuals," continue to court a wider educated audience on political and cultural matters.

To Posner, the Dreyfus case was almost the last time intellectuals got things right. He knows why. Once upon a time intellectuals plied their trade in a market that adjudicated by ignoring defective goods and rewarding quality. Intellectuals were essentially independent producers with something to sell--their words. Inasmuch as public intellectuals are now largely tenured professors, they escape the dictates of the market; they can write (and talk) trash in public and still pick up their checks from the bursar.

Posner seeks to substantiate this proposition by case studies illustrating the defective quality of contributions of public intellectuals and by a series of tables, graphs and equations demonstrating an inverse relation between public attention and real scholarship. Pos- ner (or his assistants) have counted up the number of media "hits" and scholarly citations for more than 500 intellectuals to show that intellectuals pay for public attention by diminished professional legitimacy. In the service of this argument, he has collected a dizzying amount of miscellaneous data. Wannabe public intellectuals can pick up career tips. To gain media attention, "other things being equal" it is better to be alive than dead. Take note, students: Being dead can reduce your media attention by a whopping 30%.

To follow Posner as he picks fights with everyone from Stephen Jay Gould to Gertrude Himmelfarb and Richard Rorty is worth the price of admission; he is a formidable critic of academic pretense and sloth. Yet too much of this book is pure bravado. Posner wants to prove that not only can he draw upon technical articles on "restaurant pricing" and supply bristling formulas on the benefits of market regulation and the costs of divorce, he can also discuss Shakespeare, Dickens or T.S. Eliot with the best of them--and best them. Irving Kristol opined that the later poetry of Eliot, such as "Four Quartets," is "much superior" to his earlier work. This judgment, Posner sniffs, "raises a question whether Kristol is a serious reader of modern poetry."

Nor is Posner above playing both sides. He makes much of the erroneous predictions and hyperventilated idiom of public intellectuals, complaining, for instance, that the rhetoric about the Clinton impeachment by Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz was typically hysterical and uninformed. (Posner legalistically thinks the impeachment crisis was about the obstruction of justice by Clinton.) Yet Posner himself (in Harper's magazine) defended the Supreme Court's decision in the Florida election on the grounds it resolved a "dangerous" crisis. "Instability" threatened the republic. This sounds like the rhetoric Posner detests in others.

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