Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Perils of the Public Intellectual

In honor of Constitution day, let's discuss a constitutional controversy. No, not whether the 14th amendment endorses birthright citizenship (duh), nor whether the 10th amendment lets you have your legal weed. Nope: it's the question of whether our country's founding document is an explicit endorsement of racism and/or slavery.

There has been a great deal of consternation on this subject lately, prompted by yesterday's op-ed by Sean Wilentz, in which he argues that the constitutional wording in three important clauses -- the three-fifths compromise, the fugitive slave clause, and the delay of abolition of the slave trade until 1808 -- were actually victories for the anti-slavery delegates.

Yeah, I know: Weird, right? Friends of mine have referred to it as everything from "puzzling" to "pretty nutty." There's a long-form rebuttal here (EDIT: and, more recently, a counter-argument in the Atlantic).

But here's the thing: it's a rebuttal to only part of the argument. I was actually able to see the whole thing in a nearly hour-long talk in which he presented all of his evidence for the claims in the op-ed, and in which the very claims he makes are properly nuanced. Let me tell you: it made a huge difference. What may have seemed "puzzling" or even "pretty nutty" in the op-ed now looked like a Really Cool Thing when presented in its fullness. Sure, there were a few bits in the argument that I thought were a bit of a reach to make an otherwise cogent point.1 But the argument as a whole made sense.

And this is the essential dilemma of the public intellectual: you can't make the same argument in 603 words (I counted) as you can in 45-60 minutes with your evidence on slides. This is obvious. You can't honor the complexity that is the hallmark of scholarly historical study. And yet, you're not going to get most of the general public to sit down and read a monograph or scholarly article or even attend an hour-long talk, should they be so lucky to have one in the vicinity. So this is why we have public intellectuals. They boil stuff down.

Of course, anyone who has cooked anything knows that boiling something too long removes all the flavor and texture and nutrition. Likewise, perhaps this topic was too complex to be boiled down. Or maybe Wilentz had an nice, tight 800 words, before some editor insisted that, no really, Professor Wilentz: 600 is all you get. I can just tell you two things:

1. the op-ed in no way reflects the complexity of the argument behind its points; and

2. [point 1] is an example of why being a public intellectual is hard, and the folks who take on this work won't always hit the mark -- even the very smart ones. But that doesn't make it any less worthwhile.

1 Academic historians like to present things in threes: four supporting arguments may be too much for a listening audience to follow, while two seems a bit thin to really support a Big Argument. But sometimes you have two really strong points, and end up stretching a bit to get the third. And -- pro tip -- if you're ever digesting an academic argument, if there's a weak point, it's usually in the middle.


Historiann said...

Great post, Notorious. You're right about the risks of performing as a public intellectual--our Twitter/sound-bite culture, in which 700 words is an unimaginable luxury, will inevitably reduce any argument (let alone complex historical arguments) to its barest elements.

I hope Wilenz publishes a long-form version of his argument in this op-ed, either in a journal article or a book.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi Historiann! Yes, he said that he's working on a longer piece, though I can't remember now whether he said a book or an article.