The Dilettante

Liberal Intellectuals

Are they really endangered?

Click here to listen to Stephen Metcalf discuss The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual with Morris Dickstein, author of The Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World, and Alexander Star, a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Never a fast learner, the Dilettante did two stints in English graduate school. The first was as a blushing acolyte of the American philosopher Richard Rorty at the University of Virginia, the second as a progressively sallower and sallower cur, at Yale. Having spent years dawdling toward a degree that somehow never found itself completed, I can attest that the salacious portraits of academia painted by the right wing have little basis in reality. The remarkable fact about humanities professors isn’t how slavishly left-wing their politics are but how smart the smart ones are, and how dumb the dumb ones are. Those salacious portraits, however, do not have zero basis in reality; and too often while reading Eric Lott’s painfully mistitled new book, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, I found myself thinking: Is this for real?

Eric Lott, a professor of both American studies and culture studies at the University of Virginia, is best known as the victim of creative larceny: Bob Dylan presumably lifted the title of his 2001 album, Love and Theft, from Lott’s 1994 book Love and Theft: Blackface, Minstrelsy, and the American Working Class. Lott opens Chapter One of his new book with a nod to Dylan, whose “bleak clarity,” he tells us, is “now lost on Dylan’s primary audience, the cohort who grew up with him.” Lott believes that a cadre of liberal intellectuals have betrayed the radical and egalitarian hopes that once made the left the left, a beacon of hope for the dispossessed. The principal objects of Lott’s dismay are the cultural and intellectual journalists whose midlife career-flowering coincided with the election of our first boomer president, Bill Clinton. As media courtiers in the age of Third Way politics, these public intellectuals were overly careful in establishing their bona fides as pragmatic centrists and allowed themselves to drift, along with the tides of the decade, rightward. Lott names names—Lind, Gitlin, Berman—by way of arguing that their new “vital center” eventually gave up the store to neoconservatism.

The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is not a serious book—more of that soon—but it contains the germ of an interesting idea. When I entered grad school, in the late ‘80s, literary (and later cultural) theory was still the primary venue for public intellectual life. One no longer wanted to be incisive, direct, widely read; one wanted to be elliptical, shimmering, and widely feared. By the time I exited grad school, the pseudo-profundities and outré politics of the academic left had devolved into frivolity. Lott’s new book offers many textbook examples of such portentous hyperbole, of which I’ll select only one: “By and large, however, the state now stands in such naked, brutal relation to all but the most pleasure-domed of our eminent bourgeois that the chief executive is now less representative than, in a multi-mediated, fictional sense, representational: the imagined or invented persona of a no less simulacral people whose condition of existence are thereby occluded.” I think this means: Presidential elections have become our bread and circuses, a substitute for, rather than an expression of, democracy—but I’m not entirely sure.

I remember Lott well from UVA—he was that genial hippie manqué without which no English department would be complete, and one of a group of professors and grad students who were deeply chagrined by the presence of Richard Rorty, then the resident humanities eminence at the university and increasingly an avowed enemy of the academic left. Rorty had only just won a MacArthur “genius” grant and published his public intellectual best-seller, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, which, because of the book’s insistence that theory and politics are entirely separate human endeavors, campus theory-heads privately labeled Complacency, Hegemony, Detachment.

Lott remembers Rorty well from UVA. In The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual,he places him at the fountainhead of the vital center liberalism that came to define itself, in all its worldly sobriety, against the frivolities of the academic left. As Lott quotes Rorty:

Leftists in the academy have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate. They are spending energy which should be directed at proposing new laws on discussing topics as remote from the country’s needs as were Adams’ musings on the Virgin and the Dynamo. The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms.

Lott’s book is strictly correct in its temperature-taking—Rorty’s influence did help usher in the levelheaded rhetoric of certain prominent boomer intellectuals, notably Paul Berman, whom Lott takes issue with at length, and Louis Menand, whom Lott skips altogether. But Lott is hopelessly clumsy in delivering his diagnosis. He believes that the consensus leftism of the ‘90s set itself up too explicitly against identity politics and thus wrote off “the way blacks, Latinos, women, queers, and others have transformed utterly the very category and meaning of ‘the poor’ or ‘the left’ on behalf of whom they write.” To this sentence—with its inverted commas (“the poor,” “the left,” the graphic equivalent of up-speak), vacuous intensifiers (“utterly,” “very”), and tongue-tied syntax ("on behalf of whom they write,” instead of “on whose behalf they write”)—one cannot be kind. Whatever the demerits of Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, and Michael Lind, each writes with clarity and fluency, and to take them down, one ought to at least aspire to match their game. This Lott does not do. His tone is neither scholarly, nor sufficiently deft and engaging for the general reader. Like the milieu that generated it, his prose is both knowing and unworldly. Juvenile sneer words (Jefferson is the country’s “ur-cracker”) share space with stale lit-crit jargon ("subtended”), and all attempts at wit are downright puzzling. “Nixon’s Deep Throat told reporters to follow the money; Clinton’s deep throats say follow the money shot.” Come again?

Aside from its off-putting tone, Lott’s argument—that a liberal ought to be an engagé ponytailed professor who cherishes rap music and whose initials are Eric Lott—is a sure loser. Even so, Lott has stumbled onto an important trend: the effect the general rightward drift in America has had on the self-presentation of liberal public intellectuals. As television (thanks to the advent of conservative talk TV) went from being a cool medium to a hot one, the left magazine (thanks to the new responsible left) went from being a hot medium to a cool one. What started as levelheaded dispassion on the part of leftists who had been burned by fringe politics has evolved into an entire persona, that of the murmuring magazine Excellency who is devoted above all to a style of presentation: cool, calm, bottomlessly self-respecting. The only rule governing the Excellency appears to be: Never get angry.

The murmuring Excellency may be guilty of many sins—flattering his readership when he ought to be challenging it, treating ideas as cheap deliverables—but Lott’s insinuation, that his complacency led to Bush II and the Iraq war, is tenuous at best. (I seem to remember a darling professor of the left, Ralph Nader, having something to do with that.) Lott’s book does signal trouble for the consensus left, though unwittingly. For the better part of 60 years—from at least Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, and up through Rorty and his progeny—distancing yourself from silly Utopians has been enough to credential you as a sober left intellectual. Where will the left turn for rhetorical energy, now that only dead-enders like Lott remain? As imperative as it was to separate yourself, first from Communism in the Eastern Bloc, then Marxism in the faculty lounge, the result has been a weird style of small-bore grandiosity—as when Rorty writes, “I hope we can learn to get along without the conviction that there is something deep—such as the human soul, or human nature, or the will of God, or the shape of history—which provides a subject matter for grand, politically useful theory.” I suppose; and I remain forever Rorty’s blushing acolyte. But one wonders, in place of God or Utopia, and now with the idea factory of the humanities department in an apparent state of permanent collapse, can we really make do only with tipping points and patio men?