The “Crisis of the Intellectuals” and the Poverty of Public Discourse

by Joseph Shieber

George Kleine presents the Cines photo drama Quo Vadis Nero sings while Rome burns. - PICRYL - Public Domain Media Search Engine Public Domain Search

One of the strange juxtapositions appearing in the past few weeks was the publication of Ibram X. Kendi’s essay, “The Crisis of the Intellectuals” in The Atlantic, followed – a day or so later – by Marty Baron’s essay, “We want objective judges and doctors. Why not journalists too?” in the Washington Post.

Kendi’s essay is focused on pushing back against the traditional framing of the intellectual “as measured, objective, ideologically neutral, and apolitical” – a framing that Kendi finds crippling and, indeed, life-destroying. In contrast, Baron’s essay is focused on defending the ideal of objectivity from its detractors – including, although he is not mentioned by name, Kendi.

The authors themselves also offer a marked contrast. Although now undoubtedly an academic superstar and public intellectual, Kendi himself describes his ascension as unlikely, given that he “came from a non-elite academic pedigree, emerged proudly from a historically Black university, [and] earned a doctorate in African American Studies.” In contrast, Baron enjoyed a more predictable pathway to the pinnacle of his profession. He earned his B.A. and M.B.A. degrees in four years from Lehigh University, began his journalistic career at the Miami Herald, and then progressed quickly from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times, and then – now as executive editor – back to the Herald, after which he became executive editor of the Boston Globe (immortalized in the movie Spotlight), and finally the executive editor of the Washington Post. Kendi is 40; Baron, a generation older, is 68.

Belying the seeming contrast between the two essays, what is striking most about both of them is how similar their effects are. Reading both of them – particularly reading both of them serially – is like attempting to follow a conversation while completely submerged in molasses. Each seems dedicated to conveying as little substance as possible. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, that devotion to the anodyne, the biggest problem with Baron’s essay – as John Quiggin describes it in his short response, “A meta-view from meta-nowhere” – is that Baron never clearly states whether the coverage of the Trump Administration by the Washington Post and other legacy media outlets constituted a failure of objectivity or paradigm example of it.

Baron quotes Lippmann’s claim that “without protection against propaganda, … without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation. … There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.” Baron never admits, however, that under his editorial stewardship the journalists of the Washington Post were never allowed to describe Trump’s lies as lies.

Baron writes that, “Objectivity is not neutrality. It is not on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism. It is not false balance or both-sidesism. It is not giving equal weight to opposing arguments when the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction. It does not suggest that we as journalists should engage in meticulous, thorough research only to surrender to cowardice by failing to report the facts we’ve worked so hard to discover.” Baron never discusses, however, the ways in which the Washington Post that he led until 2021 failed to live up to the version of objectivity that Baron describes.

If Baron stumbles by saying too little, Kendi stumbles by sometimes saying too much. In particular, Kendi overshoots the mark when he suggests that reason or objectivity cannot also be ideals of the new, justice-seeking intellectuals that he champions. Furthermore, Kendi’s attempt to portray himself as a victim is simply laughable.

Let’s tackle Kendi’s missteps regarding reason and objectivity first. Despite suggesting that the sort of intellectual tradition that he wishes to exemplify involves being “fixated and focused wholly and totally on uncovering and clarifying complex truths,” Kendi’s discussion is mind-bogglingly simplistic. Kendi seems to treat what he sees as the ideals of the “traditional” intellectual – “measured, objective, ideologically neutral, and apolitical” – as part of a package, seemingly suggesting that giving up on ideological neutrality, for example, also means giving up on objectivity.

Furthermore, Kendi’s discussion seems to be shot through with glaring examples of the genetic fallacy. He makes a great deal out of the fact that “[t]raditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include people who looked like [him].” He briefly describes “the equation of the Enlightenment and ‘reason’ and ‘objectivity’ and ‘empiricism’ with whiteness and Western Europe and masculinity and the bourgeoisie.”

He writes, “I knew that Francis Bacon, the father of ‘empiricism’ in the sciences, held anti-Black racist ideas,” and then – perhaps confusing Francis Bacon with Francis Galton? – suggests “that [Bacon’s] work became the basis for ‘empirical’ quests among eugenicists to assert natural human hierarchy that climaxed in the mass sterilization of Black and Latina and disabled and low-income women in the United States and in the Holocaust of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ in Nazi Germany.” (The only mention of Francis Bacon in Stamped from the Beginning is on p. 107, where Kendi notes that Thomas Jefferson ranked Bacon with Locke and Newton as “the three greatest men the world has produced.”)

