Intellectuals and their country

Dissent, Partisan Review and the idea of America.


Any "little magazine" worth its salt should, from time to time, ask its contributors to ruminate on the role of the intellectual in modern society (or on some variant of that question -- about intellectuals and politics, say, or intellectuals and mass culture). The model for such collective and public introspection is "Our Country and Our Culture", a symposium held in 1952 by one of the greatest little magazines of them all, the house journal of the "New York intellectuals" in the 1940s and 1950s, Partisan Review.

The participants in that symposium included C Wright Mills, Norman Mailer and Irving Howe, founder of one of PR's New York-based progeny, Dissent. Partisan Review published its last issue in 2003, but Dissent is still going strong. The latest edition assembles a number of leading American intellectuals to reflect on "the culture and politics of our country". That Dissent's editors had Partisan Review in mind when they conceived this forum is made explicit in their introduction:

In 1952, Partisan Review, then near the apex of its influence, held a similar symposium, entitled "Our Country and Our Culture". Its purpose, wrote the magazine's editors, was "to examine the apparent fact that American intellectuals now regard America and its institutions in a new way". Most writers who advocated socialism during the 1930s no longer saw themselves as "rebels and exiles"; in the early years of the cold war, many even agreed that America had "become the protector of western civilisation, at least in a military and economic sense".

But few intellectuals extended their new optimism about the nation to mass culture. "Its tendency," the editors of PR complained, "is to exclude everything that does not conform to popular norms; it creates and satisfies artificial appetites . . . [and] has grown into a major industry which converts culture into a commodity." In our own uncertain era, it is useful for women and men with a reputation for thoughtfulness and creativity to reflect on issues that bear profoundly on both their craft and their country.

To that end, they asked the participants -- E J Dionne, Alice Kessler-Harris, Jackson Lears, Martha Nussbaum, Katha Pollitt, Michael Tomasky, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Leon Wieseltier -- four questions:

1. What relationship should American intellectuals have towards mass culture: television, films, mass-market books, popular music and the internet?

2. Does the academy further or retard the engagement of intellectuals with American society?

3. How should American intellectuals participate in American politics?

4. Do you consider yourself a patriot, a world citizen, or do you have some other allegiance that helps shape your political opinions?

There's much that's of interest in all the responses, and you should read the whole thing, but here are some highlights.

Martha Nussbaum on new media:

I think that it's good if there are some intellectuals who get deeply involved with these media, because this will help intellectuals keep contact with a wider public. It's much harder to do that now than it was formerly, given the decline of print journalism. But I hope not too many will become starry-eyed about these media and forget about the habit of slow reading, which is such a large part of good thinking.

Sometimes the new media can help reading: for example, I now listen to novels on my iPod while I am running, and I "read" a lot more Trollope and Eliot than I used to. Often, though, the new media discourage people from reading books. I see this in many of my students, and it distresses me. We need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.

Michael Tomasky on American patriotism and the left:

I think the old and stereotypical liberal-left view of patriotism as somehow jingoistic or simple-minded could do with some revisionism. And now is an especially good time for it: the Republican Party and the Tea Party right, accusing our side of harboring infectious, alien schemes, is paradoxically sounding crazier and crazier (and more un-American) with each passing year, month and week.

When a sitting governor (Rick Perry of Texas) idly muses about secession; when a member of Congress (Michelle Bachmann) says that Americans should refuse to participate in the census; when other Republican members of Congress refuse to say whether Obama is a rightful citizen, they are themselves taking positions that average folks recognise as alien. There's an opening there to redefine patriotism and rebrand it, as it were, with our stamp.

And Leon Wieseltier on intellectuals and politics:

American intellectuals should participate in American politics truthfully, and with a lasting scruple about the integrity of argument. Alone or in a gang, they should say what they really believe, and proceed to justify it. They should espouse their ideas as if their ideas really might come to power -- they should neither despise power nor worship it -- and they should do so in a language that ordinary Americans can understand. Stifle the aporia and leave the hybridity at home. The analysis of a bill is not the analysis of a poem.

They should learn to respect policy, which is less lofty and glamorous than politics; and they should make their contribution in a manner that may be useful to the makers of policy, even if only indirectly, in the clarification of the philosophical foundations. There is no shame in partisanship, though there is often stupidity, and intellectuals in politics have a particular obligation, obviously, not to be stupid. They should deny themselves the ugly thrill of populist anti-intellectualism: derisive talk about elites and the "new class" and so on.

