The title may remind some of an MTV show, but what brought me to the topic was a recent post at Philosophy.com. Gary comments on a discussion between Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri Levy in the American Interest. Most of it is your garden variety rehash of the greatness and benevolence of America, neoconservativism, and the future of "Wilsonianism" (i.e., destroying the world while making it safe for capitalism.) But what caught my attention, and seemed relevant in light of recent comments by a certain Slovenian, were their respective thoughts on the role of the intellectual and their relationship to power:
FF: The idea that an intellectual must always speak truth to power and never compromise means for ends seems to me a rather naive view of how intellectuals actually behave, and reflects in many ways the powerlessness of European intellectuals and their distance from the real world of policy and politics. Of course, the academy must try to remain an institutional bastion of intellectual freedom that is not subject to vagaries of political opinion. But in the United States, to a much greater degree than in Europe, scholars, academics and intellectuals have moved much more easily between government and private life than in Europe, and are much more involved in formulating, promoting and implementing policies than their European counterparts. This necessarily limits certain kinds of intellectual freedom, but I'm not sure that, in the end, this is such a bad thing.
FF: 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.
While this summary of an intellectuals role is not really new or amazing, it strikes me that this sort of outlook is lacking by many on the left. I don't mean to suggest that Chomski or Zizek should become an adviser to Hilary Clinton (I am sure some suspect Zizek is already on the payroll) - but I do think that conservatives have been much more effective in navigating the compromises of "membership."
Levy's response is also not very revolutionary but worth quoting:
BHL: 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.
Of course Levy's view assumes a lot about the transparency of "the public sphere," (unfiltered truth) but isn't there something to the idea that intellectuals should operate both inside and outside decision making institutions? Is this notion hopelessly bourgeois or naive? Can't you imagine little Sartre or Foucault clones working the barricades while Habermasian androids implement transparent decision making procedures? Intellectuals holding hands across the great divide of "the establishment," sticking it to the man while helping him create more rational, effective institutions.
The more I think about it, I have no idea how that would work.