John McWhorter: public intellectual par excellence

In a crowded field of public intellectuals, John McWhorter stands head and shoulders above most. He has a genuine commitment to the Socratic method (i.e. intellectual honesty), never peddling an over-rehearsed hardened position that he’s been married to since the year dot. One always feels that he really values the provisionality of intellectual discourse and is always open to be convinced of countervailing positions. Unlike many whose vanity is so easily massaged (wannabe public intellectuals seduced even if they are not paid a dime to meet the voracious appetite for “content”), John never merely takes on the role as “expert” or “brand/virtue signaling” totem, fulfilling echo chamber/parti pris expectations. Even when one feels that he might be on the ropes, he never resorts to playing the badge of honor card (“Well, I am an x, y, z, therefore . . . ) a strategy typically used to shut conversation down. I always get a fresh, unexpected, well-informed and reasoned perspective from him, even if the conclusion may be one I’d be at odds with. Under these circumstances one can fully accept and appreciate countervailing positions without it becoming an either-or situation. So here’s the thing: John has a true commitment to liberality, conversability and civility — virtues that have been severely corroded over the past decades both within the academy and throughout public life. Moreover, John doesn’t “play the role” of professorial know-all — his tone, comportment, and poise is so very natural. One gets a sense that John would be just the same chap over a pint of beer — and this would be possible since divergent views would be a rather shallow determinate mitigating against friendship.

Both John and Glenn Loury are a fabulous paring: whatever they talk about one always comes away with a sense of having learnt something, a model of civility and mutual respect which in no way entails pussyfooting around controversial and complex ideas replete with phony euphemisms. Speaking of John, he was the star performer at the recent debate on free speech. As debates go, this format was the best I’ve come across (and that includes the many Oxford Union debates I attended). The moderator was superb as were the questions from the students — this is the way it should be. I for one didn’t call the result but no doubt the standard recriminations/excuses will be proffered. Check out the debate. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope for us in this overly polarized and vulgarized culture. Update: see The Atlantic‘s take on the debate.