The anti-intellectualism of intellectuals is especially awful, and none of us work in the mines. They should not condescend to Washington, as if they themselves live in Athens. Above all, they should never lose their heads. (The ecstasy about Obama was disgraceful, even though he was supportable. Ecstasy is not an intellectual accomplishment, which is precisely why it is so often sought.) They should always be prepared to be disappointed, or proved wrong. They owe their loyalty to principles, not to persons.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Marvel's Doctor Strange is like ketchup – it's formulated to please, but you won't love it

Benedict Cumberbatch’s well-honed turn in Doctor Strange is enjoyable, but the film isn't one you'd ever fall in love with.

In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article asking why there were dozens of varieties of mustard, and yet a single brand of ketchup – Heinz – utterly dominated the market. He discovered that Heinz ketchup was a perfect synthesis of the “five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami”.

Food scientists call this amplitude: Coca-Cola has high amplitude, blending vanilla, cinnamon and brown spice in a way that makes it difficult to pick out an individual note. That also makes it easier to drink buckets of the stuff; the palate tires easily of a single, spiky flavour, as with orange juice. But ketchup? You can smother that on anything.

The studio behind The Avengers, Thor and Iron Man has invented a similar condiment. Let’s call it Marvel Sauce. Take one superhero movie, add an even mix of buff beefcakes and Shakespearean actors, then marinate in light sarcasm to offset the fact that everyone is talking seriously about giant hammers or saving the world in costumes they look like they have to be sewn into.

That the process creates homogeneity is not the snobby criticism it might at first appear. (I’ve drunk Coke in places where the water wasn’t safe, or local tastes were very different from mine, and I’ve been grateful for it.) Yet it does mean the films’ greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Doctor Strange is smothered in Marvel Sauce. It looks phenomenal: if you liked the city-folding from Inception, this film lets M C Escher’s grandchild have a go with the software. The actors are first-rate, from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo to Mads Mikkelsen’s baddie, Kaecilius. (Wanted: someone else who studied Latin at school to appreciate my joke about Kaecilius being “in horto sedet”.) The tone is just right, undercutting anything too portentous with snark and slapstick. At one point, Benedict Cumberbatch is giving it proper, squinty-eyed, superhero duck face in the mirror when his sentient cloak pokes him in the eye.

Admittedly, the plot is pretty thin. Our hero is Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon at a New York hospital with a lucrative sideline in after-dinner speeches. (He has to be American: first, NHS surgeons don’t make enough money to own the watches and glass-walled midtown apartment on show here. Second, he’d be Mister Strange, and would spend half his fights explaining this to people.)

One night, he is purring off to an after-dinner speech in his Lambo when he decides to look at MRI brain scans on his Microsoft Surface while overtaking in heavy rain. This is a bad idea. He wakes up with scarred and damaged hands and is bereft until his physiotherapist tells him about another patient who recovered from breaking his back. Strange finds the guy, who tells him to travel to Nepal (a change from the Tibet of the comics, apparently made to appease Chinese film distributors) to learn some old mystic bollocks.

From there on, the story suggests that the screenwriters have more than a passing familiarity with The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Strange enters the special world, meets the mentor – a bald Tilda Swinton, who teaches him to bend time and space – and undergoes an ordeal, including his death and rebirth. He “seizes the sword”, an eye-shaped necklace that can rewind time, and uses it to battle Kaecilius’s plan to collapse Earth into the Dark Dimension. There is one surprise, which is that Strange’s core superpower is revealed to be boring enemies into submission.

Is this film enjoyable? Yes. Is it the kind of film you can fall in love with? No. I left thinking of the one Marvel film that’s mustard, not ketchup: the profane Deadpool. Its hero is also disfigured and cut off from his old life. But Deadpool’s scars ruin his face, and he is ostracised and feared. Strange gets to make swords out of energy and teleport using a magic ring, which seems a decent consolation for not being able to play Chopin. Deadpool also gets a real human woman as a love interest, rather than the one-dimensional saint of an A&E doctor of Dr Strange, played by Rachel McAdams. But then, Deadpool was an 18-rated parody, and this is a blockbuster. It’s ketchup. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage