At its core, the term public intellectual is transparent in its meaning. Essentially, public intellectuals are exceptionally bright individuals who make great strides in the fields they may specialize in, whether they be of scientific, social, or political importance. Central to the work of public intellectuals is a penchant for getting the public at large not only to react to their findings but also to create societal progress in the form of dialog between people of differing opinions. In recent times, there has been a growing anxiety that public intellectuals as a group have been on the decline. In general, people worry about ‘class purity’ and the health of the public intellectual stock, that is, they are preoccupied by the idea that the public is not doing enough to sustain public intellectualism or they are not paying close enough attention to it. However, public intellectualism is alive and well and manifests itself in the form of contemporary academics of many disciplines from the sciences to literature. Paul Berman is one of such modern day public intellectuals, whose work grapples with public issues that range from governmental power struggles to day-to-day politics. By way of his writings such as Terror and Liberalism Berman is a true modern day public intellectual whose work stirs his audience to formulate new ideas about the social conditions they all live in.
Paul Berman attended Columbia University and studied American History. He now writes for publications such as The New Republic and is also an editor for Dissent. Berman’s work reflects the subject he chose to major in as most of it is related in one way or another to politics and literature. His political commentary which is a prevalent theme in his works helps to shed light on sometimes-obscure topics that the public may not be well read on. Berman’s publications on The Tablet are published and posted with alarming frequency, with most increments being only a few weeks apart. This is important because it helps keeps his readers up to date with whatever may be occurring in the sphere of politics. His works are not limited to whatever is happening between Trump and Clinton every waking minute though. Some of them tackle the more ‘delicate’ problems of our nation, like the wars we wage in the Middle East as the articles Why do Iraq’s rebels Have So Many Different Names? and Arguing Iraq- Ten Years Later suggest. Berman’s writings focus mostly on issues of the public, whether they be the people who live in the United States or citizens of foreign countries. His works directly reflect his concern about the conditions of society and the importance of free-thinking individuals who can enact changes in their respective societies.
Broadly speaking, public intellectuals are generally known to be people who are “deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large” . Intellectuals like Berman are crucial to modern American society. Without them, the public would be exposed to only a narrow set of ideas and controversially natured topics would not be talked about as often as they ideally should. According to William Dean, Richard Posner believes that public intellectuals whose backgrounds are in the arts and histories should be excluded from public intellectualdom. However, Dean refutes Posner’s thinking and explains that public intellectuals who come from the arts and humanities help to serve an imperative social function: they discuss certain philosophies and attitudes and sometimes they reveal orientations and perspectives that ultimately affect public decisions and actions (1). Berman and his contemporaries fill this niche in modern American society, helping to uncover and provide alternate mindsets on controversial issues on a wide breadth of topics, from domestic politics to matters of personal liberty abroad. Berman’s asset is that he sparks people to think critically about the problems the world faces and challenges people to think deeply about how their actions-whether it be complacency or proactivity can have incredible effects on their society.
Berman does not only present new ideas to his audience, but also challenges preconceived notions and knowingly objects against public figures who have a large public following, not only for the sake of disagreeing, but to also critically evaluate them and their thought processes. This trait is not exclusive to Berman and is in fact a characteristic of public intellectuals in general. Public intellectuals are known for ‘stirring the pot’ and for criticisms of systems or people who who are in power (1). Several works by Berman ascribe to this very notion and exemplify a sharp critique on institutions that hold the power in society. One such work is The Pope and the Mysteries, a critical piece that analyzes the Catholic church and its modern day evolution as well as helping to critically appraise Pope Francis’s background, humanizing and giving a better understanding of who he is as an individual and what he truly is as opposed to what the media portrays him to be. Berman delves deep into Pope Francis’s history and talks about clandestine meetings with anti-gay politicians and his history in the right-wing Catholic group Theology of the People, despite his increasingly liberal/democratic image portrayed by the media. His discussion on Pope Francis’s questionable history emphasizes that we should question authority figures and find out more about them so we can form more well-thought-out and more thorough opinions on people who are major players in the public sphere.
In modern times, there is a concern that public intellectuals and people at the helm of religious institutions have been butting heads and vying for the same cultural value and the same place in the human imagination. However, Berman’s works involving religious figureheads like the Pope illustrate that it is possible for the two to coexist and in a way give people more perspectives to think about. Rather than outcompeting each other, clerics and intellectuals who are not religiously affiliated can provide people with alternate viewpoints and show that there is not only one way of perceiving the world. This is important because some people believe that liberals engage in “anti-evangelical” bigotry (4). However, this is simply not the case with intellectuals like Paul Berman. In fact, Berman even says that, “I warily doff my normally anti-clerical cap and wish him [The Pope] luck and continued progress” (3). In this simple statement, Berman contradicts preconceived notions of what it means to be an intellectual speaking on the topic of clerics and shows that instead of anti-evangelical bigotry, he accepts alternate viewpoints and perceptions of the world and in doing so, encourages the public to do the same.
