True story: yesterday, after working on my post off and on for much of the previous day, I woke up at like 6AM and thought: “What if Alan Jacobs intentionally overstated how much Christian intellectuals have self-marginalized as a provocation? What if the whole idea was to force us to reckon with our own responsibilities first?” Well, he’s now confirmed that’s exactly what he was doing, and I like his essay better in retrospect.
His blog also has several posts that talk about the definition of “intellectual” he’s using (Karl Mannheim’s”detached interpreter” of culture, who by definition is not an activist or politician). I admit that my response just completely ignores this. That’s partly because I follow the general usage of the term (“really smart person”) and missed Jacobs’s clear cues as to his own intended usage. I may have missed or ignored those cues because I don’t think there are any detached interpreters and kind of go into “oh, c’mon” mode when I encounter the concept. Jacobs further explains that Rowan Williams, for example, couldn’t qualify as a “Christian intellectual” in this particular sense during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, despite being a brilliant interpreter of culture. Nor could MLK or Dorothy Day. They’re all speaking for institutions or for counter-institutions (the Catholic Worker organization) or for movements. But the “free” “unattached” intellectuals are also, more subtly, speaking for and from institutions or movements: their academic department, their “little magazine,” their family inheritance … Someone is always underwriting your dissent. That’s just the nature of mortal existence. I have often, for example, made use of the freedom that comes from not seeking a tenure-track position. I try not to be self-righteous about this, because I know that if I somehow pissed off the kinds of people who mount pressure campaigns, my lectureship would be extremely vulnerable, and I’d probably, eventually, after a few impassioned rants, shut up about whatever it would be that those people would want me to shut up about. If I didn’t shut up, even that gesture of defiance would ultimately be underwritten by my wife’s tenure and prominence in her field, and by the strength and advocacy of my lecturer’s union, of which I am a proud member.
The distinction that matters to a reader is between:
the interesting, smart, eloquent people who try to be honest and fair, in spite of the loyalties and biases that come from being mortal and caring about things;
the interesting, smart, eloquent people who will say whatever helps their cause.
Some of the former are closely associated with institutions, movements, etc. And far too many of the latter are freelance.