Following on from Laura Kipnis, we had also never previously heard of Michael Lind. Unlike Kipnis, who seems consistently great, Lind is a mixed bag. He has a superior tone, which doesn’t sit well with some of his less-than-superior judgments; anybody who writes a book titled Vietnam: The Necessary War is on the thinnest of ice. Nonetheless, Lind is smart and thoughtful and, critically, he is willing to write what he thinks, is willing to annoy anybody.
I have never liked the term “public intellectual,” but like its 19th-century predecessor, “publicist,” it describes a social type that plays a useful role in liberal democracies in which at least some government decision-making is influenced by open debate rather than secret discussions behind closed doors. To influence voters, public intellectuals write for a general educated public (not necessarily the less-educated majority) in ordinary language, not jargon. Like the policymakers whom they also seek to influence, they are necessarily generalists. In the service of what the Brazilian American public intellectual Roberto Unger calls a strategic “program,” public intellectuals ponder connections among different policy realms—economic, foreign, and cultural—if only to ensure that one policy does not contradict another. Public intellectuals tend to annoy their own side by probing its internal weaknesses, while trying to convert members of the other team rather than simply denounce them.
The centralized and authoritarian control of American progressivism by major foundations and the nonprofits that they fund, and the large media institutions, universities, corporations, and banks that disseminate the progressive party line, has made it impossible for there to be public intellectuals on the American center left. This is not to say that progressives are not intelligent and/or well-educated. It is merely to say that being a progressive public intellectual is no longer an option, in an era in which progressivism is anti-intellectual.
There is plenty to argue with in Lind’s essay, but his central point, that modern American (and Australian) progressivism is anti-intellectual, is undeniable. Read all of Lind’s essay, and then scream.