Wednesday, March 15, 2006

American Intellectuals For Sale

Here's an interesting discussion between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard Henri-Levy. Andrew Sullivan thinks the Frenchman is the loser in the exchange, but I disagree.

I respect Fukuyama's superior understanding of American society and I share his view that America provides unique opportunities for immigrants. But he clearly doesn't understand what a European-style intellectual is. Like most non-Europeans he sees nothing wrong with America's leading thinkers like himself being "for sale", switching their allegiance in order to retain employment (and getting fired when they dare to disagree):
I myself worked for more than ten years at the RAND Corporation, the original "think tank" satirized in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove that did contract research for the U.S. Air Force and Defense Department. Obviously, one cannot be a free thinker in a place like that (Daniel Ellsberg tried to be and he was fired), and that is one of the reasons that I eventually left to go to a university. But overall, I believe that a democracy is better off having intellectuals pay systematic attention to policy issues, even if it is occasionally corrupting. Having to deal not with ideal solutions but with the real world of power and politics is a good discipline for an intellectual. There is a fine line between being realistic and selling one's soul, and in the case of the Iraq war many neoconservatives got so preoccupied with policy advocacy that they blinded themselves to reality. But it's not clear that virtue necessarily lies on the side of intellectuals who think they are simply being honest.
What Fukuyama doesn't understand is that it's more about independence than honesty. European intellectuals may get as wrapped up in their own pundit franchise as anybody else. But at least in Europe they are not expected to conform to the views of their employers.

Bernard says it well, although I have never succeeded in communicating the real meaning of these words to a non-European:
The problem lies with the definition of what you and I call an intellectual, and beyond its definition, its function. Unlike you, I don't think an intellectual's purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it. Not because I despise RAND, or because I believe in Kubrick's burlesque portrayal of it. No, I just think that while some people are running RAND, others no more or no less worthy or deserving should be dealing with, shall we say, the unfiltered truth. A democracy needs both, imperatively and absolutely both—"realistic" intellectuals and "idealistic" intellectuals. Both types and the functions they embody have recognizable places inside society, even if some societies value one type more than the other. America needs intellectuals with a selfless concern for sense, complexity and truth. This is just as essential to its equilibrium (possibly even to its moral fiber and therefore to its good health) as the existence of universal suffrage or the separation of powers à la Montesquieu.
Now that the press has relinquished much of its watchdog function in American public life the lack of truly independent intellectuals is becoming painfully apparent. And it has allowed conservatives to perpetuate the silly myth that "all news is biased" which has led to a stunning disconnect from reality.

UPDATE: It appears that Daniel Drezner (an American) is also concerned.

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