Top Five Public Intellectuals 

“Public intellectual” might seem a little thin on a resume, but lo and behold, writers of various stripes, the biggest brains with panache, are analyzing and commenting on the passing scene. These aren’t folks who hold that politics and religion are off limit topics of conversation. Public intellectuals infuriate people more than they delight them. They are challenging in every sense.

Above the din of bloviating telegensia, some intellects are so potent and fearless that they demand attention regardless of the volume. Or, even more tellingly, they make me want to sit through Charlie Rose just to hear them get a word in edgewise. Having heard them, I have sought out their written works:

Christopher Hitchens – This prolific writer of Love, Poverty and War and many other books was always interesting, usually incendiary, and wrong as much as he was right. Hitchens has made everybody angry at least once, but has done so in powerful and graceful ways, like an intellectual Muhammad Ali. He has publicly condemned Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa, the Clintons, and God (or, as he would have it, god.). “Rapier wit” is hackneyed, but he is sharp and cutting. It’s fitting too because his debate opponents often don’t realize the severity of his attack until it’s too late. The reader of his literary reviews, found mainly in The Atlantic Monthly, should receive college credit.

David Berlinski – What distinguishes Berlinski from many persons of letters is the fact that he can do math and has written books (The Advent of the Algorithm , Tour of the Calculus, and Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics) to prove it.  He has become something of a lightning rod in the heated exchanges on intelligent design. The unbelieving Berlinski is resolute in his stance that science can neither prove, nor disprove, the existence of God; therefore the intellectual position is of agnosticism. This hasn’t endeared him to much of academia. The urbane Berlinski has also written, seemingly as a lark, mystery novels. Richard Dawkins never wrote a mystery novel.

(Hitchens and Berlinski debated each other not long ago. It was a heavyweight bout.)

Stanley Crouch – The interviews with Crouch in the special features of DVD collection of The Civil WarA film by Ken Burns are worth the price of admission. Burns subsequently turned to Crouch’s intellect in Jazz for insightful comment. A traditionalist, Crouch’s writings on jazz music, such as Considering Genius, are informative and exciting. They allow you to understand jazz without making you feel bad that you didn’t already. The same might be said of Crouch’s unflinching commentary on the current state of race relations and its antecedents.

Camille Paglia – More than anyone listed here, Paglia comes closest to expressing joy, by which I mean she smiles sincerely when taking apart a debate opponent. She’s notorious for her irreverent approach to American giants like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She’s able to draw connections between today’s pop culture and the Classical world of antiquity. There’s nothing new under the sun and Paglia is ready to prove it. She’s fiercely libertarian and her positions are often confusing to the mainstream: she’s an atheist who will defend religion; she defends pornography as the lowbrow equivalent of Classical painting and sculpture; calling herself feminist, she attacks feminism as an out-of-touch monolithic movement. She has insulted the big names of feminism such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. Paglia has called Gloria Steinem the “Stalin of feminism.” Insults don’t make for pleasant dessert talk, but as theater they are captivating.

William T. Vollman – Like a method actor, Vollman immerses himself entirely in his subject matter. He writes, not just from absolutely committed and thorough research (though there is that) but also from personal experience. He recently traveled to Japan with a Geiger counter to write of the after-effects of the tsunami and reactor meltdown, while most of us were willing to take Brian Williams’ word for it. While still a young man, he completed a 3000 page, 7 volume treatise on the use of violence. Nothing is simple for Vollman and he works to understand the layers of complexity of . . . everything. He’s been called the most academic writer that anyone would pay money to read.

— Jeff W.

American Homer: An Ode to David Halberstam

People can, and do, quibble about the dates, but no nation in history has been as rich, free, and powerful as the United States in the post-war years from 1945 – 1975. The pen that best chronicled these American decades belonged to David Halberstam.

A Harvard man (he edited the Crimson), Halberstam went in the 1950s to the deep south to cover the budding Civil Rights Movement. However, it would be from Vietnam in the early 1960s that Halberstam would establish his place in the canon.

Writing for the New York Times, Halberstam covered the war and provided reporting that eventually, even commonly, contradicted official military statements. It came to be said that President Kennedy would receive more accurate intelligence briefs by reading Halberstam in the Times than from his own security advisors.

The war proceeded while the Kennedy administration gave way to the Johnson administration, which gave way to the Nixon administration. Halberstam, back in the United States, published The Best and the Brightest in 1972. Seldom have folly and hubris been more comprehensively established.

