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Public Intellectuals by Richard A. Posner

Harvard University Press (hardback) HarperCollins (hardback), 2001, 408 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

The author is a federal appellate judge who, unlike the majority of his brethren, is quite the polymath.  He has written books on economics and law, legal theory, and on the disputed presidential election of 2000, among other topics.  I know his to be a conservative stemming from, if not completely in agreement with, the Friedman/Straus school at the University of Chicago, so
I fully expected his discourse on public intellectuals to be full of invective against the left-liberal political correctness of our increasingly multicultural democracy.  On this count, Posner does not disappoint, but he raises other, deeper, issues with the sheer force of his intellectual honesty.

Posner asks what it means today to be a public intellectual, effectively demonstrating how a noble idea during the times of Socrates and Voltaire has morphed into a circus of superficiality where celebrity reputation is more likely to influence a citizen/voter than well-reasoned persuasiveness.  The neverending need for instant commentary and original spin has changed the identity of public intellectuals from people like Socrates and Voltaire to the shriller voices of people like Rush Limbaugh or Al Sharpton.  The surprise is that Posner provides examples of this vapidity all across the political spectrum, and by so doing, raises an even more disturbing question: Is it the distorting nature of the new media (cable television and the Internet)that has created the circus?  How does the deceptive quality of media telegenicity catapault a previously-obscure academic into the popular culture not judged on the quality of his scholarship but on his personality appeal?

Some of the most interesting information in the book is contained in about 25 pages of tables that name the most prominent public intellectuals measured by their media mentions, their Internet traffic, and their scholarly citations.  What emerges is a popularity index of public intellectuals and a framework for analyzing this phenomenon empirically.  Not surprisingly, after establishing the empirical nature of the study, Posner proceeds to analyze the phenomenon through a kind of market analysis,
ending with an intriguing poser: Does the decline in the quality of public intellectuals represent a market failure within the warp and weave of democratic capitalism?  This is a bravura performance by Posner, displaying an unusual range of vision.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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