The Public Intellectual Plunge

A vicious review from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education:

Having written a number of competent academic books in his area of expertise – English political philosophy – he took the true public-intellectual plunge with Straw Dogs … unleashing a farrago of broadsides about utopianism, religion, free will, and more.  The rest is a case study of how a tenured intellectual, lured by the footlights, can toss away all academic rigor as he spouts off on radio, contributes one-sided tirades to newspapers, and becomes a pointy-headed hack for hire.

Today, at 60, Gray writes as an antipragmatist and nihilist critical of all sorts of politics to make a better world – in short, a crank. He touts a slightly green, Gaia-conscious passivism and favors an Eastern form of contemplation shorn of mysticism. Politically – that is, the kind of politics in which moving one’s mouth counts as activism – he’s a dyed-in-the-wool hater of Bush and the allegedly "utopian" project of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Gray makes Michael Moore sound like a polite assistant professor. … 

Most of the time, Gray simply ignores counterevidence. But it’s the quantity of nonsense, not just its quality, that makes Gray’s work distinctive. Ponder these persuasive declarations … They say he’s about to retire. Until then, some advice to LSE students: If you’re waiting with Professor Gray to cross Portsmouth Street and he announces that the light has turned green, get a second opinion.

Academics often have similar critiques of public intellectuals, who defend themselves as simplifying in order to communicate to a wider audience and become relevant to current policy debates.   Which side on average is right?   

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