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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.