Friday, February 22, 2008

The Public Intellectual

In Stephen Mack’s blog entitled “The Wicked Paradox: The Cleric as Public Intellectual” he sets forth the idea that those with religious training were the original public intellectuals. Classifying a public intellectual by means of the example of a religious leader, while it makes sense, still is problematic for me because I am unsure what it is about a religious leader that makes them qualified to occasionally fall into the category of public intellectual. For me the larger problem is that I do not know what a public intellectual is. “Public” is an adjective that has quite a few definitions. One is being exposed to general view. Another is of or relating to people in general. Another is accessible to or shared by all members of the community. “Intellectual” means developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience, rational. It also means given to study, reflection, and speculation. Individually I understand what each of these words means; the second I use them together as the phrase “public intellectual” the dictionary definitions are meaningless and I become confused. I have a suspicion that public intellectuals are practically of no importance to our society today but before understanding what a public intellectual does or where their place is in society it is first critical to investigate what a public intellectual is.

When a person is private or keeps their ideas private they do not share themselves or their thoughts with others. When a person is public there are many levels that a person can be “public” on. First there is the level of discussing ideas and thoughts with at least one other person. This action would make ideas no longer private, hence, public. Sharing your thoughts with another human being is clearly not enough to make someone public when used as a part of the phrase “public intellectual”.

Next a person can share ideas and thoughts with group of peers who have similar credentials and thoughts. A handful of people will then have been exposed to one persons ideas and those ideas can even be discussed among this group but one persons peers or social networks does still not reach far enough to be considered public. Even if a person publishes a book or article about their ideas, but that book only has a very small circulation among the authors peers, it still is not enough to be considered.

I don’t think that there is a magical number of people that have to be reached or a requirement such as being available at Borders to make one person a public figure. There is some sort of measure though. Oprah is clearly public, so are the president of the United States, the members of the Rolling Stones and the Dali Lama. If you mentioned their names around the country more than a small fraction of the population would know who that person is at the very least.

A person can not be considered public if they are not known on a larger scale than their hometown or high school. They not only need to be well known but they need to be easily accessible to the general population for the purposes of the definition for the “public intellectual”. If these two requirements are not met than for me, a person is clearly not public.

Next is an understanding of the work intellectual. How does a person receive the distinction of being known as an intellectual and who makes those decisions. If formal education was the only indicator of an intellectual than it would be easy to determine who was intellectual. If a person completed a course of study with the necessary grades in their courses to achieve a certain degree and the institution deemed that they had satisfactorily completes their studies they would be considered intellectual. This raises two more problematic issues though. First, is there a certain level of education needed to be considered an intellectual? Is a bachelor’s degree sufficient or is something more required such as a masters of doctorate. The next question that comes into question is the credibility of the institution itself. A person is less likely to be considered an intellectual with a degree from a poorly ranked or incredible institution but degrees from Harvard and Yale may not be necessary either. There is clearly middle ground but the middle ground is often gray and fuzzy and more difficult to determine one way or the other.

If education is clearly not the precise indicator of intellectualism position and training may be more indicative. Intellectualism is required to hold a respected position and to be admired by peers in similar positions. Even a sparkling resume though has its issues. In class we discussed Ann Coulter and her classification by some as a public intellectual based on her credentials as a lawyer and member of a federal judges staff. She is respected by some, but is despised by others because of her clear and unbending bias toward the right end of the ideological spectrum.

If her lack of ability to see past ideology makes her classification as an intellectual problematic then clearly objectiveness is a requirement to be an intellectual. For me then an intellectual is a person who has had some form of legitimate training, whether from an academic institution or from another sort of legitimate training who also possesses the ability to use a factual based objective method to come to their conclusions.

Joining the two definitions to understand the phrase public intellectual still has its own set of issues. Simply joined, my definition of a public intellectual is a person who is widely known and accessible who has been well trained and can think objectively. The next question is what does a public intellectual think objectively about and why should it matter? A public intellectual clearly needs to consider things that are of importance to the general population. The question then becomes what does it mean to be relevant. There are many people in the general population who are unaware of some of the most relevant things facing the world and our country right now. During the Tonight Show with Jay Leno there is a segment where Mr. Leno takes to the streets to ask people walking by on the street question regarding popular news stories. These people often are unaware of the most critical issues such as who are the front-runners in the Democratic Primary.

