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.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories