What is this public intellectual?

As you may or may not know, I am currently a graduate student, pursuing a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies.  The final course is the Public Intellectual Practicum, and while I’ve indicated Rusbridger identifies potential outlets for the Public Intellectual, there is arguably no stronger outlet for one who wishes to make his or her thoughts public than the blog. 

Tim Dunlop is one who recognizes the power of the blog.  In his piece “If you build it they will come,” he argues “bloggers are the new public intellectuals.”  But is just any old blogger a public intellectual?  There are, after all, a lot of blogs out there.  And Dunlop argues that some still believe this style of public thought is just a fad. 

Dunlop, and I, believe strongly that a blog is what puts the public in public intellectual.  “Without the resources of a media agency. . . they are [often] merely reactive to the news of the day as published by major outlets.”  However, “the interested blogger can read behind the headlines. . . and subject the bare news story to more scrutiny than it would normally get.”  For instance, with all the talk and questions about what went wrong with the polls in the New Hampshire primaries that had Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton until the results were in and Senator Clinton actually won, folks were asking what went wrong.  Let me suggest that maybe the polls were flawed.  With my state’s primary today (Michigan), I answered four calls over the weekend from the Huckabee and Romney camps, and for one call I admittedly lied about my intentions.  Why I did that may be the subject of a future blog, but let me suggest that perhaps when we are polled, sometimes we are not fully truthful about our intentions.

Dunlop argues then that public intellectual blogs “are politically engaged, not artificially detached,” but where Dunlop says political, I understand political to be about more than just politics.  I think social engagement is just as vital and valuable for the public intellectual. 

While when I say social engagement, on one level I mean a social consciousness and the activity that ought to come from such social consciousness, I also mean the act of making thinking social.  Public. 

By making thinking social and public, there is an element of what Dunlop describes as breathlessness:  “[B]y engaging in political debate in such a public way, people often move beyond their own knowledge horizon, or come up against people who are simply better informed than they are.”  And it is that element of exposing oneself – so to speak – that is so important about public intellectualism.  “Argument precedes understanding and is central to democratic opinion formation.”   For instance, I’m not sure what I will be blogging about in the future.  I’m not sure what issues I will write about for my practicum.  I will write about things I know about, but there are other things I  want to write about that I don’t know much about.  Illegal immigration for instance.  I know on some level what an illegal immigrant is, but I’m not quite sure why Americans are so virulently anti-illegal immigrant.  Aside from the illegality.  More often, it seems to me that we are anti-non-English speaking immigrant, and we automatically assume that if you’re non-English speaking that you are therefore an illegal immigrant.  Do we know how difficult it is to become a citizen?  What distinguishes an illegal immigrant from a worker on a visa?  How easy or difficult is it to go from being a visa’d worker to an illegal alien?   I don’t have answers to those questions, but as Dunlop argues:  “democracy relies on public argument.”  He cites Christopher Lasch in arguing:  “only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate” do “we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn.  Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions. . . It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions.’”

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