Living American 'Public Intellectuals'

Public intellectual, though a known term, is not exactly what I’m looking for but we’ll work with it.

Gore Vidal died this week. Even those who disagreed with him completely on issues had to respect his intelligence and his vast knowledge of history, philosophy, politics, literature, religion, etc., all of which he could almost instantly search and pull information from to support his point. That is something that is rarely seen in celebrities or public figures these days, but there are a few. Hitchens (for a time Vidal’s padawan before they became enemies) was certainly a contender but he’s gone as well of course (Gore probably stayed alive as long as he did partly to spite Hitchens).

Neil DeGrasse Tyson probably comes foremost to mind as an all purpose intellectual. He’s an astronomer but he’s well informed on religion, history, anthropology, and other branches of science (rather like Sagan [to whom he can’t help being constantly compared]). Unlike Vidal, Buckley, and Hitchens he seems personable and not a complete dick. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a whole lot of company in the “all around smart and interesting and informed guy” front.

Henry Louis Gates and Doris Kearns Godwin are probably the most famous go-to general historians but neither are famous for their ability to switch gears and talk literature or science or the like and they certainly aren’t well known for their wit or sense of humor.

Who else would be an heir to Vidal (and Buckley) as far as being multi-topic intellectuals with TV charisma and some wit?

I have minimal respect for his credentials, but I’d say Noam Chomsky fills the role.

I propose that the era of public intellectuals is over. There is too much sheer volume of knowledge out there, and too little esteem for a broad liberalcommiejewfag education, for it to be any other way.

Aaron Sorkin seems the type, although he doesn’t make that many public appearances.

Diane Rehm of NPR sure radiates the smarts.

Bill Clinton, when his pants are up and the lampshade is off his head, is quite bright.

Malcolm Gladwell is quite the engaging speaker and writer. Sarah Vowell, too.

Extra points for annoying vocal mannerisms. In fact, they’re pretty much a requirement.

Still, none of these folk quite meet the generalist gadfly ubiquity criterion. Gladwell probably comes closest. Clinton only gets to talk about anything he likes on tv because he was president.

Gladwell is Canadian and is good at asking questions, not providing answers.

I suggest Jon Stewart.

I don’t think so. He’s great at what he does, but he wears too many hats. When anybody calls him on something he said as a pundit, he replies “I’m just a comedian! My lead-in is puppets making crank calls, for God’s sake!” His on-air gravitas is a triumph of his research team, and he is often out of his depth with his interview subjects.