On Popular Intellectuals

Being a popular or public intellectual, particularly in this era of digital communication and global fora, demands two things above all, namely that you tell your audience what they want to hear, and that you phrase your every statement with the kind of absolute certainty and lack of circumspection that reassures the audience that they need not have any reserve, hesitation, or doubt about adhering to your public positions or posture. In other words, you must be essentially an amplified echo of the audience’s beliefs, while tricking them with chutzpah into believing you are teaching them from a book of wisdom that you alone have written.


Your intended audience will, by virtue of being a mass audience, be made up primarily of people who have rarely thought about anything important very deeply, from which it follows that you may easily persuade them that you are absolutely right, and your critiques of others absolutely unanswerable, merely by expressing views agreeable to that audience with decisiveness and a certain measure of linguistic elevation.

Any serious thought you have ever had must be simplified and its edges rounded off, in order to reduce it to more digestible and less ambiguous fare, so as to leave no doubt in the mass audience’s mind that you are capable of serving as the externalized intellectual vindication that this audience craves. 

Given that you must express yourself more assertively and simplistically than a genuine thinker would be willing to do, you will inevitably commit yourself to positions or ways of thinking from which it will become difficult to extricate yourself from the point of view of saving face, preserving your reputation, and sustaining your audience numbers; from which it follows that you will have created a powerful vested interest in confirming and reconfirming the biases built into your overly assertive and simplistic initial statements. In short, you will publicly paint yourself into intellectual corners, and then glue yourself there with emotional (and/or commercial) needs.

You will, once committed to the goal of achieving prominence or preeminence with a mass audience, necessarily find yourself in the position of needing to take clear positions on topics about which you are insufficiently knowledgeable, or even entirely inexperienced, but to state those positions with the same level of certainty you applied to your earlier statements, when you were at least addressing subjects with which you were legitimately familiar by education and experience. In the arena of these secondary topics, your original compromise of having to give the audience what they wanted becomes exponentially greater, since in these new areas you will not merely be accommodating yourself to the audience, but actually following their (largely emotional) preferences outright, while at the same time seeking to conceal both your incompetence and your deference to the whims of the audience by means of an even bolder assertiveness, which means you will be making your strongest and most uncompromising stands in precisely those areas where you are least qualified to make any serious public comment at all.

To be a popular intellectual, then, is effectively to turn oneself into a combination of carefully marketed blusterer, sophist, and televangelist, aiming to please others for profit, mainly by reframing their wishes and feelings as your own. If you ever had ideas of any merit at the outset, these will gradually be suffocated and snuffed out by the needs of audience maintenance and profit margin, unless by some great act of chance or will you are saved from yourself, meaning from your ego’s obsession with fame and glory. 

Today, in our age of social media “influencers” and celebrity podcasters, the number of people who have willingly commodified their minds and reputations for gain, drowning out the voices of profound theoretical discussion and open intellectual exchange in the public square, is almost too great to measure. From the ones who fell from some measure of professional grace into the mire of celebrity pontificators-without-portfolio (Jordan Peterson, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson), to the ones who have built their reputations for “intellectualism” out of pure smoke (Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Stephen Pinker, Paul Krugman), the ultimate destination is the same, namely the abyss of intellectual sycophancy, bad acting, and carnival barking for fame and money that has displaced genuine philosophy, serious theology, great literature, and rigorous scientific reasoning as the competing models of wisdom in the so-called “public imagination.”

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