What does it mean to be a "public intellectual" in 21st century America? To answer this question properly, you have to answer two smaller questions: what does it mean to be public? And what does mean to be an intellectual? The answer to the first is simple. If you have a computer and an understanding of passwords, you can establish both a Twitter and a Facebook account in a matter of minutes. Voila! You’re public. Any thoughts you might have will be shared with anyone who cares to seek them out. The second question is more thorny. Education has changed. The country has changed. America remains only a smidgen above third world nations in its educational quality, and has occupied that spot for many years. So the answer to the question becomes: being an “intellectual” means being smart enough to make people listen to you, and believe you. (No mean feat.) So what of the whole label? Can a blogger be seen as a public intellectual? Are the pundits we read at Salon, Slate, and the Huffington Post the seers we look to for stimulation of thought and dialogue? Or, to take it farther, when a Tweeter with nearly a million followers writes a glib 140-character statement that provokes dialogue, can we consider this an act of public intellectualism? Are the fomenters in comment boxes on Facebook, blogs, news sites, to be seen as public intellectuals, themselves, for the command of a virtual and potential audience? Think about these questions too hard, and you might just throw up in your mouth. Seeing Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia might shed some light on the matter, or at least suggest what the strange term "public intellectual" used to mean.
There was very little that Vidal, who died in 2012, didn’t do, and the documentary shows us his working life in loving detail. He was a novelist, throughout his life; his frankly homoerotic 1954 novel The City and the Pillar gave him great notoriety on its publication, and in fact it guaranteed that the New York Times would not review his books for many years afterwards. Finding that he needed to make a living, he turned to plays and teleplays, one of the most successful of these being the stage play The Best Man, a sharp social drama that saw a revival in 2000 and 2012. Much later in life, he would write the—again—scandalous Myra Breckinridge, about a transsexual, for which he also wrote a screenplay, which was made into what some think was one of the worst films ever made. He also ran for public office twice: for the House of Representatives in 1960, and for the Senate in 1982. His chief function in American life, though, and that for which he is perhaps most widely remembered, was as an essayist (for the Partisan Review, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere), a brilliant commentator, an eminently witty pundit—a public intellectual of the grandest type. Despite the fact that he himself came from a very wealthy background, he was unabashedly liberal. The most hair-raising moments in a documentary jammed with Vidal’s controversial but wise statements come first from footage of a famous series of televised debates he had with William F. Buckley in 1968. As police clashed violently with protesters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Vidal and Buckley talked quite heatedly about, put simply, ideas. Asked to comment on the riots, Buckley expressed the hardline view that they were anarchistic, to which Vidal responded that Buckley was a “proto-Nazi,” to which Buckley responded that Vidal was a “queer” who should take himself away from his “pornography”—and the conversation went on from there, verging on violence. This wouldn’t be the only such rodeo for Vidal: in a similarly famous debate with the notoriously pugnacious and masculinist but highly articulate Norman Mailer, the two men nearly came to violence. The topic? Feminism. Vidal was in favor, Mailer a skeptic, natch. There are nits to pick, here, as virtuous and intelligent as Vidal might seem. When Vidal and Buckley debate, they often seem here to be competing to see who can do the best moneyed drawl, the best James Mason imitation, or both. It might also be argued that, from a position of wealth and privilege, Vidal was not in a position to change anyone’s mind about anything—as he knew not whereof he spoke, at least as far as his views on the life of the poor were concerned. (Rarely in the present-day sections of the film do we see Vidal outside of his mansion overlooking the sea, in Italy.) Nevertheless, what he and his quasi-contemporaries (Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and yes, William F. Buckley, and yes, Norman Mailer) stood for was the value of the written word, of clarity, of beauty and succinctness of expression. Along with, of course, superior education and background. These intellectuals were celebrities because of the way they spoke, not because of financial status or their ability to dodge flying cars. (Or, for that matter, because of their legs.) It would be hard, in other words, to imagine Jimmy Fallon, comically gifted as he might be, sitting down with Vidal and Buckley and hosting a chat of the sort they had in the 1960s; talk shows, at present, cater to celebrities of an entirely different caste. Christopher Hitchens, of recent thinkers, might come closest to this older standard, in terms of his public presence and his acceptability beside celebrities of other types; indeed, he flickers in and out of the documentary, once named by Vidal as his unofficial “heir” or “dauphin” and then rejected when he wrote essays in favor of the Iraq War.
And so, where have we landed? All we can say with any certainty is that, in some senses, it is easier to command public attention with words than it used to be. The rise of blogs, personal websites, and other such publications as sources of commentary and outlets for expression has elevated the importance of the first-person perspective and given a broader swath of individuals a mass audience, through the Internet, that they wouldn’t necessarily have had before. Who’s to say that’s a bad thing? However, perhaps the general level of our commentary has decreased, with time. Can we say that Patton Oswalt, who live-Tweets Downton Abbey, or famously race-baited Fox News through a series of cleverly worded Tweets, or Louis C.K., whose invective against smartphones spawned a wide range of commentary, or whose recent Tweets against the Common Core aroused attention from many different quarters, represent the 21st century’s version of a public intellectual? I’m not complaining, if so, because I love both comics dearly. But then, on the other hand…
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.