Why the Decline of Christian Public Intellectuals Is Worse than You Thought (Or, Belated Thoughts on Alan Jacobs’ “The Watchmen” and More Timely Thoughts on Daniel Drezner’s Recent Accounts of the Ascendant ‘Thought Leaders’)

In his September 2016 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The Watchmen,” Alan Jacobs explored the reasons for the extinction of Christian public intellectuals, “prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators.”

Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.

On Jacobs’ account, the disappearance of Christian public intellectuals “isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.” While during the 1930s and 1940s, Christian intellectuals occupied a distinguished place in public discourse, they had all but disappeared by the late 20th century. Some Christian intellectuals vanished into a “subaltern counter public,” their own complex of institutions – publishers, periodicals, web sites, universities – distancing themselves from the broader public. Other public intellectuals distanced themselves from ordinary Christian believers, reassuring their broader audience of their loyalties to a secular, liberal public. In other words, some Christian intellectuals were no longer so public and some public intellectuals were no longer so publicly Christian. In both cases, they began preaching to their respective choirs and, in so doing, abdicated the vocation of the public intellectual, which, according to Jacobs, is something like translator or interpreter or reconciler. The public intellectual is someone whose work crisscrosses the landscape of public life, who occasionally proves the artifice of the boundaries that mark our public discourse, and who afflicts the comfortable in equal opportunity fashion. To retreat into more siloed life – even if that life includes lots of books and magazine articles and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers – is to abandon the calling of the public intellectual.

If we accept Jacobs’ definition of “public intellectual” and his account of the decline of Christian public intellectuals, then the prospects for the reemergence of the Christian public intellectual seem quite dim, but at least in this model there is a measure of agency – they very fact that they chose to disappear suggests they might choose to reappear.

It may be, though, that the entire complex of conditions necessary to sustain the platform and impact of public intellectuals, Christian or not, has deteriorated. For example, as evidence for their impact, Jacobs points to the Time Magazine covers of C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine a Christian of their stature achieving the same level of publicity, but it is also hard to imagine an intellectual of their stature achieving the same level of publicity.

Worse, the social media echo chamber of the early 21st century seems likely to aggravate the dysfunctions highlighted by Jacobs, fragmenting communities into something like “sub subaltern counter networks.” While this tendency isn’t unique to Christians, and while social dysfunction in the church preceded by millennia the rise of social media, the infighting (“One says, ‘I follow @Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow @Apollos’”) and navel-gazing are especially unbecoming of a group that should be both unified and for the common good or, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, “for the life of the world.”

Indeed, the disintegration of the information ecosystem and the erosion of a sense of the common good may also diminish the prospects for public intellectuals. In a recent essay in the Chronicle Review, political scientist Daniel Drezner describes the decline of the public intellectual and the rise of the thought leader in its place. (The essay is best read alongside Drezner’s recent Washington Post piece describing the related decline of think tanks and the rise of for-profit, corporate, branded “thought-leadership” by consulting firms and others.) Drezner suggests that public intellectuals level criticism against received wisdom and novel ideas, while thought leaders drive an agenda centered around one big idea:

Both Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different. To adopt the language of Isaiah Berlin, Public Intellectuals are foxes who know many things, while Thought Leaders are hedgehogs who know one big thing. The former are skeptics, the latter are true believers. A Public Intellectual will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas. A Thought Leader will tell you everything that is right about his or her own idea.

Somewhat like fake news, thought leadership – now described by some as ‘vying for mindshares’ – is better poised to take advantage of fragmented publics and echo chamber networks already organized, to some extent, around narrower agendas. The more narrowly and more alike a group thinks, the more easily a thought leader’s one big idea may gain traction or go viral. When so many believe that media should be a platform to promote agendas, and when the criterion for accepting information is whether or not it gives you an advantage over your enemy or your neighbor, the conditions for the public intellectual’s bridging task have become more difficult, just as the job has become more important.

But there may be more to Drezner’s insight that the declining class of public intellectuals “will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas,” while the ascendant thought leaders will tell you everything that this right about their one big idea. Drezner’s insight suggests that public intellectuals may have a sort of tragic sensibility – they may be sensitive to the limitations of even the best things, in touch with the tensions, tradeoffs, and instabilities between and among goods. Jacobs, too, acknowledges this characteristic of public intellectuals. Quoting Karl Mannheim, he writes,

any individual intellectual ‘takes a part in the mass of mutually conflicting tendencies.’ The phrasing is inelegant, but the point clear: the social value of the intellectual derives from his or her acknowledgment of multiple, not always harmonious, allegiances, and potentially competing values.

The typical public intellectual, then, will understand that there are many bad ways to organize public life and a plurality of potentially legitimate ones, as well. They’ll often repudiate the former while offering only modest and limited endorsements of the latter. The more we want that one big idea – the one that can explain it all or deliver us all – the more this tragic sensibility of many public intellectuals, Christian or not, becomes passé.

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