The lost influence of intellectuals
Last summer, Elections Canada launched an online video campaign to improve voter turnout among young people, with an eye to the federal election. It waged this offensive using “influencers,” individuals who have — or can readily create — significant followings on social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. But the agency, desiring to appear completely beyond reproach, cancelled the campaign only weeks after its announcement, when it discovered potentially partisan posts made by two of the influencers. (At the time, most of the $650,000 budget had already been spent.)
Elections Canada’s decision to cancel the program is of less interest than its decision to use such people in the first place. The miscellany of those appointed — athletes, musicians, actors, bloggers, and YouTubers — was typical of the influencer phenomenon, as was their lack of expertise. In an era when fewer and fewer read or view traditional media outlets, both public institutions and corporations seek their audience online. As a result, the public realm has become a marketplace.
Gone are the days when opinion was shaped by influencers of another kind: intellectuals and experts. While such figures haven’t disappeared entirely, they have undoubtedly lost their former prominence.
A half-century ago, the American linguist, philosopher, and social activist Noam Chomsky wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” It was a blistering attack on thinkers who had sold out during the Vietnam War, serving and defending American colonial interests. The responsibility of such men, Chomsky argued, was “to speak the truth and to expose lies,” not to rationalize and excuse.
Modern use of the term “intellectual” — as a noun rather than an adjective — originated in debates surrounding the incarceration of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer accused of spying for Germany, in 1894. After he had served five years of his life sentence on Devil’s Island, new evidence led to the public realization that his conviction was actually due to anti-Semitism in the military ranks, which reflected attitudes more widely found in French society. Those who defended Dreyfus — novelists, journalists, and academics — were branded “intellectuals” by those who supported the sentence. As often happens, the pejorative was embraced by its targets. It came to refer to those who criticized the state in the name of some higher principle.
The term received a boost during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Across the globe, the uprising was seen as a threat to the established order, and it became a model for many radicals. The idea of the intellectual also acquired something of a romantic aura by its association with its Russian counterpart, the intelligentsia. The group, which originated in the early nineteenth century, counted among its members many leaders of the emerging Soviet Union, as well as those who sought to spread its message abroad. These people were modern versions of the intelligenty (pronounced with a hard “g”), who had been critics of autocracy and promoted various responses to tsarist oppression, from liberalization to terrorism and the violent overthrow of the regime. As a result of this association, intellectuals in the West cemented their reputation as highly politicized, oppositional outsiders, even if they were otherwise ordinary citizens.
Despite these Russian connections, French intellectuals remained the standard against which others compared themselves. Indeed, the recent work of the British academic Stefan Collini illuminates the tendency of intellectuals to think of themselves as underappreciated in their own societies. Today’s Great Britain — more specifically, England — is the best-known example of a culture supposedly inhospitable to intellectuals; dominated by pragmatism, empiricism, and common sense; and resistant to the application of abstract principles and moral values to the assessment of political decision-making. In Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Collini demolishes the myth of British exceptionalism and shows how intellectuals outside France propagated the idea that people of their kind were more welcome elsewhere than at home. They suffered, in his words, from “Dreyfus-envy.”
Even one of the leading English-speaking intellectuals in twentieth-century Canada, Frank Underhill, accused his own country of hostility to people like himself. (Though his point of comparison, ironically, was Great Britain.) In the 1930s, he played a prominent role in forming the League for Social Reconstruction, which brought together critics of a similar disposition, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP. He aroused opposition — and almost lost his job at the University of Toronto — because of his attacks on British foreign policy. In the imperial circumstances of the time, they drew accusations of disloyalty. Clearly, countries produced their own variations of the intellectual.
Despite the variety of roles that intellectuals played in the twentieth century, it is possible to identify some assumptions underlying Chomsky’s demands. When he called on them to “speak the truth,” he took it for granted that there was such a thing as “truth.” When he called on them to “expose lies,” he assumed they had the knowledge to see beneath surfaces and that they recognized it as their moral duty to do so. Most were generalists who did not hesitate to comment on matters outside their area of expertise. As a result of their education and, in many cases, their social origins, they were a privileged minority. When they wrote — and the written word was their chief medium — they did so from an elite position. Their working assumption was that the audience would defer to them.
But these features, turned on their heads, were fodder for their critics. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell shunned the term. “I think an intellectual may be defined,” he wrote, “as a person who pretends to have more intellect than he has.” For the skeptical many, intellectuals had an inflated sense of their own importance. Their claim to speak the truth was seen as posturing, their belief in their capacity to defend the public good as pretentious. A tendency to write in abstractions only compounded this sense of superiority. This led to detractors coining the phrase “so-called intellectual.”
