A Study of Decline
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Is the state of public intellectualism in decline, or is Posner just really smart and terribly grumpy?

The answer: a bit of the former, a lot of the latter. Anyone who watches cable news knows the punditocracy has lowered the requirements of admission, as volume has replaced reason in public debates. The proliferation of cable channels and other media outlets has created a booming need for talking heads, but these heads often fail to talk as intelligently as they should. Posner (An Affair of State, 1999, etc.) strings together a slew of charts and graphs to document empirically the decline, meticulously counting and then comparing the number of scholarly citations of a public intellectual’s works versus the number of media citations. (In a dazzling display of his math skills, Posner also asserts that U¹(t,b)–U2(t,d)=Z¹>0, but there he’s just showing off.) Of course, Posner is right in many of his assertions, especially his argument that much of the decline is due to academics who write outside of their discipline, but he’s also a bit of a crank, one not above taking a few underhanded swings at his personal foes. Sure, it might be clearly demonstrated that Camille Paglia deserves ridicule, but Martha Nussbaum? If Nussbaum represents the decline of the American intellectual, then we’re in pretty good shape. Likewise, Posner rightly savages the self-serving antics of Paul Ehrlich and Edward Said, but he tosses Lani Guinier into the mix as well, with not much of a hint as to what she did to deserve his opprobrium. To his credit, Posner does achieve a left/right balance in his attacks, positioning himself somewhat above the ideological fray, and his analyses of such figures as Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky are detailed and articulate. The jeremiad closes with a few impractical suggestions for improvement that will never be adopted. It takes the wind out of a reviewer’s sails when the author predicts one’s criticisms; predicting them, however, does not entail that he doesn’t deserve them.


Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-674-00633-X
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2001