This example shows that the “people” are largely incapable of deciding what is relevant to them so the burden of deciding what is relevant then falls onto the intellectuals. Theoretically, the intellectuals should not be deciding what to inform the public about but as much as I disagree with them making the decisions, I would hate to see what would happen if the answer was left in the hands of the “people”.

Public Intellectuals are clearly many things to many people and fill many functions. Theoretically they offer wonderful services to the world that are of great importance but currently are a part of a catch 22. Using the world as an example is too large and complicated so for my purposes I will use the example of the United States. As shown above we live in a country where, despite of the nauseating level of media attention and tiring length of the campaigns, there are a significant number of people who cannot even tell you one candidate. We also live in a country where some do know even the most basic details of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.
The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”
“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied. NYTIMES

There are also those who do not even know the first three words to the preamble of the Constitution. It is not an obscure document, it is the piece of paper that our country was founded on and that still governs our country. If these are the types of citizens that live in the United States, who do not even care to learn some of the most basic and important facts about our country why would they be interested in taking the time to read a essay by a brilliant member of academia with information they have no interest in and maybe have never heard of.

For public intellectuals and intelligent people everywhere it is truly a catch 22. The people in this country who are not interested in anything of significance are the ones who need to be informed by public intellectuals the most, but they are also the least likely to be interested in reading the work of public intellectuals. In actuality public intellectuals have become obsolete.

When looking at the need for public intellectuals on the scale of the entire world it becomes even more apparent. There are a large number of underdeveloped and war torn countries and it is obvious that any person who does not even know if they will be alive tomorrow will find no use for important academic material.

It is sad to admit that the general population will for the most part ignore intelligent and well-learned members of our society. They have devoted there live to attaining knowledge and probably want to help the country and world move in the right direction, but it may never even help. I can only hope that those who make decisions, such as world leaders, will pay attention to the work of public intellectuals for everyone’s sake.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Goodbye Mitt...

The Washington Post is reporting that Mitt Romney is ending his quest for the Republican nomination.

This means that John McCain is now the unofficial Republican nominee and he will be able to sail smoothly through the remaining primaries and caucuses while stockpiling money and not having the burden of ducking attacks from Romney. McCain will be able to save all of his energy for the general election battle against either Clinton or Obama.

With Romney dropping out the dynamics of the upcoming general election are dramatically changed. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going to continue to fight to the bitter end, wasting valuable money and good reputations. John McCain on the other hand will not have to deal with a serious opponent.

The Democrats need to take a cue from the Republicans on the art of bowing out of a race to ensure that maximum resources can be utilized for the general. It is not something that Democrats have ever been good at and is not something that either Clinton or Obama will be persuaded to do easily.

Things may be looking up for the GOP.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Vying for Votes

