The United States of Melissa Harris-Perry

What I have to say about public intellectuals will amount to a public-intellectual statement received publicly-intellectually and considered, or not, according to public-intellectual processes to public-intellectual ends.1 When Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dylan Byers, or anyone else commenting on the subject of their recent exchanges puts forward his or her own examples of “foremost public intellectual,” or disputes the meaningfulness of the discussion, the choices will correspond to political concepts and eventually with political positions: The image of the foremost public intellectual will correspond to ideas of foremost public purposes, to constructions of a polity and an idea of the role of ideas, including of the same idea, within it.2 Or again: The profile of foremost public intellectual will be a profile of the culture-state as the individual making the determination sees it and expects others to see it. The claim by Coates on behalf of left-liberal TV-talkhost and honored academic Melissa Harris-Perry was a stand on behalf of the United States of Melissa Harris-Perry, a constitution of the United States of Melissa Harris-Perry: It conjures an ideal res publica on Melissa-Harris-Perryian lines that, whatever else one might say or suspect about it, would also offer different prospects to Ta-Nehisi Coates than would the United States of George Will or even the United States of Cass Sunstein.3 The reflexity of the pronouncement holds even for those who nominate an adversary rather than an ally: The conservative who proposes the United States of Noam Chomsky will not be supporting Chomsky’s particular positions, but will be proposing a public sphere or discourse shaped by shared presumptions as to their possible significance.

The alternative view would be that the notion of a foremost public intellectual is not meaningful in America, either inherently absurd or no longer meaningful if it ever was. Daniel Solomon insists that there can be no foremost public intellectual in America because there is no singular American public at all. His position necessarily verges on a Declaration of Non-Existence, a quasi-constitution of a Non-United States:

When Coates asserted that Harris-Perry was the foremost public intellectual in America, he took two statements for granted: that “America” is a unitary public, and that its publicness carries social and moral meaning. Surveying the American media landscape, the most reliable proxy for our national public sphere, both statements appear patently, unavoidably false. “America” is surely a salient concept and identity for many, including those who live within the borders of the United States, but its salience, symbols, and virtues diverge along that stretch of highway between Chicago’s South Side and the plains of Oklahoma. Logically, its publics must also split. There are those who view a stretch of 57th Street as their common ground, and others who view morning-time Fox News talk-shows as a vessel for their cultural norms.

Without fully adopting Solomon’s terms, we can make out Coates’ main presumption within them: that we can speak sensibly about a unitary American public. Yet how precisely that public is constituted or constitutes itself – in whatever phenomenal forms or through whatever mechanisms – and whether it equates in some absolute, all-encompassing way with America as nation-state or state-nation, would remain open to question, and not merely as an analytical question, but as an absolute political question as well: The answer would be equally the result of political competition and decision4, not simply of intellectual debate.

If the “media landscape” does not somehow correspond to a unity or unitary moment or shared concept and identity, then it is precisely not a “reliable proxy for our public sphere,” which last might, for all we know, be adequately conveyed and constituted, or alternatively proxied, by email and twitter, or by telegraph and printing press, or by correspondence and at coffee houses. Maybe it once existed, and exists no longer, but, in referring to a proxy, Solomon already implicitly distinguishes between some actual public sphere and its particular embodiments. The politics of the day may make Sean Hannity and Melissa Harris-Perry seem like representatives of two wholly separate or morally non-contiguous sub-cultures, but the leading theorists of the public sphere5 would encounter little difficulty isolating a range of political-cultural assumptions that Dr. Harris-Perry and Mr. Hannity share. Because these assumptions operate and generally must operate on the level of unquestioned premises, the norms they implicitly acknowledge and inherently affirm from the moment a Hannity or Harris-Perry begins speaking to the camera (or signs an employment contract, etc.) may remain invisible to most observers.

As for the second of the two views that Solomon calls “patently, unavoidably false,” to say that the nation’s “publicness carries social and moral meaning,” if not precisely a minimal claim, is not really very much different from saying, as Solomon does by way of concession, that “America” remains a “salient concept and identity for many.” Put differently, to agree with Solomon that America or American “publicness” has no social or moral meaning would come very close to denying the political existence of an American state (or existence of an American polity) at all. It would be to propose the United States of Non-Unity and No State. Or perhaps a public difficulty among intellectuals with the question of the public intellectual at this time, a sense of a non-integral and un-graspable if not irrelevant public discourse or discourse of discourses, typifies the present conjuncture or global moment of the disappearance of a political-cultural concept in its own hyper-extension. No offense to Melissa Harris-Perry – an obviously highly intelligent and talented individual – but the mere possibility of one widely read and praised writer nominating her for “America’s most foremost public intellectual,” then responding to incredulity with accusations of racism, may offer support for the same thesis.


  1. There is no “intellectual” who is not also, because known to us and discussable by us, a “public” one, nor any intellection that does not imply a view as to its own reception, and thus reflect and construct an idea of its own public. To speak of the public at all is already to commit an intellectualism. []
  2. This post references “The Smartest Nerd in the Room” and “What It Means To Be a Public Intellectual” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What It Means To Be a Public Intellectual” by Dylan Byers, and “what is america’s foremost public intellectual?” by Daniel Solomon. Past uses of the specific term “public intellectual” are examined in “After The Last Intellectual,” by Scott McLemee. As for the broader question, to observe that it has a long history is to acknowledge a truism: History as a discourse is the discourse of the thinking of the public or of publics into being, of giving the existence or possible existence of “publics” – “peoples,” in relation to common affairs or affairs of state – a cognizable specificity and shape. For a discussion of the “question of the question,” see especially Strauss-Kojève in On Tyranny, which could almost have been entitled “On the Public Intellectual.” Kojève’s essay in that book, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” contains especially useful observations on this topic. See, also, “Unger’s Meaningless Betrayal” at this blog. []
  3. A few decades ago the Republic of Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have been a different place than the Republic of Angela Davis, and both of those rather different from a Republic of William F Buckley Jr. To say that Moynihan is remembered as a foremost public intellectual of his time, as an exemplar of the liberal-democratic statesman-scholar, may seem obvious, but it would remain a partisan statement: It can be both partisan and true because the so-called establishment, among whose primary characteristics was the promotion of the likes of Daniel Patrick Moynihan as avatars of its public and intellectual preponderance, has somewhat retained that preponderance at least in relation to alternatives. To disqualify Davis or Buckley as candidates for foremost public intellectual is to acknowledge the ascendancy of the social-political class represented by Moynihan.

    In this connection it may also be worth noting that “foremost political intellectual” is an elitist notion, or that pronouncement of a foremost political intellectual is an elitist gesture. If it may also be taken as a democratic gesture, on behalf perhaps of a natural aristocracy in our own time, and under currently acceptable terms, then it will tend toward vanguardism – popular sovereignty necessarily embodied and advanced in representative vehicles like the foremostness of Dr. Harris-Perry and perhaps one day of Mr. Coates. []

  4. …finally a or the sovereign decision in the Schmittian sense []
  5. … beginning, of course, with Habermas. []

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Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution.

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  1. What exactly is Harris Perry’s great contribution to public policy? hip hop and politics, Dyson has that niche,

    • You’re right – tho it was only after I happened to glance at her home page that I noticed she’s scheduled to teach a course on “Hip-Hop and Feminism,” so a potential different but overlapping niche, but she presents more as a full-service left-liberal, more fox than hedgehog.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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