Criticizing the Public Intellectuals

Dennis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature reviews Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: a Study in Decline. On the ‘jeremiad school’ of argument:

The chapter on the “Jeremiad School” of public intellectual traces the varieties of public pessimism back to The Education of Henry Adams and Spengler’s Decline of the West. Posner identifies the jeremiad as showing up on both the right and left sides of the political divide, although it is primarily a right-wing phenomenon, where it assumes that (1) the 1950s were America’s last echo of a golden age, (2) the 1960s began the slide into barbarism, that (3) the present is an era of decadence, and (4) the future is bleak. The blame of course rests with modern liberalism and the permissiveness it instilled, along with feminism, multiculturalism, and so forth. Much of the rot is traced back to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, while the proof for our fallen (and falling) state derives from “telling anecdote and selective statistic.” Posner says, “Declinist works get much of their rhetorical force from contrasting an idealized past, its vices overlooked, with a demonized present, its virtues overlooked.” His main targets are Gertrude Himmelfarb and Robert Bork, though he cites liberals or leftists such as Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), Jeremy Rifkind, Christopher Lasch, and even Richard Rorty as falling into the category. Irving Kristol and Jacques Barzun also cop flak.

I recently wrote a short critique of The Spirit of Community by Amitai Etzioni that made the same complaint, too much whining about the decline of morals and the idealized world of the 1950s.

On art and tragedy:

I have an abiding love and fascination for the arts of New Guinea, especially the carving that comes out of the Sepik river region of northern New Guinea. I’ve gone so far as to do fieldwork among carvers of the Sepik in order to learn for myself a little of their craft and to gain direct familiarity with their indigenous aesthetic values, their ways of judging works of art good and bad. Prodigious carving talent flourishes in those parts of Melanesia, as it has for a long time. And yet, though it is uncomfortable to say it, the quality of Sepik carving is not today what it once was: the extraordinary, haunting carvings collected by early Europeans (uncollected carvings from a century ago have long since perished in the insect-infested tropical Sepik) are a long way from the bland, vapid, kitschy, but technically excellent carvings sold to tourists today. Why? The answer is that the early carvings of New Guinea peoples express the values of a darkly passionate, animist, headhunting society. The intense and deadly culture of headhunting in New Guinea resulted, in my opinion, in some of the most powerful art ever made. Some outsiders, especially Catholic missionaries, have tried with modest success to keep alive the New Guinea carving tradition. But the only way really to recapture the somber spirit of old New Guinea carving would be to bring back headhunting. Now headhunting society, for those who know its practices and history, is one of extreme cruelty and brutality; no one in his right moral mind would seek a return to such barbarity. But there, staring us in the face is the tragedy of the situation: the greatest art of Sepik peoples seems to have been contingent on the existence or organized murder. I offer this simply as an observation; the observation contains no implicit recommendation, and the general point is not unique to New Guinea: if it could be shown that the architectural wonders of the ancient world, the Parthenon, for instance, depended on a slave system, no one would ask for a return to slavery to revive the art. What I think Posner finds lacking in the social programs of Rorty and Nussbaum is any analogous sense that making an indisputably better world can entail losses. Headhunting is terrible, but so the disapperance of headhunting arts. Nevertheless, the colonial powers knew what they had to do for the sake of New Guineans, and the loss of the arts is tragic.

This contrasts nicely with my earlier entry on George Steiner.