Concision and the Public Intellectual

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A friend of mine sent me the video below as an expansion on our conversation around cable news. It's a discussion from the 1980s about why Noam Chomsky had never been on Nightline. I dislike many of the sweeping generalizations which Chomsky makes at the end. Still, there's an interesting debate here about "intellectuals who can talk on TV." Talking on TV means concision, making your point directly, and pointedly, in a short amount of time. But Chomsky points out that "concision" actually favors the spouting of conventional thinking. 


So for instance, making this specific to me, let's say I go on television and say "We can salute the bravery of the Confederate Army, while deploring their aims." This is a fairly conventional point which relies on relatively established mores. They are, in this case, 1.) Slavery was bad 2.) The men who died at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg on both sides, were brave. Or some such. Moreover it makes me sound fair-minded in my willingness to allow for a kind of moral out for all sides, regardless of their sympathies. 

But let's say I go on television and say, "Confederate bravery is neither unique, nor in and of itself, praise-worthy. Mohammad Atta was brave. The kamikazes were brave. But bravery in service of evil should never be commemorated." This is a problem. Even in writing it, I've had to take up more space then the previous assertion. Likely, I could edit it down to a sentence or two. But I leave it this way to show how much space and time it takes me to make the more contentious point, one that challenges our accepted thinking, (the 9/11 bombers were brave) and leaves no room for an honorable retreat. Pushing the point further, I could, as was done the other night, simply call the firing on Fort Sumter a terrorist attack. This is almost certainly untrue, but it incites our visceral disgust for terrorism and thus leaves the point of commemorating implicit. 

To be, all at once, accurate, concise and emotive strikes me as a difficult task, and I agree with Chomsky that it's especially difficult when you're going against the grain. That said, I'm not convinced that it's a challenge which academics and intellectuals should avoid, or even have the luxury of avoiding. Surely concision, favors the simple and conventional, but this is as true in writing as it is talking on cable news. The problem is that intellectuals are (hopefully) trained to write. They aren't trained to talk.

Going into the next few years, we need historians debating the Civil War's causes not "liberal columnists" who could just as easily be debating health care or TARP. I'm a liberal, but I don't really see how pointing out that the South seceded to preserve and expand slavery necessarily leads to an argument for single-payer health care. I mean, I hope it does. But there's no real reason why it has to.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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