An interesting debate has been brewing these past few days over what it means to be a public intellectual—an honorific job description which I can imagine my intelligent but practical mother rolling her eyes at.
Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic wrote a piece on Monday dubbing MSNBC host and political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry "the smartest nerd in the room" and "America's foremost public intellectual."
Coates is a frequent scribbler of divisive pieces which dubiously impute racist motivations to white society at large—sort of a black, male Joan Walsh, if you will. So it was no surprise when he accused Dylan Byers, media reporter for Politico, of being a part of the "machinery of racism" for meeting the notion of Harris-Perry as public intellectual with due incredulity in a sharply worded tweet. Byers's great crime was proposing alternatives for title of "foremost public intellectual" who were exclusively white and almost all male. Apparently, arbitrary, imaginary honors should have a race- and gender-based quota, according to Coates.
Byers predictably caught hell from the social media force that is #BlackTwitter (h/t Mediaite). Wanting to weigh in, I tweeted the suggestion that it shouldn't be considered racist to call into question the intellectual credentials of a woman who once wore tampon earrings on television in a show of solidarity with Texas abortion booster Wendy Davis. One guy actually tweeted in reply to ask why it should preclude her from the title.
Ms. Harris-Perry is obviously a very intelligent woman, despite being politically backwards. She has a name-brand education from very fancy schools, is a professor, and is a TV host on a network that, although poorly watched, still pulls in more viewers than your average crazy person standing on a corner wearing a sandwich board. She might very well be a public intellectual if you accept that such titles are valid, but foremost?
The profession for which she is most known is being a television anchor. Think what you might of Cronkite or Murrow, but can you picture either of them wearing tampon earrings? Would Oprah do such a thing? No, because they respected the relationship they had with their audiences and would not want to trivialize such a thing.
This reminded me of another news item from this week in which a public official in a New York town was sworn into office wearing a pasta strainer on his head. He is part of the "Pastafarian" movement of atheists, which seeks to highlight the supposed absurdity of religion by praying to an "invisible flying spaghetti monster," a deity which they find no more absurd than any other article of faith. Yes, the whole thing is as insufferable as it sounds.
I commented on Mediaite's Facebook link to the story that such actions don't befit the dignity of public office. I was rebuked by several commenters who triumphantly pointed out that I would have had no objection if the man had worn a cross. The astute commenters were correct. I would have taken no issue if the man had worn a cross, any other signifier of a legitimate faith, or no representation of faith at all. Apparently this makes me a religious nut, and not merely someone who believes that public office entails the public trust and is therefore to be taken seriously.
So there you have it, folks. Progressive America has become so frivolous that it is no longer a simple given that wearing Kotex couture or a kitchen implement viking helmet makes you a whackadoo and is not some sort of profound political statement.