Small Advantages of the Private Intellectual
Casual, unscientific observations about events in American daily life reveal a shrinking of civility. Vulgarity flourishes. Self-fulfilling irony lends credibility to unfettered expressions of hatred. Relentless negativity is normal, and iconoclasm is unchecked.
People who thirst for power, who want to manipulate and dominate others, know how valuable Adolf Hitler's comment on "the big lie" (see Mein Kampf) is for 2016. They lie with glee. Those of us who want to preserve our partially free lives and much of our sanity are driven to embrace Machiavelli's suggestion that a person who vows to be good all the time comes to ruin among people who choose not to be good. We are driven to acknowledge the peculiar wisdom of Aimé Césaire's proposal in Discourse on Colonialism (1955) that Hitler deserves to be studied because "he makes it possible to see things on a large scale and to grasp the fact that capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics."
The prevailing climate does not bode well for people who insist on being public intellectuals. One might predict they will be killed literally and figuratively as fascist democracy materializes. To be sure, the United States of America has no monopoly on bad behavior as a new world order dawns, as actuality triumphs over reality. We should see things on a large scale. All nation-states contribute to the progress of global tragedies. The handful of United Nations officials who might risk their lives to tell "a truth" can supply confirmation.
Now it is good to read (or discover for the first time) Sissela Bok's Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978), Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (2002), and Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) by Robert N. Bellah and others. In the near past, public intellectuals garnered a modicum of respect. Thinkers as diverse as Derrick Bell, Noam Chomsky, Mari Evans, Rachel Carson, Toni Cade Bambara, Ishmael Reed, Angela Davis, Vincent Harding, Edward Said, Amiri Baraka, and John Hope Franklin could urge us to be still and to seek clarity in critical thinking. A public intellectual who was a rare politician wrote The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) and reached the mountain top of American politics. Gone are those days.
We swirl like leaves in a hurricane. Chomsky is taken to task for what is alleged to be "simple sloppiness" in his "selective use of history" in Who Rules the World? (2016). In his review of this book, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (access https://www.hrw.org) does have the decency to say that "imperfect as the book is, we should understand it as a plea to end American hypocrisy" (NYRB, June 9, 2016, page 8). In this context, nothing is said of Chomsky's lasting contributions to linguistic theory. Likewise, political condemnations of Cornel West, scapegoat #1 in neo-liberal imaginations, avoid the decency of saying West provided a noble contribution to contemporary thought in writing The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989) before acclaim and fame led him into a lurid wilderness . Like William Blake's invisible worm, fame has targeted Ta-Nehisi Coates and other young thinkers who steadfastly refuse to worship false gods.
We are witnessing a death of integrity, and we are asked to find colorblind salvation in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Bob Kaufman and Audre Lorde; in the fictions of Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Grisham; in the prophetic essays of Ayn Rand and James Baldwin; or in the transparent texts of Benjamin Franklin ($100) and Thomas Jefferson (5¢ ). It is not "correct" for our jaded ears to discriminate among John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra , Nina Simone, John Cage, Beyonce Knowles, Adele, Elton John, Curtis Mayfield, Esther Phillips and Roberta Flack as sonic thinkers. Our smoke-filled eyes should not discern the difference between a toilet stool and a genuine work of art. We are encouraged by a devolving world to be a docile congregation in the dumpsters of reality televangelism. Anti-intellectualism ascends. The American majority has spoken.
So what? So nothing. Our option is to now praise the private intellectual, the woman or the man or the person of rainbow gender who refuses to be a commodity or a spectacle. The private intellectual is not immune, however, to corruption, to the horrors that destroy many insecure public intellectuals. Sooner or later, the worm will invade privacy. There is no hiding place.
As an embattled group, private intellectuals think and write quietly, communicating nationally and internationally with others who scorn the trolls of ephemeral fame. Disciplined by choice, they insist that integrity has value and that poverty does have a few virtues ; they create works for a dubious future. They try to avoid whorish, niggardly egotism. Perhaps time will either redeem them or condemn them to permanent invisibility and silence. Only a future can make that decision. Whatever the case, private intellectuals are most often models for not wasting one's life in vanity. They teach us something about the small advantages to be found in nanoseconds of creative happiness.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. June 4, 2016