Book Review

Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline , by Richard A. Posner. Harvard University Press, 408 pages, $29.95.

The goofy centerpiece of this book is a

series of 10 tables ranking and sorting the top 500 or so public intellectuals by mentions in the media, on the Web and in scholarly work. Richard A. Posner, a distinguished federal appellate judge and the subject of an expert takedown in The New Yorker recently, uses the tables to add a little science–complete with regression analyses and comically complicated algebraic formulas–to his attack on extracurricular academic opining. He has little to say about how he decided which names belonged in these tables, though he concedes that he made some rough-and-ready cuts: Newt Gingrich, George Soros and Maureen Dowd are left out; William Kristol, Gloria Steinem and Pauline Kael are included. So much for science.

Mr. Posner’s tables aren’t very different from “The Observer 500,” this newspaper’s survey of celebrities mentioned in the gossip columns–which is to say they’re delicious. Who can resist the numerical ranking of famous human beings?

The top public intellectual by media mentions in the last five years turns out to be Henry Kissinger, followed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Sidney Blumenthal comes in seventh, which of course undermines the entire enterprise. While Mr. Blumenthal has published serious books, his recent “media mentions” relate to the Clinton scandals and his failed libel suit against Matt Drudge. Judge Posner himself shows up at No. 70, behind Timothy Leary (28) and Ezra Pound (60), but ahead of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (72), Ann Coulter (74) and Albert Camus (76).

The tables categorize people in various ways, including by sex, politics and government service. They are also divided into the categories of Jewish and not, though I couldn’t figure out how the judge was able to decide. He draws some conclusions from the data: for instance, “the heavy overrepresentation of Jews among prominent public intellectuals”–at 43 percent–”is no doubt related to their overrepresentation in the media and in academia, and perhaps specifically to the fact that Jews’ verbal IQ is especially high relative to that of other groups” (his emphasis). The statistics also show that “as between a relatively more prominent white male or Jewish public intellectual and a relatively less prominent black or female or non-Jewish public intellectual, the media tend to choose the latter.”

The balance of Public Intellectuals is a more traditional polemic. It grew out of Judge Posner’s disenchantment with the quality of academic commentary on the recent impeachment and election debacles.

On Nov. 10, 2000, for instance, three days after the Presidential election, a group called the Emergency Committee of Concerned Citizens 2000 published a full-page advertisement in The New York Times . Among the signatories were quite a few big-name legal scholars, historians and philosophers, including Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, Cass Sunstein, Michael Walzer and Sean Wilentz. They argued that “there is good reason to believe that Vice President Gore has been elected President by a clear constitutional majority of the popular vote,” and they suggested that new elections should be held in Palm Beach County, home of the butterfly ballot.

The quality of the evidence and reasoning in that ad and similar public statements drives Judge Posner nuts. In Breaking the Deadlock , his book on the 2000 election, he noted that the phrase “constitutional majority of the popular vote”–given that the popular vote in a Presidential election has no constitutional significance whatever–is “gibberish.” And, he continued, the suggested revote, which was almost immediately abandoned by most of its proponents, would have been unlawful, impractical and unfair. Judge Posner blamed some of the poor quality of the debate on “the politicization of academic constitutional law,” but that, he wrote, is “a topic for another day.”

Now that day has come. In Public Intellectuals , Judge Posner returns to the Nov. 10 ad and notes that “the academic signatories, none of whom is an expert in election law,” could not have “formulated a responsible academic opinion in the few hours that elapsed between the emergence of the ‘crisis’ and the composition of the advertisement.”

Doubtless true. What’s amusing about the judge’s statement is that he, for one, apparently is able, in the book-publishing equivalent of hours, to toss off the definitive account of this or that knotty politico-legal crisis, even as he cranks out longer books surveying entire disciplines. Depending on how you’re counting, Public Intellectuals is Judge Posner’s sixth book in the last year. He also churns out an alarming number of law-review articles, along with essays and criticism for more popular publications. He was in the December Atlantic Monthly , for instance, on reconciling civil liberty and security in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

He writes faster than you can read. And he’s a public intellectual in the specialized sense he describes and decries in this book: a “critical commentator addressing a nonspecialist audience on matters of broad public concern.” In other words, as he himself admits, in this book he’s something of an intellectual suicide bomber: “I am aware that the arrows I shoot may curve in flight and hit the archer.”

Judge Posner’s main argument is that “public intellectuals are often careless with facts and rash in prediction.” They lack, moreover, “insight or distinction, the filling of some gap in intellectual space.” Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile made essentially the same charge against him. Judge Posner, she wrote, is “more attracted to rhetoric than to proof” and is not “very interested in the sort of prudent rigor that produces watertight logic.” This is part overstatement and part half-truth: Judge Posner’s writing is indeed limpid and muscular, but it’s grounded (the celebrity-intellectuals tables notwithstanding) in substantial evidence carefully marshaled into showy and sometimes pedantic footnotes. His conclusions follow from his fully disclosed, if controversial, analytical methodology.

And consider the competition, which is no longer Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. or George Orwell or Edmund Wilson, but rather, typically, a tenured academic writing outside of his field and depth. Judge Posner attributes almost all of the decline of public intellectual life to the modern university: the specialization it requires, its generally leftist politics, the absence of literary distinction in its conventional discourse, its lack of worldliness, its embrace of the extreme or novel position. He is critical, too, of the journals that quote and publish these academics, both for assuming that credentialed knowledge in one area translates into general expertise and for welcoming the controversialist over the sensible moderate.

There is in fact no pressing societal need for the pronouncements of specialized experts on matters of general importance. As Judge Posner notes, “journalists, some with law degrees, presented generally lucid and accurate explanations of the issues and procedures in the avalanche of litigation precipitated by the closeness of the vote in Florida, even though they were working under great time pressure.” The pronouncements of public intellectuals on the same subject were often, on the other hand, “shoddy or even wacky.”

In An Affair of State (1999), his book on the impeachment of President Clinton, Judge Posner wrote that “an unkind critic might describe the signing by intellectuals of petitions, open letters, and full-page ads as a form of herd behavior.” His description in the new book of the habits of that herd makes for an uneven but forceful and entertaining polemic. In the earlier book, he captured in a phrase the idea he has now expanded on for over 400 pages: Public intellectuals display a herd instinct because they’re all the same type of animal–”the animal that likes to see its name in print.”

Adam Liptak is a lawyer at The New York Times.

Book Review