Intrigued by American power in general, and wielding influence in particular, he next examined the media in The Powers That Be at a time when the power of the press was concentrated in very few hands. Though Halberstam focuses on media empires CBS, Time magazine, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It may seem quaint in today’s socially networked, blogged up world, but at the time these organs were the voices of the Establishment except, as during Watergate, when they weren’t.

Over the years, even when Halberstam addressed sports (The Breaks of the Game, The Summer of ’49, October 1964) they were never merely books about sports, but serious examinations of American themes like race and money.

The topics of 1986’s The Reckoning remain surprisingly fresh: the history of Ford and Nissan, corporate America, and how Japan became the industrial leader of the world. The Reckoning is much more than a company history of the sort that is commonly overtaken by events and swiftly becomes irrelevant. (See The Big Store about Sears or Lee Iacocca’s biography. Or don’t.; Iacocca, by the way, was initially a Ford man and plays a role in Halberstam’s book for outsourcing manufacturing jobs.)

American power, and competition at the highest levels for the greatest stakes, remained Halberstam’s themes over the course of his career.

The Fifties, published in 1998, successfully drew connections between the vast areas of Halberstam’s research and experiences. The monochromatic decade was anything but, and it established the ferment that would explode in the Technicolor 60s. His final book, The Coldest Winter, returned to the 50s and the Korean War. He was researching the 1958 NFL championship game at the time of his untimely death in 2007.

Halberstam was America’s Homer, the one who depicted the great power at its apex.

Agree/disagree?

— Jeff W.

Staff Picks: Top Football Books 

Notwithstanding the protestations of the Church of Baseball guys, America’s real national pastime is football. It combines common elements of American life– namely, tedious meetings and shocking violence. This 2011 season hung briefly in jeopardy owing to a labor dispute, but was saved. Had the season been cancelled, there would have been time to read more football books; now there may only be time to read these:

Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer: It’s widely held that the big boys of the offensive line are the most intellectual group on a team. Kramer isn’t Kierkegaard, but this memoir brings the reader inside the game and into Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay locker room. It recounts the 1967 season, when the Packers won their third straight championship.

One Knee Equals Two Feet by John Madden: As a coach, Madden won a Super Bowl in Oakland. After retiring, he became a broadcaster and his first book isn’t a memoir so much as a tutorial of the game. As a color commentator for more than 30 years, Madden was often parodied for his excesses with the telestrator and his bombastic style, but when you listened closely, you could recognize a very specialized intellect at work. Madden could explain something on every single play that the layman would never have seen. This 1986 book is Football 101 by a masterful teacher.

The Best Game Ever by Mark Bowden: There are still viejos who remember the 1958 Championship Game between the New York Football Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The rosters for the two teams read like the VIP list for Canton, if not Valhalla. This book contains individual excellence, team accomplishment, and the historical relevance of the game being both the first overtime game in NFL history and nationally televised. Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo is deft at writing men of action in a pitched battle.

Education of a Coach by David Halberstam: One of the preeminent journalists of the 20th Century, Halberstam, turned his attention to one of the finest minds in football, Bill Belichik, giving us a peek into the guarded Patriots coach. Halberstam rose to prominence covering the American war in Vietnam and he subsequently made a long career chronicling fiercely driven people competing at the highest levels – battlefields, corridors of power, the hardcourt. Here he shows the development of a coach’s mind, an intellect engaged in the pursuit of excellence.

North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent: This 1973 novel isn’t as much fun as you may remember the movie being. Neither is it beloved by any with a romanticized vision of the NFL. Gent was a receiver for the Cowboys from 1964 – 1968 and this first novel is understood to be largely autobiographical, displaying a world where the use of painkillers and guns are common.

Wildcard Round:

Johnny U: Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan:  If we were to be fair, maybe we should talk more about the legacy of Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh, but we don’t. However, no serious – or even beery – discussion about the greatest QBs of all time has excluded Unitas. Read this to learn why.

Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegel: Coaches like to say that no one is bigger than the game. That may have been true – before Broadway Joe. Here we see Athlete as Celebrity, renown as much for his outrageous lifestyle as for winning. Namath’s promised victory in Super Bowl III might have been folly, not even have been a footnote, but when it happened the world changed.

When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss: In the 50 years since Lombardi’s Packers won the Super Bowl, other coaching schools have risen and fallen. This has always been a game of blocking and tackling, but it hasn’t always been contingent on endorsement deals.

Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy: This Super Bowl-winning coach-turned-broadcast analyst could have me fooled, but I don’t think so. When publicists shield and vet and spin and sell, nothing on TV is real. And yet and yet, Tony Dungy seems like a genuinely decent fellow.

So which coach or player do you find most interesting? Who’s your favorite team?

— Jeff W.