The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

That whole public intellectual thing

July 18, 2005

This afternoon I was interviewed by ARD German television for a news spot of some kind. Like most news organizations and savvy observers, they expect the CDU to win the German elections in the fall, which will make Angela Merkel the new German chancellor. The folks from ARD wanted to know whether I thought that Merkel’s election would change things in US-German relations; I told them no, because the issues that have cropped up in US-German relations have more to do with a general reconfiguration of transatlantic relations in the past couple of decades than they have to do with any particular individual. The shift in US foreign policy/grand strategy from collective solidarity to “coalitions of the willing” and from multilateral negotiations to unilateral assertions is not just a function of the Bush Administration, or of Bush not getting along on a personal level with Gerhard Schroeder. It has to do with a more fundamental reorientation of how the United States exists in the world, the implications that this reorientation has for Europe’s role in official US thinking. No one person is going to either hinder or single-handedly advance this shift.

But I don’t want to talk about that substantive argument here. Instead, what is on my mind after the interview is a more searching question:

What is the point of doing interviews like this?

Obviously, the point can’t be the same as the point of doing serious and systematic scholarship. There isn’t the time to produce an analysis of the proper nuance; the audience constraints are different; and the format isn’t conducive of really laying out a complex analysis or engaging in debate about the particulars. But that’s what we academics do, as a rule; it’s our job to produce theoretically sophisticated analyses of things by consistently applying analytical frameworks. It’s Weberian science: the systematic application of theoretical apparatuses to data to generate “facts.” But that’s not what can be done during a television interview — nuance and qualification is pretty much swept away in favor of blunter assertions.

So what are we academics doing when we give television interviews? My fear is that we’re perhaps unintentionally trafficking on a myth, the myth of Answers: the idea that we academic analysts have absolutely secure bases on which to advance interpretations and make predictions. Speaking for myself, I know that I certainly do not have any such Answers; if I am asked (as I was today) what effect the election of Angela Merkel will have on US-German relations, all I can do is to offer a more or less well-grounded perspective on the issue. And by definition, that perspective is contestable — something of which academics are well aware. I’m not sure how much of that awareness of contestability makes its way out into the general viewing public.

Should this bother us? I think it should, for one major reason: if people start thinking that we academic analysts have Answers, then we are placed into the position of having to make political pronouncements to the potential detriment of our scholarly integrity. Also, we could simply be wrong, but if people forget that, they might end up simply implementing policies based on a consensus and ignoring potential problems with that consensus as a whole. [Actually, in the current political climate, consensus among academics doesn’t seem to do much of anything to governmental policies, but I’m not convinced that the answer to this problem is to become more willing to make policy pronouncements — since doing so would exacerbate the problem by further propounding the myth of Answers.]

So I feel a bit caught between Scylla and Charibdis here: act like a talking head and contribute bits of “erudition” to the popular media when they come calling, or retreat completely into the world of abstruse scholarship. Neither solution seems completely correct or comfortable.

People toss around terms like “public intellectual” sometimes when I pose this problem to them, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what that actually means. Public debates aren’t ever as subtle and as rigorous as academic debates, and in order to participate in such discussions one necessarily has to alter one’s style of presentation and play by a different set of rules. Trying to elevate the level of public discussion strikes me as a losing proposition, given the various demands on people’s attention with which one has to compete, and the differences in vocabulary and conceptual tools that exist between the sphere of academia and the public square. And since I’m not convinced that an intellectual discussion is actually going to lead to Answers anyway, I’m not entirely certain what the purpose of trying to raise the level of public debate would be anyway — to give partisans better weapons to fight with?

I don’t know what a public intellectual is, and I don’t know what it would mean to be one in the present media and political environment. Are bloggers public intellectuals? Are this blog and others like it the proper function for academics trying to debate issues, or is this just a form of “infotainment” like the episode of the History Channel show Deep Sea Detectives that I was interviewed for a couple of month back — fun, a little informative, but not the sort of thing that anyone would or should mistake for the actual practice of historical scholarship? [In my more pessimistic moods I wonder whether the general public does in fact conflate The History Channel and the actual practice of historical scholarship.]

I’m not sure, but I thought I’d throw the issue out there for discussion.

[cross-posted at ProfPTJ’s Course Diaries]

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.