So one problem with Kendi’s essay is that he eschews complexity in favor of simplistic and, frankly, fallacious reasoning, in his discussion of reason and objectivity. The second problem is that Kendi’s essay suffers from a bathetic conflation of his situation with that of the truly heroic activist intellectuals that Kendi sees as his forebears. 

In his essay, Kendi describes the criticisms he faced for his scholarship and the way that his literal confrontation with death, in the form of a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer, set him free:

When the traditionalists today disagree with the evidence-based findings of intellectuals—or envy the prominence of our work—too often they do not contest our findings with their own evidence. They do not usually engage in intellectual activity. They misrepresent our work. They play up minor typos or small miscues to take down major theses. They call us names they never define, like “leftist” or “Marxist” or “woke” or “socialist” or “prophet” or “grifter” or “political” or “racist.” All to attack our credibility as intellectuals—to reassert their own credibility. In politics, they say, when you can’t win on policy, you smear the candidate. In intellectualism, when you can’t win on evidence, you smear the intellectual.

I knew the smears were coming, because I knew history. What blocked my writing bound my intellectualism. What finally set me free to be an intellectual was the face of death, a face I still stare at to amass the courage to be an intellectual.

The time that Kendi describes here is the period in 2017 and 2018 in which he was writing How to be an Antiracist. While I would never question his experience of what went on during that time, particularly given his no doubt harrowing experience with cancer, it is worthwhile to put that experience in perspective.

In 2017, Kendi went from being an untenured assistant professor at the University of Florida to being a full professor at American University – and the founder and executive director of a new Center for Antiracist Research at American. In 2020, Kendi moved the Center for Antiracist Research to Boston University, becoming the founder and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.

The Mellon Professorship at BU is not just any named professorship. Here’s how BU described it, upon bestowing the professorship on Kendi: “The endowed Mellon Professorship is one of BU’s highest honors, held by only one other person in the University’s history: Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), the late Holocaust survivor and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who fought for decades for human rights around the world and who died in 2016.”

Kendi was 37 when he was awarded the Mellon Professorship in 2020. Elie Wiesel was 48 when he was awarded the Mellon Professorship in 1976. By that time, Wiesel had published numerous books – including the Night trilogy, The Gates of the Forest, The Town Beyond the Wall, A Beggar in Jerusalem, and many others.

My point in comparing Kendi to Wiesel isn’t to suggest that Kendi isn’t deserving of the Mellon Professorship at Boston University. Rather, my point instead is to suggest that Kendi’s privileged position at the pinnacle of the professoriate at a well-known private university – a position previously occupied by a recipient of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize – should certainly be sufficient to compensate him for having to suffer the “smears” of those he calls “traditionalists.” It certainly suggests that it is, at the very least, tone deaf of Kendi to compare his situation to that of Ida B. Wells, whose work against lynching subjected her to death threats credible enough to drive her out of Memphis.

My point is that there’s something wrong with someone of Kendi’s privileged position comparing the muted backlash he’s received with the tribulations of his intellectual predecessors:

Gay professors were among those harassed and arrested by the U.S. Park Police’s “Pervert Elimination” campaign in Washington, D.C., in 1947—just as LGBTQ teachers are being harassed and censored today. Spelman College fired the Jewish professor Howard Zinn in 1963 for “radicalizing” Black women students by telling them the truth about U.S. history—and firings or threats of firing continue today at other schools and colleges. In 2021, the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees denied tenure to the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones over “politics.”

The contrast of the LGBTQ teachers’ and Zinn’s plight with that of Hannah-Jones – and, by extension, of Kendi – is telling. Hannah-Jones is a MacArthur grant and Pulitzer Prize recipient; the ridiculous decision by the Board of Trustees at UNC Chapel Hill not to offer her a position with tenure led to Hannah-Jones receiving a position as the first Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the Howard University School of Communications, where she is also the founder and head of the Center for Journalism and Democracy. Again, as with Kendi, Hannah-Jones’s situation is hardly comparable to that of Ida B. Wells at the turn of the century, LGBTQ academics in the forties, or even Zinn in the sixties.

In fact, this is to be celebrated! It’s GOOD that Hannah-Jones has a comfortable position from which to advance her work, just as it’s good that Kendi has a prestigious perch from which to advance his. (You can donate to the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research here.)

What’s NOT good is that the pages of The Atlantic and the Washington Post are filled with this tripe, while income inequality is rampant, the Supreme Court makes a mockery of women’s equal status under the law, Republican governors and lawmakers attack trans kids and their parents and caregivers, and K-12 teachers and librarians face retaliation for attempting to teach kids the truth about history and science. By adding fuel to the fire of the fake controversy about objectivity and reason, both Baron and Kendi contribute to a public discourse “which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”