The coupling of technology and political campaigns in the United States has produced large machines that have enabled politicians and their staff to ensure that every voter is hearing what they want. Micro targeting, accurate polling and numerous message outlets allow campaigns to survey the electorate, or segments of the electorate, and utilize feedback to shape messages, appearance schedules and advertisement timing. These strategies allow campaigns to give voters what will appeal to them. Part of shaping the message is reference to the presidency, both past and present. In modern politics, relationships with a presidency are of a utilitarian nature with a constant focus on the upcoming election. Candidates employ a populist strategy where cues from the electorate, or segments of the electorate, are used to inform each candidate’s decision to either distance themselves from or attach themselves to a presidency, or both.
Accurate and ongoing polling techniques have allowed both campaigns and elected officials to have an up to date understanding of the thoughts and opinions of the populace. Presidential favorability polls are taken by numerous sources and give anyone interested in politics the ability to understand what certain demographics, regions of the country and constituencies are thinking all of the time. This technology has made it easy for those running for office and those already in office to change their message based on the poll findings. Without the technology of constant polling it would be difficult to manipulate messages for different segments of society.
Although President George W. Bush is will not be running for the presidency again he has made a habit of making references to President Harry S. Truman in response to his low favorability ratings. According to The Pew Research for People and the Press only 31% of Americans approve of President Bush
In November of 1951 Harry Truman had an approval rating of 23% and since President Bush’s approval ratings have plummeted he has drawn parallels between himself and President Truman. President Bush has been trying to prove the point that history will vindicate him and prove that his decisions in office were indeed good ones, in the same way time proved that President Truman’s decisions during the cold war were sound.
President Bush is consciously pointing out the similarities between himself and President Truman to attempt to sway Americans opinions about him and his actions. It is not a coincidence that President Truman was, like President Bush, Commander in Chief during wartime and became unpopular because of the decisions he was making. If the United States never invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and President Bush’s approval ratings had not continued to freefall, he would have no need to draw these comparisons. The historical example of President Truman is an attempt to draw the favor of America and serves no other purpose than that.
In the past few weeks Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama. He has run advertisements featuring Caroline Kennedy where she draws parallels between her father and Senator Obama. Senator Obama’s campaign has been largely centered about the need for change in the United States, a message that has proven to be popular with Americans. The endorsement by Caroline Kennedy and the advertisement are critical to continuing the message of change and drawing parallels to President Kennedy who also represented the ideas of change and renewed faith in America.
Like in every campaign, Senator Obama’s team does extensive research to understand how the populace responds to messaging strategies. The success of the “Change” message is doing well because it is coming form a man who seems to represent something different, just as Kennedy did in 1961. Because of the need to please constituents and to reinforce the message, the Presidency of John F. Kennedy is the perfect example to draw on to prove to voters that Senator Obama does represent something new.
President Clinton’s eight years in office ended with a scandal that did not affect his approval ratings by much or tarnish his accomplishments. The scandal did make it hard to believe, for many, that he was a man of genuine family values. This effect had repercussions for his Vice President and Presidential candidate Al Gore, who was a man with real family values. Al Gore wanted to prove to America that he was not the same as President Clinton, so he chose to distance himself from him to accomplish this. In doing this he not only chose to distance himself on the issue of values, but also from the high approval ratings of the Clinton Presidency and the numerous accomplishments the administration had made.
According to Martin P. Wattenberg, “it was Gore’s hope that people would not factor their feeling’s about Clinton’s honesty and morality into their behavior at the polls.” What made relying on hope alone difficult was George W. Bush’s platform of “Restoring Dignity and Honor to the White House”. The Bush campaign’s depiction of George W. Bush as a moral, born again Christian who was aiming at bringing morality back to the White House inevitably made Gore’s campaign more than hope that voters would differentiate Gore from Clinton. Eventually Al Gore did begin to actively push himself away from the Clinton White House, a decision that may have cost him the election.
Ronald Reagan began the modern Conservative Revolution and has since been the Conservative idol of many members of the Republican Party. Because of his status among republicans, President Reagan has been the subject of a vast number of comparisons. Anytime a candidate or elected official wants to prove their conservative credentials they summon the spirit of Ronald Reagan to show how conservative they are.
John McCain utilized this tactic in an advertisement where he tells the story of being a prisoner of war in Vietnam and tapping messages through the wall to fellow prisoners about Ronald Reagan, who was serving as Governor of California at the time. There was also a debate held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in May of 2007. The library’s director said in an interview before the debate that, “All of he candidates are trying to align themselves with Ronald Reagan. We thought, what a great place for them to have a debate”. As long as Ronald Reagan continues to be the conservative standard, idolized by Republicans all around the country, candidates will claim similarities with the former President in an attempt to showcase the conservative values of the candidate or elected official.
