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.