The term public intellectual has a rather antiquated sound to it, conjuring up images of a bygone era, where men sat around parlors wearing vests, smoking pipes and sipping beverages out of tiny cups whilst waxing philosophically and debating the politics of the day. A quick google of the phrase “public intellectual” will provide you with a list of names, which, unless you yourself are perhaps a public intellectual, you will probably never have heard of, and some of which you will even probably fail to be able to pronounce correctly (I’m looking at you, Abdolkarim Sorouch).
The definition of a public intellectual, it turns out, is debatable. According to the Collins dictionary, the public intellectual:
“Is an intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs.”
Berry Gewen of the New York Times, offers a more nuanced definition of the term, suggesting we:
“Go back to the original New York Intellectuals for guidance. Broadly, they viewed the public intellectual as someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large. Irving Howe refers to the pursuit of “the idea of centrality” among the writers he knew, and the yearning “to embrace . . . the spirit of the age.” That is, public intellectuals were free-floating and unattached generalists speaking out on every topic that came their way (though most important for the New York Intellectuals was the intersection of literature and politics). They might be journalists or academics, but only because they had to eat.”
Richard Posner, both a public intellectual, and an expert on the subject of public intellectuals wrote a book entitled “Public Intellectuals; A Study of Decline.” Posners central thesis is as follows:
“With the rapid growth of the media in recent years, highly visible forums for discussion have multiplied, while greater academic specialization has yielded a growing number of narrowly trained scholars. Posner tracks these two trends to their inevitable intersection: a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken. The resulting scene—one of off-the-cuff pronouncements, erroneous predictions, and ignorant policy proposals—compares poorly with the performance of earlier public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse.”
These conceptions aren’t wrong, but they do in my opinion leave out a central aspect of what it means to be a public intellectual; all the emphasis is on the subject, or “the intellectual,” while the predicate, or “the public”, is addressed as a mere afterthought. The definition of public is “of or concerning the people as a whole; ordinary people in general; the community.” A public intellectual, therefore, should be able to communicate complex ideas to common people.
As Brad Amburn of Foreign Policy Magazine points out:
“Part of being a “public intellectual” is also having a talent for communicating with a wide and diverse public.”
Or, in the famous words of Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”Taking into consideration all of the above, I argue that comedian and former talk show host Jon Stewart exemplifies what it means to be a public intellectual in the modern era.
Jon Stewart, born Jon Stuart Leibowitz in New York City, grew up in New Jersey with his three brothers, his mother — a teacher — and his psychiatrist father. Stewart attended the College of William and Mary, a small college in Williamsburg, Virginia where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, making Stewart education, but not to the extent that one would consider him an academic — a moniker that would have disqualified him (in some circles) as a true public intellectual in the 1960s.
At 25, Jon moved back to Manhattan, with dreams of making it as a comedian. After years of performing on the standup comic circuit, he caught the eye of a producer for the David Letterman Show, who invited Stewart to perform on the show. Soon after, he was offered his own show on the MTV network, which would come to be called “The Jon Stewart Show.” Although his show was well received, it was ultimately cancelled. His next move took him to Los Angeles, where he worked as an actor before deciding Hollywood wasn’t for him. Back in New York, Stewart wrote and published his first of three books, a series of short stories entitled “Naked Pictures of Famous People.” The book became a best seller on the New York Times best seller list. In 1999, Stewart finally found his niche, when he took over “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.
By this time, Jon Stewart was well on his way to becoming a bona-fide public intellectual, bringing his own brand of political satire to mainstream audiences . As James Parker, for The Atlantic writes:
“Reverence for the news, however, news-idolatry, was eroding steadily—to the point where, by 1999 and the start of Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show, the only type of news one could take seriously was the fundamentally unserious. And so satire, which appears to be hocking loogies from the margins but in fact takes its bearings from a higher authority, came blushingly to occupy the middle. There was Jon Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, smack in the moral center, sitting like a barbed lotus between the blah on the right (Tucker Carlson) and the blah on the left (Paul Begala), destroying them both with divine satirical perspective and insisting all the while that he was just a comedian.”
On “The Daily Show” Jon Stewart delivered the news from the perspective of a critical outsider, shining a light on the absurdity of the media, taking to task politicians on both sides of the aisle, criticizing ill-informed policies, and raising the bar for what passed as political discourse. But the true genius of Jon Stewart, was his ability to deliver hard news in a way that made so many people laugh. The importance of humor as a means to infiltrate the minds of people cannot be understated. As Alice Gregory, for the New York Times writes:
“Humor gives (us) both permission and incentive to examine the world for its flaws, as well as a medium for reporting them back to us. Jokes bring pleasure that is intoxicating in a way that an argument almost never is. A joke forces you to agree with it, or at least reckon with its truth by acknowledging that it made you smile. Laughter is pre-analyzed agreement.”
Over the course of 16 years, Stewart became a touchstone for millions of Americans, a person one could look to for an intelligent take on a variety of issues. He became one of the most trusted names in journalism, a person who could be counted on to call out fallacies and contradictions many “serious” journalists failed to acknowledge. Jon Stewart conversed with over 2600 guests on his show, guests ranging from the President of the United States, to actors, comedians, writers, musicians, world leaders, administration officials, congressmen, senators, and of course, public intellectuals. In these interviews, guests were always met with Stewarts quick wit, the kind of wit that can only come with a certain level of intellect. He spoke truth to power in straightforward language, using satire as a vehicle to get people to pay attention to heavy and important issues. Anyone who can go toe to toe with such a wide variety of experts in their respective fields, and manage to make people laugh while doing it, deserves to be called public intellectual.
Since his retirement from The Daily Show, Stewart is still called upon to comment publicly on news stories of political and cultural importance. He has also directed a film, entitled “Rosewater,” a true story about an Iranian journalist working for the BBC, who was arrested and subsequently tortured by the Iranian government. Additionally, Jon and his wife Tracey, an animal welfare activist, have opened four farm sanctuaries, and worked to pass new legislation to benefit the lives of millions of animals. Just months before his retirement, in an interview with the Guardian, Stewart contemplated what he would like to do when he left the show:
“Whether it’s standup, the show, books or films, I consider all this just different vehicles to continue a conversation about what it means to be a democratic nation, and to have it written into the constitution that all men are created equal – but to live with that for 100 years with slaves. How do those contradictions play themselves out? And how do we honestly assess our failings and move forward with integrity?”
Spoken like a true public intellectual.