So You Want to Be a Public Intellectual?

Make a difference! Contribute to the public discourse! Collect large speaking fees!

Inspired by dozens of speeches by public intellectuals lately, here’s some advice for those aspiring to such a role.

1. Prologue: Begin by making a self-deprecating joke about the introduction you received. After all, someone has spent ten minutes reciting every line of your CV. For balance, thank your host, praise the audience, and compliment the venue. Joke about how asking your family or friends would yield a different biography than the one recited. Then, tell a joke about how the audience should have reserved their applause until you’ve finished speaking. Deliver endearing comments about the city in which you are speaking. Explain that you can only hope that you will do the event justice.

2. The Machiavelli Moment: Tell everyone that what you are about to say is very controversial and might shake their worldview. Warn them that if they need to leave because they are overwhelmed, this is perfectly acceptable. Titillate their curiosity by suggesting blasphemous and provocative things. One public intellectual cautioned, “What I am about to say may be ‘psychologically destabilizing.’” In one of his plays Machiavelli declares, “God save you all, benevolent spectators!” He feigns humility claiming to be “not a man of any fame” and says that “if you do not laugh, he’ll gladly buy you all a jug of wine.” The public intellectual should imitate this flair.

3. Heads or Tails? Decide whether you will be an optimist or a pessimist. Is it the end of an era? The dawning of a new age? You, the public intellectual, can choose your own adventure and decide! Talk about rise and decline. Is there a case for pessimism or a mood of optimism? When speaking to conservatives, speak about the greatness of the past and the malaises of modernity. When speaking to progressives, speak about the troubling state of current affairs and the possibility for a brave, new trajectory.

4. World History and Biography: Relate the history of the world to your personal biography. Discreetly mention your tenure at Harvard and your conversations with presidents and prime ministers as they coincided with scandals, elections, wars, assassinations, and technological developments. This will create the impression that you are indispensable and not superfluous. Drop names and credentials to heighten credibility. This will induce your audience to purchase autographed books and request photographs with you.

5. Stereotypical Jokes: So entrenched and widespread, some seemingly offensive stereotypes are so commonplace that they will hardly be judged as politically incorrect. Examples include jokes about Russians and drinking, Americans knowing nothing of the rest of the world, Canadians being polite and apologetic, and Brits being pretentious and sarcastic. Make your audience think themselves worldly by referring to these engrained prejudices.

6. Woo With Words: Use words and expressions that are commonsensical, yet convey that you are clever, well-read, and business-savvy. Public intellectuals should be in the business of crafting memorable slogans, not coining new words for the Oxford English Dictionary. Use words and phrases like “imagine,” “extraordinary transformation,” and “thought leadership.”

7. Economic Theory: Do not espouse an economic theory more complicated than rollercoaster physics. That is, do not say anything more intricate than some variation of the following: For the pessimists and conservatives say: What goes up, must come down. For the optimists and progressives say: What comes down, must go up.

8. Prediction Forgiveness: The public is very forgiving of the failed predictions made by weather forecasters. This should be indicative of the relative forgiveness that you will receive for your failure to predict the futures of Iran, Syria, or North Korea.  Public intellectuals earn speaking fees by giving the impression that their brains are actually crystal balls. The more long-term your predictions are, the less likely your career will suffer from disappointment at your failed predictions.

9. Flattery Matters: Thucydides tells us that Pericles was “a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation.” Public intellectuals are chosen for their perceived superiority and status. Your role as a public intellectual is to persuasively demonstrate why you’re standing at the podium. Flatter the people by praising their capacity for action. Inspire them to believe that by listening to you they have become enlightened and equipped. To reciprocate, your audience will compensate you beyond what any university professor receives in his classroom. You will receive an applause and you will have become a celebrity.

I hope this advice is helpful to you in becoming a public intellectual. But remember,

10) If all this fails, you can become a philosopher.