MWD60 - On Going Where the Thinkers Are
Or why public intellectualism is alive and well ... but might be on YouTube?
Welcome to Midweek Dinner. There’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.
—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —
So here’s an idea*: there is no dearth of public intellectuals, but they may not sound or look like they used to.
These days, it might be assumed that if you are doing the work of an intellectual — as a researcher, a philosopher, a theorist — you must be employed at a research university, publishing your findings in academic journals or books no one (not even your mother) wants to read. For decades, however, there have been public figures who brought an academic approach to everyday policy conversations, insisting upon an elevated and informed stance in the public domain.
At some point, (and maybe the emergence of Sarah Palin helped solidify this shift), it was considered better to be more folksy than fluent, more ignorant than intellectual. Around that same time, Alan Jacobs was a thinker I was just getting to know and admire, and I really appreciated his piece in Harper’s called “The Watchmen,” in which he decries a loss of Christian intellectuals, specifically, those faithful thinkers who could be a necessary counter to the prevailing voice of evangelical influencers. But Jacobs wasn’t alone. As the standards of public discourse have shifted, many have made the argument that we have yielded the commons to the least common denominator. Recently, I’ve come to an alternative view: The public intellectual isn’t dead; they’re on YouTube1.
Of course, I don’t mean that YouTube has become a bastion of intellectualism, deep thoughts around every algorithmic corner. Instead, I’m interested in the ways we dismiss the very real intellectual work that is taking place there and in other parts of the digital media landscape. The internet has often been called the great democratizer, and while perhaps true, there is also merit to the claim that much of the internet is a vast wasteland of . . . well, let’s just say the amount of “bad” thinking (or writing or video production or) far outweighs the “good.” Granting that reality, the real gift of the internet is one of access: there’s excellent work being created out there, and a bunch of it doesn’t sit behind paywalls. The issue of ad content is real and worth its own set of thoughts, but today I wanted to highlight some of the evidence that public intellectuals are alive and creating, granting young (and less-young) thinkers access to their ideas.
Blame it on whatever you want, but the fact remains: young people spend a lot of time on YouTube. As that reality has grown, my appreciation for YouTube has waned. But for years, some of my most favorite, most challenging, most thoughtful learning came from Mike Rugnetta at the PBS web series called Idea Channel2. The show folded four years ago, but the audience Rugnetta built there has not disappeared. To my great joy, he recently released a new video that is so amazing, so full of nuance and intelligence that depending on which research focus I select, it is likely to be a cited source in my forthcoming thesis. Rugnetta has also developed some complications in his relationship with YouTube, so while you can find his work there, he also has it on Vimeo which offers the added bonus of being ad-free:
(warning: this video uses movie clips - lots of them - some of which are violent or bloody)
Mike’s return to this kind of work reminded me of another YouTuber that I used to learn from and even use in my teaching: Evan Puschak, who creates and publishes under the moniker Nerdwriter1. Somehow, when I stepped out of that world, I just assumed these creators did the same, that if I wasn’t watching, surely they weren’t creating? But, of course, they have been, in various different ways, and Puschak has been creating these weekly video essays for years, and they are still really, really good:
This On the Media episode hits on so many areas of interest for me: librarianship, classification, order and our irrational attempts to impose it, and the tension present between the good and the harm that can be done. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait to read Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist.
A recent segment on NPR’s All Things Considered featured Aisha Nyandoro, who runs a nonprofit in Mississippi focused on working with those on public assistance. The piece looked at the new Child Tax Credit and the impact Nyandoro has seen in her community. In response to the criticism that this money might keep people from returning to work, she offered this response:
NYANDORO: The reality is individuals want to work, but they need jobs that actually pay them a living wage. In Mississippi, our federal minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour. That's not a living wage. If I do not have access to child care, if I do not have access to a job that would allow me to have a stable schedule, how am I supposed to work? So instead of saying, oh, individuals won't go back to work if we give them x, y, z, why don't we say, you know, what is it that we actually need to give individuals to ensure that they have dignity and agency?
That last bit is powerful, and while this brief interview doesn’t allow space for a detailed academic argument, it does ask the right questions, which every researcher knows is the first step. I love that activists and thinkers like Nyandoro can sound so different from the public intellectuals of decades ago without signaling any lack of intellectual strength.
ALSO SOMETIMES PRINT
Twitter is my preferred mode of social media, and though I can get exasperated with my inability to avoid that space for long, my exasperation fades when I encounter threads like this one from Hayes Brown. Yes, he links to his piece on msnbc, but he also includes some of the research that didn’t make it into the article. Links, retweets, and screengrabs may be a new form of citation, but they should not be discounted.
Substack (the platform that hosts this newsletter) has taken some flak, but it provides a place where the incredibly smart and thoughtful Brandon Taylor can explore the length and breadth of his critical ideas that may get celebrated in the New York Times even as they are required to be somewhat flattened to get in there. Taylor is an intellectual critic, one who can embrace “vibes” and “aesthetic theory” simultaneously.
And in Guernica, Fathima Cader’s “Elegy” is beautiful and painful and complex and challenging across multiple dimensions and disciplines. Literature, history, rhetoric, critical theory, law — they’re all here:
To decipher how litigants are shaped into characters through the court’s truncated biographies of their lives, how emotion is orchestrated in the readers of its decisions, how legal precedent is akin to scriptural exegesis — these close and critical reading skills can give us clearer insight into law’s construction. Far from nonfiction, I wanted my students to see that every legal text is art — at once artful and artifice.
To study a decision, we must look past the surface of its skin and through to the skeleton that enlivens it. It is no coincidence that critical race theory emerged from critical legal studies; for those who look, it is staggering how transparently the law wears the grammar of its violence, a grammar that has power over not only our language but the very materiality of all our lives.
This list could roll on and on. If there are those that you admire, people thinking out loud in ways that challenge and enrich you, feel free to share. It’s a big internet, and there’s some awfully good work out there.
On the Publishing Front:
My review of Shruti Swamy’s The Archer published today at Chapter 16, and I’m so pleased to celebrate this book. Swamy’s collection of stories (A House is a Body) impressed me mightily, and this one went even further to convince me that she is an astonishingly powerful writer just getting started.
This is a bit more reductive than I mean. Call it the sloganized version of my argument, which definitely extends beyond the boundaries of YouTube.
Mike Rugnetta would open each episode with the phrase, “So here’s an idea….”