Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Public intellectual?

Tyler Cowen, whom I admire despite disagreeing with him about some things, recently shared an old video of Woody Allen and Billy Graham debating about God and asked, "Where's Jordan Peterson?" The point being that Peterson is everywhere and, perhaps, a little too visible.

This January Cowen said that Jordan Peterson was the most influential "public intellectual" today.

That's an interesting expression. My first thought was, "Is there any other kind of intellectual?"

You might respond by saying that a university professor known only to his students is an intellectual. After all, you might continue, Peterson himself was relatively unknown for most of his career and we wouldn't want to argue that he became an intellectual by becoming famous. By that standard all popstars are intellectuals.

And yet ...

When I was a kid, Pierre Trudeau was deemed an intellectual. Growing up in a very Liberal family (meaning they were both ideological liberals and supporters of the Liberal Party of which Trudeau was the leader) I initially took the claim at face value. As time went on, however, I noticed some odd things about this intellectual. One was that while Trudeau wrote books and everyone in my parents' circle had purchased at least one of those books, Federalism and the French Canadians, nobody ever talked about what was in the book. When I picked up the copy on our shelves and read it myself, I was struck by how stiff the binding was. I suspect it had been read once but probably not twice before I got to it. And when I tried to engage people on the content of the book, they clearly had no idea what Trudeau had written.

It got worse. The more I engaged with Trudeau's writing, the less impressive it seemed. Trudeau had made much of being opposed to "nationalism" but, when you read him, it rapidly becomes clear that he doesn't clearly define what he means by the term. Worse, he is decidedly selective about whose nationalism he condemns. He is merciless in dissecting the nationalism of the Quebecois and the United States but blind to the equally noxious nationalism in the rest of Canada.

Finally, he was a fraud. He liked to accuse Quebec nationalists of having roots in right-wing nationalism of an ugly authoritarian and racist stripe. In some cases that accusation was fair but in other cases he used unfairly, even against people who had opposed that sort of nationalism back when it took real courage and integrity to do so.

As if that wasn't enough, we later found out that Trudeau himself had an ugly history of supporting the sort off hateful ideas he accused others of having done.

Now, you may be waiting for me to announce that Trudeau was not an intellectual. I'm not going to do that. He was an intellectual. He was not a very important intellectual in the long run. Does anyone read him anymore? Probably not. But he was very important to his time and, even if no one read him terribly attentively (or retentively) at the time, the ideas he cared about were much discussed because he cared about them.

When deciding whether someone is an intellectual (or whether someone or something fits into several other categories such as whether something is art) we shouldn't mix up categories. Whether they are good or important intellectuals are separate questions.

Here is what I would conclude. A university professor is not necessarily an intellectual. "Intellectual" is not a credential you get from any sort of institution and it is precisely because no institution can give you that status that intellectuals are important. They exist to challenge ideas that dominate institutions. If all Jordan Peterson ever did was repeat ideas already in favor in universities, he'd still be unknown.

So, to turn back to the question above, Jordan Peterson was not an intellectual until he became famous. Fame is a necessary condition for being an intellectual even if it is not a sufficient condition.

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