For years John McCain was the independent maverick of the Republican Party and frequently came into conflict with the many members of the party and President Bush. He wanted to show voters his independent colors through his opposition to many policies favored by most Republicans. He initially voted against President Bush’s tax cuts and denounced Jerry Farwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance”. These two men were the leaders of the religious right in the United States and were fundamental in mobilizing the evangelical population in support of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. At the time when John McCain was demonstrating his independent tendencies, it was a persona that worked for him. He had the support of moderate republicans and democrats and many independents and continued to find opportunities to illustrate his differences.
Leading up to the 2008 primary this strategy of playing maverick was not helping John McCain gain support among the Republican base, support he would need if he ever wanted to be president. He wanted the support of the Religious Right so much that he made amends with Jerry Farwell, a man who he had previously denounced. He abandoned his former maverick self and as a result lost the support of many moderate and independent people but continued to be scrutinized by religious conservatives, despite having reconciled with one of their leaders. It appeared that either he was lying when he was positioning himself as an independent, or he was insincere in no longer finding fault with the religious right.
During the summer of 2007 John McCain’s flip-flopping began to erode the strength of his campaign. The campaign was low on funding and staff began to flee. The efforts to align himself along the lines of the Bush Presidency were not working well for him. Despite numerous attempts to manipulate his message to show himself as a conservative many people could not and cannot forget all of his previous attempts to push himself away from far right republican ideology. Ann Coulter even vowed to campaign for Hillary Clinton if John McCain receives the Republican Nomination. It appears that John McCain has done a fantastic job of not embracing the Bush ideology and that cannot be erased from the minds of voters.
As a member of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton is usually disagreeing with President Bush, but even politicians who usually have no need to align themselves with the President recognize an opportunity when it comes along. The opportunity involved showing how strong she was in the war on terror. Senator Clinton needed to take advantage of the situation so she could run for President and be perceived to have the same strength and military ability as men running for president.
Senator Clinton voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment that classified the Iranian National Guard as a terrorist organization. It is still difficult for many to understand why she would vote for this amendment that relied heavily on shaky intelligence. In the context of the 2008 Presidential Election it is clear that it was necessary for Senator Clinton to temporarily align herself with President Bush’s war mongering policies to avoid the assumption that women are too weak to lead the country.
At President Bush’s last State of the Union address, members took advantage of the perfect photo opportunity with the President that would be shown on news networks and in papers all over the country the next day. The members who arrive early to ensure that they have an aisle seat all have different motivations but all are aware that the picture of the President shaking the hands of the select few in the center of the room will be widely published for their constituents to see. Congressman Chris Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, kissed President Bush on the cheek as they were ending their conversation. This kiss was widely discussed and video of the scene was all over the Internet. His demonstration of closeness to the President will be reassurance for his constituents that he is working for them in Washington, but it will also give ammunition to his opponent, who has been attempting to tie him to President Bush at every turn, demonstrating that while there may be benefits to a person showing closeness to the president, others can interpret that closeness as a reason not to support
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat from Texas, was also sitting in the center aisle for the opportunistic photo/, despite not being the Presidents biggest fan. Even for members of Congress who have voiced opposition to the Bush White House, all members need to show to their constituents is that they are actually doing their jobs in Washington, DC. A well-documented prime seat at the State of the Union is the perfect way to get this message across.
Republican politicians running in historically blue states and states where President Bush’s favorability is exceptionally low are going to have to differentiate themselves from the President. Senator Susan Collins, the junior Senator for Maine is the perfect example. She has a very moderate, bi-partisan record and even joined the gang of fourteen in 2005 to stop the nomination of conservative judges by President Bush. Despite the factual evidence of her moderate record, her opponent for her seat in 2008, Congressman Tom Allen has not stopped drawing comparisons between Senator Collins and the President based on the shared “R” that appears after their names. Senator Collins will have to continuously show her constituents that she is a different kind of Republican and will need to campaign heavily on her record to halt any similarities between her and the White House.
Campaigns in the United States tend to be electorate and constituent driven. Most choices are framed with knowledge of the electorate’s likes and dislikes. With so much focus on the choices of the populace during election season, the striking difference when a person is elected into office is noticeable. Candidates consider their constituents opinions if the constituents take the time and write their representatives, but once the campaign is over constant polling comes to an end and voter attitudes are no longer continuously evaluated. Lame duck politicians seem to only push their agendas with complete disregard to keeping their constituents appeased. When in office, populism takes on a negative connotation and politicians shun drawing from the wisdom of the people to inform their decisions.

The Polling Report. Web site. 2008. Available from Internet. Accessed 25 January 2008.

Benedetto, Richard. “History of Approval Ratings on Bush’s Side for Re-Election.” USA Today. 25 December 2003. Article Online. Available from Internet. Accessed 25 January 2008

Bumiller, Elisabeth. “At West Point, Bush Draws Parallels with Truman.” The New York Times. 28 May 2006. Article Online. Available from Internet. Accessed January 25 2008.

Obama ’08. Web site. Available from Internet. Accessed January 25 2008.

Wattenberg, Martin P. “The Impact of Retiring Presidents on their Parties’ Chances of Retaining the White House.” Presidential Studies Quarterly March 2003: 164-171.

Schneider, Bill. “Politicians Gather to Debate in Reagan’s Shadow.” CNN. 3 May 2007. Article Online. Available from Internet. Accessed January 25 2008.


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