Berman’s work inspires the American public to reflect deeply on political affairs, using sharp language and criticisms of well-known public figures. One of the articles he wrote, titled Bernie and Hillary: Why not Join Forces? reads like it was written directly to Bernie Sanders. In it, Berman sharply critiques Sanders and his campaign while also encouraging him to join forces with Hillary Clinton. To do so, he gives a short history lesson on the Socialist Party of the early 1900s and tells the reader of how they inevitably joined forces with the Democratic party at the time and were able to initiate reforms through Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s and 40’s. Berman uses this information to not only give context to the reader about the possibilities available for Sanders, but also to give an alternative to Sanders continuing his campaign and being unable to take no for an answer. In addition, Berman urges Sanders to consider his options because he believes that joining forces with Clinton is not a sign of weakness, rather, a move towards solidarity and strength. Berman says that “the left-wing senator from Vermont needs to play his role- he needs to bring his wrongheaded campaign to a merciful finish and to lend Hillary some working-class eloquence, which her campaign sorely lacks” (5). In this statement, Berman does not only appeal to Sanders, but also readers who may be in the group of people who believe that social progress will not occur without Sanders. Berman places an emphasis on unity and solidarity between groups of people who may be leaning towards one candidate over another and presents a second option to those who may be ‘Bernie or Bust’.
Some of Berman’s work brings attention to issues which are easily misunderstood in mainstream public society, namely, foreign affairs in the middle east. These pieces help to illuminate concepts the public may not fully understand and also encourage them to take action against injustices that may be occurring worldwide. One such piece is The Thought Police in which Berman discusses how apostasy and blasphemy codes imposed upon people are stifling freedom around the globe. Though the piece is a commentary on a book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Berman nonetheless dissects the specifics behind harsh Islamic law and how they prevent people from thinking outside of set guidelines. Berman introduces the piece by talking about three exceptionally liberal Muslims who have been exiled from their home countries because of their opposition against well-established radical ideology; namely, Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, Abdullah Saeed, and Abdurrahman Wahid. In doing so, Berman takes aim at more bigoted individuals who might wrongly believe that all Muslims are terrorists. He informs the reader of the specifics of Islam as a religion and helps to break down why liberal Muslims have failed to out-argue the more radical sects of Islam. By discussing the tenuous power struggle between liberal Muslims and hardcore extremists, Berman invites public discussion of similar issues at hand and inspires action against the institutions of censorship and public suppression.
In addition, in the last paragraph of The Thought Police, Berman warns the American public of repressive governments. Berman explains that political and religious movements, even without direct support from the government can be incredibly oppressive and the public should be wary of such things and work to expose them and fight against them (6). In this way, Berman warns the public to not be complacent and to be ever-wary about the changing political tides around them because personal freedom is of the utmost importance and anything that threatens to take that away must be pushed away and eliminated. In addition to this, Berman also talks about the value of being able to think freely for peoples who live in oppressive countries but also in the supposed ‘land of the free’. To be specific, Berman pinpoints the fact that there is a slow degeneration of free thinking in the United States, saying that it is a habit that is easily lost (6). In addressing this issue, Berman evokes the public into being more vigilant about anything that may threaten to take away their ability to think freely and independently, possibly inspiring action against government surveillance of the internet or media censorship. The Thought Police serves as a scathing reminder of what could happen to our own country should one overly-powerful and narrow minded group of individuals take control and overwhelm a more open minded and logical group.
The fact that Berman is such a prolific writer and editor for various websites is crucial in crafting his image and making his opinions available to the masses. The average American does not know much about politics or global issues but by sheer saturation alone, Berman’s ideas can and will be heard through various media; whether it be his own writings or comments that echo his ideas. His heavy web presence is vital in his goal to provide information to the masses and encourage independent thinking. The internet is an excellent platform for him to convey information and engage the public simultaneously for Berman. His thoughts are clearly sincere and are articulated in such a way that the reader does not miss a single detail about the subject at hand. Berman makes sure that the reader not only understands what he is writing but the way he says it causes the reader to mentally react and to think about the implications Berman’s writing has on society and what they can do to fix problems within their own society. His works provide a platform on which the public can draw information from and create their own perceptions on the controversial issues Berman tackles.
Paul Berman and the role as public intellectual he takes on is of incredible social importance as his thoroughly constructed opinions and conscientiousness on the modern conditions of society help bring awareness to topics that demand to be understood. Though we may not like what he has to say, his works push society to think critically about the world. Berman teaches the public to question everything and be unafraid to speak out against injustice and to fight for what they think is right. As a result, Berman is successful in initiating a dialog among the people in his audience, who may have opposing views with each other but regardless engage in a discussion about possible solutions to problems they have as a whole. In his criticisms of public figures and well-respected institutions such as religion, Berman exhibits that it is acceptable to question authority and even encourages it. His works are a constant reminder to the public that they should never blindly follow a leader or group without first thinking independently about the values they place highest importance on and to question everything. Ultimately, Berman is an unequivocal example of what a public intellectual should strive to be like: someone who addresses controversial issues at large within a society but is unafraid to instigate free thinkers to make changes in their society as they see fit.