Letter: We seek truth, public seeks Oprah (1)

October 19, 2001

Frank Furedi's encomium of public intellectuals in the US is misleading ("An intellectual vacuum", THES , October 5). Furedi writes:

"Individuals such as Susan Sontag, Henry Louis Gates, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky play an important role in cultural and political debate in the US."

Nothing could be further from the truth. When George Soros speaks on Capitol Hill, it is standing room only. Would the intellectuals named above command such an audience?

Having just moved to the UK, a few things about intellectual life strike me. Consider this: a US professor somewhere recently asked her undergraduates to identify a public intellectual. They picked Oprah Winfrey. Why? Oprah is on television, so she is a "public" figure. As for being an "intellectual", the students said, Oprah airs her views, takes stands on issues and speaks coherently.

Is the same true here? Furedi might say no, but you too have Oprahs. They are artists, not academics. Britain gets its categories right. We do not.

In the aftermath of September 11, national newspapers asked Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis for their views. Why? Novelists are sharp students of the human soul and the human condition. What they say matters in times like these. This is not the case in 99 per cent of US newspapers.

Here you invite artists to comment. I saw an anti-war activist/ fashion designer on a recent BBC programme that discussed how the US should respond to the terrorist attacks. Given the long US history of anti-intellectualism, an artist debating foreign policy would drive audiences away.

If what artists say in the US matters little, what academics say matters even less. They are not decision-makers, and they tend to communicate poorly.

In France, the philosopher and activist Bernard-Henry Lévy is unpopular not because his books are bad but because he demands too much TV time. Here, if English departments end up teaching modules on Chomsky's politics rather than Rushdie's novels, we might become just as unpopular.

Craig A. Hamilton
School of English Studies
University of Nottingham

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