Public intellectuals have a friend in me at LAX

Ever since I started going on flights by myself, I’ve loved Newsweek. Something about being independent for the first time and doing what I suppose any other “grown-up” would do: go to the airport convenience shop to pick out an important, relevant magazine. No longer could I be bothered with J-14 or Tiger Beat. I was going to be worldly and know more about current events than any of the adults who would surely try and make small talk with me during the flight. But once I got to my seat and opened up the cover, I realized I wasn’t just feigning interest in the opinions strewn across its glossy pages. Newsweek struck me as reporting at its best— in-depth features with a dash of opinions and witticisms. The writers weren’t afraid to use the first person “I” and didn’t hesitate to insert their own biting remarks. The writers had personality and were talking to me. They weren’t just spewing out fact after fact. Instead of skimming the first three paragraphs to get the basic gist, I was spellbound, page after page. It was then that I started paying attention to bylines. I was so impressed by the writers that I just had to know the names of my new role models.

An argument is floating around that certain writers who also make their bylines known, called “public intellectuals,” are becoming increasingly underappreciated and irrelevant. Public intellectuals refer to people who primarily function in the world of academia but also apply their theories to current events by reaching the broader public through platforms such as television and blogging. And right now, according to an article by Stephen Mack called “The Decline of the Public Intellectual,” some feel like people are turning a deaf ear to their insights.

But if my adoration for Newsweek means anything, then there is still an outlet for those pubic intellectuals with the proper balance of expertise and charisma. I can’t remember the illustration or photograph on many of the Newsweeks I’ve picked up, but I do remember seeing this many a time: “By Fareed Zakaria” — dead center. When I see this on the cover, I know I’ll find at least one page in the magazine about foreign policy with his picture next to it. Newsweek features his name because the editors realize that many people have come to respect Zakaria and to associate his name with credibility. But many would say that the person with the pen and paper in hand is irrelevant. It is the ideas that they communicate that matter.

Stephen Mack
writes in his article:

That is, our notions of the public intellectual need to focus less on who or what a public intellectual is—and by extension, the qualifications for getting and keeping the title. Instead, we need to be more concerned with the work public intellectuals must do, irrespective of who happens to be doing it.

I agree that these writers should be less concerned with their image and more concerned with the contributions they make to public discourse. Maybe Zakaria doesn’t need his name aligned center on a magazine cover. But I think it’s a circular argument. These writers’ ideas create an image for themselves. People will keep coming back as long as they agree and care. You can’t separate a truly successful person from what they do. The minute people cease to care who you are is the minute your ideas mean absolutely nothing in the public realm. I watch Anderson Cooper because I respect and like Anderson Cooper. Not just because I like the stories on his show. The people and the ideas go hand in hand. But like Mack said, hopefully, the person’s celebrity doesn’t outweigh his ideas. These intellectuals should be famous because of what they do—to take everyday issues and apply their academic expertise. The result? A new perspective we hadn’t considered before.

Public intellectuals still hold weight

Public intellectuals still hold weight

Let’s take Zakaria for example. He is an author, columnist and host on CNN who got his Ph.D. in Political Science at Harvard University. Like many public intellectuals, he has his own web site. I am drawn to his writings because of the unique perspective he brings to convoluted world issues. For instance, I do not understand the intricacies of religion and often get lost in the debates about Arab and Western beliefs. In Mack’s “The Wicked Paradox Redux Again,” Mack argues against the notion that religious zealots get in the way of democratic societies. He says instead that democracy is interconnected with the  religious principles of our founding fathers. Politicians still throw around the phrase “City Upon a Hill”—the aspiration to be a role model of strong ideals and good morals—which the Puritans coined. Some say religion is bad for democracy. Others say religion is good for democracy. Zakaria, however, offers perhaps the most illuminating statement on religion. The excerpt is from what I consider to be his most standout piece: “Why They Hate Us”— an op-ed on Osama bin Laden’s religious war against America:

“Nothing will be solved by searching for “true Islam” or quoting the Quran. The Quran is a vast, vague book, filled with poetry and contradictions (much like the Bible).

You can find in it condemnations of war and incitements to struggle, beautiful expressions of tolerance and stern strictures against unbelievers. Quotations from it usually tell us more about the person who selected the passages than about Islam. Every religion is compatible with the best and the worst of humankind. Through its long history, Christianity has supported inquisitions and anti-Semitism, but also human rights and social welfare.”

It is not religion that crushes civilizations or elevates them to new heights. It is about the leaders’ psychologies and the decisions they make. It is how they interpret religion. They can use it for good, or they can use it for evil. So the argument is no longer about “religion v. no religion.” Rather, how do people apply religion?

As Zakaria points out in his latest article, “On Iran, Do Nothing. Yet.”, the Iranian clerics are the ones who are publicly condemning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and urging people to question the legitimacy of his election.

The clerics’ actions highlight a shift in power in Iran away from the religious establishment and toward the military. Ahmadinejad represents this change, being a layman, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, and a man with close ties to the Revolutionary Guards, the parallel military created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini because he distrusted the shah’s officer corps. While in office, Ahmadinejad has directed state funds away from the religious foundations dominated by clerics and toward the military and the Guards.

Whereas people are quick to point the finger at religion as the root of Islamic extremism, it is not religion or lack of religion driving Ahmadinejad to forge elections and consider nuclear warfare. It is purely Ahmadinejad. His being and psychology.

I’ll keep subscribing to Newsweek if it means keeping the public intellectual spirit alive. And I’ll have plenty to say the next time the gregarious, Florida-bound man in the window seat asks who I’m visiting.



Filed under The Public Square

2 responses to “Public intellectuals have a friend in me at LAX

  1. theurbanbriefcase

    hey, great post. I love how you have narcissism category.

    Your comments about how personality becomes tied into a public intellectual’s ideas is important because there’s more to the writing medium than simply words. People develop relationships with the text they read–and their imagined writers– agreeing and disagreeing on points, even beginning to develop the semblance of trust (and distrust). Perhaps this relationship building is more pronounced due to the interactive nature of a blog and much of today’s web 2.0 technology. And I wonder what the main strategies are for developing ‘personality’ as you mention in the beginning.

    Ultimately, you’re right that many of today’s institutions, such as religion, are simply social constructions. Charismatic leaders, such as Ahmadinejad, can influence swaths of people by mixing up their own visions with, for example, religious texts. Thus, religious leaders, and their elite circles, can gain greater legitimacy through established institutions, for personal gain.


  2. I agree with both you and Dan (from the comment above). I grew up reading Newsweek and still love it, I absolutely relate to your first paragraph. Your post really highlights how the writers, especially Fareed Zakaria, are able to publish their own views and opinions in and educational and interesting manner. And I’m right there with you on keeping my Newsweek subscription.

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