Last week I painted myself into a corner, so to speak. I announced a blog topic – “Whither the American Public Intellectual” – before I’d written word one. I sat down later that day and part of the next and turned out roughly 2,000 words that didn’t have much to do with what I was trying to say. Tonight it hit me.
It’s not the Public Intellectual I miss. It’s the Public Iconoclast. There must still be people like Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal or Allen Ginsberg who are willing to go on a show like Dick Cavett had on PBS and rage and bluster and mock the status quo, as well as each other on occasion. (Man, am I dating myself here or what?)
However, there’s no outlet for iconoclastic rambling and carrying on. Political correctness forbids it. Can you imagine an essay like Mailer’s The White Negro being published today, and seriously discussed? I can’t. Race discussions today are limited to TV’s talking heads politely asking the opinions of African American experts and elected officials. I’m not saying there’s not a place for these discussions. Obviously, there is. What bugs me is that there's not a place for anything else.
Much of the problem lies in the neo-liberal derivation of political correctness: personal correctness, as in “I’m politically correct, therefore my personal choices must be the correct ones.” This is the kind of thinking that leads to so-called feminists embracing Hillary Clinton rather than calling for women to be in positions of power on the basis of their accomplishments. Before she was a Senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a professional political wife – “Bill and I have a great marriage” as a response to Gennifer Flowers – and a hack lawyer working the angles in Little Rock, based on her access to the then governor.
Likewise, this neoliberal construct means continued cheering for President Obama as he betrays everything he promised as a candidate, on behalf of Wall Street bankers and corporate board rooms. Meanwhile, other than The Nation magazine (sometimes), the pseudo-Left in this country has become a bunch of Washington lobbyists sending out endless begging emails.
In European countries, while most television can be as mindless and nattering as what we have here, there is still room for shows on which writers regularly appear not only to hawk their books but also to speak their version of truth to power (and bash each other while they’re at it).
Everything in America is not nicey-nice. Being polite is not the end all and be all. It is good to outrage people, and to have public figures that are genuinely outrageous and capable of provoking thought across a wide audience and political spectrum. To do so, though, requires a forum that is accessible and allows for fully developed ideas to be expressed.
Fear of the wide dissemination of complex and unorthodox ideas, as well as the fear of offending someone, may both be as big a threat to liberty in this country as is the Patriot Act.