Nevertheless, intellectuals constituted a more or less cohesive whole and had emerged in a political culture that was hierarchic and singular. While I was a graduate student in Toronto in the late 1960s, they acquired a semi-heroic status. The ideological ferment of the time was magnetic. Teach-ins were common, on pressing topics like the Vietnam War, Canadian nationalism, and pedagogical reform. My cohort and I read an array of magazines both political and literary, including Canadian Dimension, The Last Post, and Saturday Night. The University League for Social Reform featured academics, like the political scientists Peter Russell and Ian Lumsden, debating and writing on contemporary issues. These were all venues ideally suited to the kind of thinkers Chomsky had in mind.
Change was occurring even as Chomsky wrote his critique. For academics, an increase in university students and staff dramatically affected the way they thought of themselves and their work. Earlier, they needed to write for the “educated reading public.” Now, their immediate audience was much bigger, even within their disciplinary specialties. This resulted in a heightened emphasis on publication in academic journals. Research took priority, and a commitment to objectivity replaced a commitment to values. Communication itself became specialized, as theory overtook narrative and analysis.
The American historian Russell Jacoby caught something of this trend when, in 1987, he wrote of “the last intellectuals.” He argued that thinkers of Chomsky’s generation, or their potential descendants, had retreated to academia, where they engaged in abstruse debates of interest to no one but themselves. It was Jacoby who gave currency to the term “public intellectual” in order to describe (and encourage) those who ventured beyond the walls of the ivory tower to act like earlier intellectuals, and to distinguish them from those in retreat, the “academic intellectuals.” The term was soon in general use.
Yet Jacoby’s conception of the intellectual was unnecessarily narrow, even provincial. Beyond the U.S. and, to some extent, Canada, “public intellectual” was considered a redundancy. Academics might contribute to their own specialty, but when they engaged with public issues, they assumed the identity of intellectuals, who were “public” by definition. And their political identities were changing. The intellectuals of Chomsky’s generation were usually on the left. By the 1980s, commentary from the right was at least as common. Indeed, conservatives pioneered a new vehicle of engagement, the think tank, with the 1974 founding of the Fraser Institute, in Vancouver. Left-wing equivalents lagged behind; among the earliest was the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in Ottawa, which opened in 1980.
Whereas earlier intellectuals had been generalists whose commentary was infused with moral force, specialists now brought their concentrations to bear on public issues. The magazine Policy Options, which began in 1980, was an example of this new orientation. Its founding editor, Tom Kent, was undoubtedly an intellectual, but of a more politically moderate bent than Chomsky. Where intellectuals had once thought of themselves as carrying a distinct moral authority, with responsibilities to lead and instruct, they now differed from readers mainly in their knowledge of a given subject. They had become, simply, experts. Readers were under no obligation to accept their advice.
Times were changing even in France. The historian Jeremy Jennings has suggested that the “Marxist intellectual” was dealt a serious blow with the French publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, in 1974. It helped demolish whatever remained of the Soviet Union’s reputation as a socialist state. The simultaneous emergence of post-structuralism and postmodernism undercut the idea of “universal truth.” In the 1980s, many writers who typified the intellectual died — Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Aron, among others — and no one replaced them. A four-part series on the intellectual in France was broadcast in 1991, hosted by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the personification of the intellectual as media celebrity. It was, in Jennings’s view, more banal than incisive. An era was passing.
Nothing characterized the communications environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries so much as fragmentation. Network television, which for some time had offered an alternative means of reaching “the public,” broke into a multi-channel universe. Mediating institutions — publishers, newspapers, bookstores, retailers, educational institutions — were overtaken by more direct means of reaching readers. And there was the blogosphere, which enabled self-publishing of a sort. These shifts did not necessarily mean that authority disappeared, but it became internally generated, independent of traditional gatekeepers. The speed with which readers could move from author to author accelerated. Fragmentation and digitization transformed the media, which in turn hastened the pluralization of the public. One could now reach a total audience greater than what any single outlet had previously afforded, but that audience had to be defined, more narrowly, by what was on people’s minds.
Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and similar apps create overlapping networks of users but blur the clarity of a singular public good. The foundation on which the intellectual once rested loses all meaning. Instead, influence is measured by one’s success in attracting attention, as gauged by a follower count. One might be an influencer for a cause or a social movement or a football team or a clothing brand. Influence, in its many manifestations, has become monetized.
While influencers might well be experts in some fields, that is not the basis of their authority. Indeed, they can just as easily be amateurs. They represent a levelling of culture. No longer is any premium placed on being a generalist or writing in a distinctive style; but now there are constant opportunities to express an opinion or take a position in 280 characters or less. Judging by the ubiquity of experts doing just that, public engagement is no longer frowned upon by university administrators (perhaps because of a new concern for external relations). While intellectuals still exist, they have lost their cachet. The world has flattened since Chomsky’s time.
It has also grown more cynical. If intellectuals were driven by a certain moral concern, most were moved by idealism as well. The point of criticism was social and political improvement, and it was offered in a spirit of public service. Today, the divisive behaviour of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, each a personification of self-promotion in his own way, has given licence to others, including influencers, to act in a similar manner. The result is communities, both large and small, unable to see themselves as part of a larger whole.