Does Celebrity Make Intellectuals Stupid? Part 2

More findings from Richard Posner.

Richard Posner’s census of the 546 “public intellectuals” in America is now online, as is his expanded list of 607. If you are a public intellectual, or aspire to be one, please take a moment to look over this data, which is the basis of much analysis in Posner’s new book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.

Done? Let us now stipulate that it is a goddamned outrage that [your name here] and/or [your friends’ names here] were not included, and that [your enemies’ names here] were. Restitution can and must be sought in the courts.

Breathe out, breathe in. Breathe out, breathe in. Is your pulse back to normal? If so, let’s continue with our rational discussion of Posner’s findings. (To read Part 1, click here.)

As Chatterbox noted earlier, Posner’s list of public intellectuals is not, and does not pretend to be, comprehensive. Rather, it is a respectably large sample made with no systematic political bias. (Although Posner is a conservative, two-thirds of his public intellectuals are left-of-center, which strikes Chatterbox as about right.) There is, to be sure, a systematic bias toward the conventional in defining who or what a “public intellectual” is. You can argue that all sorts of people not usually classified as “intellectuals” ought to be. One Slate colleague suggests that Joe Lieberman, who has written a few books (but is not on Posner’s list) is a public intellectual. Sounds like a stretch to Chatterbox, but to each his own. Another colleague suggests that Pat Buchanan is a public intellectual. Chatterbox agrees (that’s no endorsement of his views!) but doesn’t particularly mind that Posner shooed him away from his clubhouse. By being conventional (even a bit snobbish) in defining who is and isn’t an intellectual, Posner ensures that his readers will have a good grasp of the sort of people he’s writing about. They’re the people who are conventionally (rightly or not) thought of as public intellectuals.

Let’s return to Posner’s list of the 10 public intellectuals most cited in the media. They are, as Chatterbox mentioned earlier:

Henry Kissinger (12,570 media mentions between 1995 and 2000)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (12,344)
George Will (10,425)
Lawrence Summers (9,369)
William J. Bennett (9,070)
Robert Reich (8,795)
Sidney Blumenthal (8,044)
Arthur Miller—the law professor, not the playwright—(7,955)
Salman Rushdie (7,688)
William Safire (6,408)

Because of their prominence as political candidates, Buchanan and Lieberman might well have knocked one or two of these domes off the list. But the trends observed by Posner would still be unchanged. It would still be true that the top-10 domes tend not to have current university affiliations and, more surprisingly, tend not to be affiliated with the three most famous Washington think tanks (Brookings, Heritage, and the American Enterprise Institute). A more obvious generality is that the media-heavy domes tend to be people who have worked in government. Their media citations therefore reflect not their intellect, but their proximity (or former proximity) to power. Posner writes: “An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!”

Some may argue that a list skewed by proximity to power doesn’t tell you much about who gets sought out just for their brains. If we filter out of the top-10 list people who are known mainly for having worked in government, here’s what we get:

George Will (10,425 media mentions between 1995 and 2000)
Arthur Miller—the law professor, not the playwright—(7,955)
Salman Rushdie (7,688)
William Safire (6,408) (Note: Safire’s fame as a Nixon speechwriter got him his New York Times column three decades ago, but most people today know him as a columnist, not as a former government official.)
George Orwell (5,818)
Alan Dershowitz (5,778)
Toni Morrison (5,633)
Tom Wolfe (5,342)
Norman Mailer (4,860)
George Bernard Shaw (4,835)

We’re still relatively thin on university affiliations (only Dershowitz, Miller, and Morrison have them). We’re still bereft of affiliations with Brookings, Heritage, and AEI. More than half this group is literary, a small surprise in our supposedly nonliterary age. Three of these litterateurs (Rushdie, Orwell, Shaw) are foreigners, which is more than Chatterbox would have guessed. Unsurprisingly, all three write in English, making them much more accessible to an American audience than would be the case if they wrote in a foreign language. Two of them (Orwell, Shaw) are dead, which tends to keep you out of the media. Their inclusion so high up is a testament to their persistent fashionability, which, in turn, derives (in this case) from their unusual genius.

Public intellectuals are not young. Posner calculates their average age at 64. This is, Posner argues, because an academic is more likely to have the time to address the broad public late in his career, when he has stopped producing scholarly work at a brisk pace. (Although academics are underrepresented in the upper ranks of media domes, they nonetheless constitute 65 percent of Posner’s group of 546.) Sixty-four is also an age when most people have accumulated about as much wisdom as they’re likely ever to possess.

Surprisingly for a conservative, Posner doesn’t think conservatives have too little access to the media. He notes that while two-thirds of all public intellectuals are left-of-center, actual media mentions are pretty evenly divided between liberals and conservatives. You can’t possibly argue that the liberal media discriminates in favor of liberal public intellectuals, Posner argues:

They would be if right-leaners received more mentions on average than left-leaners, because that would suggest that the media were dipping deeper into the pool of left-leaning public intellectuals than into the pool of right-leaning ones, that is, that they preferred obscure leftists to obscure rightists.

In fact, though Posner can’t quite bring himself to say so, the liberal media discriminate in favor of right-leaning public intellectuals by favoring obscure rightists over obscure leftists. (Obviously, Posner wishes that the public-intellectual market on which the media draw were evenly divided to begin with; he suggests that if engineers and business executives took more of an interest in public affairs, things would even up.)

Similarly, Posner notes that Jews and white males dominate in his census of public intellectuals and receive more mentions in the media than non-Jews, blacks, and females. Jews and white males do not, however, predominate in media mentions to the full extent that they predominate among public intellectuals overall. As with conservatives, the media put their thumbs on the scales to even things up:

As between a relatively more prominent white male or Jewish public intellectual and a relatively less prominent black or female or non-Jewish public intellectual, the media tend to choose the latter. They may be catering to their audience’s preferences. Or they may believe that the black or the woman is likely to have a different point of view from that of the white male that should not be overlooked, or (less plausibly) that many Jews “think alike” and therefore proper diversity requires a limit on how much media attention Jewish public intellectuals should receive.

To summarize: The media discriminate in favor of minorities when choosing public intellectuals to quote or put on TV. But conservatives who carp about this should note that one of the minorities (in the public-intellectual realm) that benefits from this skewed arrangement is conservatives! Similarly, liberals who complain that conservative public intellectuals have too much access to the media should observe that if representation were more strictly proportional, a lot of blacks and women—groups for whom liberals have special concern—would get shut out.

Chatterbox still isn’t done mining Posner’s findings, so he will return to this topic again soon.