I’ve had the great good fortune to meet and work with some of America’s nicest and most highly respected public intellectuals. These people have a mission, to advance human freedom and well-being. They do so through their knowledge of human propensities and ambitions. They work to understand society’s organization and coordination and then explain it to attentive others, not to mass audiences. They may write for the Wall Street Journal or New York Times’ editorial pages and small niche publications such as The Public Interest, The New Republic, American Spectator, or Weekly Standard.
Most of the public intellectuals I know are political economists working where economics, culture, and institutions intersect. All have advanced degrees from top schools and earned scholarly reputations before entering the public arena.
The recently departed (and greatly missed) James Q. Wilson is a stellar example. Jim had a mission and widely shared his insights in press and in person. For example, his “Broken Windows” approach to urban crime control positively affected national crime control. Jim also wrote on bureaucracy, marriage, public morality, and a dozen other topics. His talks at FREE seminars were exemplary models of public presentations to intelligent non-specialists.
Although not trained in political economy, Tom Wolfe also excels as a public intellectual who explains how the world works. Wolfe does so without employing statistics or graphs; he is a journalist and literary artist. He understands and communicates the workings of society far better than any anthropologist, historian, or sociologist I’ve met. Further, his range is much greater than any living economist. Grad school didn’t evaporate his capacity for empathic understanding and clear communicating.
The kind of knowledge Wolfe generates and shares cannot be replicated. There is no econometric, sociometric, or psychometric analogue to the skill set that gave us “Junior Johnson: Last American Hero Yes!” in 1965. (It’s the March issue of Esquire and still online.) His account of the cultural and economic environment of early NASCAR was the best piece of sociology published that year. Four and a half decades later Wolfe gave us an equally satisfying history of the origins of America’s high tech industry, an ethnographic account of Silicon Valley’s development.
Wolfe graduated from Washington and Lee in 1951. Lacking a sufficient fastball to make the majors, he decided on Yale for American Studies and earned his doctorate in 1957. He worked as a newspaper journalist for a decade, joining the New York Harold Tribune in 1962 as a general reporter and one of two staff writers for that paper’s Sunday supplement, New York Magazine.
In 1970, this magazine published one of the most insightful, cutting, and funny articles of the 20th century, “Radical Chic.” (It is available as a book with a complementary article “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a description of government poverty programs.) “Radical Chic” is a detailed account of a party Leonard and Felicia Bernstein gave for the Black Panthers. They hosted the event in their substantial, luxurious Park Avenue home. It is no accident that for decades I placed “Radical Chic” on my class reading lists.
Were I still teaching in a university, it would be there today. Wolfe helps us see and organize new conceptions of the world. His accounts, fiction and non-fiction, illustrate the motivations and actions of radically different subsets of characters. He seems unconstrained by political correctness. Wolfe is my ideal of a public intellectual.
In 1976, he published an article titled “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” Historians generally agree that America had experienced two great religious “awakenings,” one in the early 1700s and another in the decades preceding our civil war. Each transformed American society, not merely reforming denominations and creating new religious sects. There is no such agreement regarding America’s third awakening; some consider it the Social Gospel movement of the 1900 era. Wolfe skips to the fixation on self in the 1970s.
Labels are not right or wrong but rather are more or less useful. I’m turning attention to environmentalism as a religious movement. Whatever its number, perhaps the 4th, it surely is a religious movement and its members seek a great awakening. I’m working on it with this title, "”Environmentalism, Kudzu, and the Next Great Awakening.”
I begin with a question: Is environmentalism the kudzu invader of Christianity in the western world? Most Christians agree green symbolizes the renewal of vegetation and the promise of new life. Southern Baptists in Junior Johnson country may be surprised that green is the liturgical color for more than half the year in many Protestant and Catholic churches.
In sum, green has a rich and honorable tradition in Christianity. Now, however, we see a new shade of Green, one identified with Gaia rather than the Holy Bible. Here is the context.
Nearly every religious denomination has increased its environmental stewardship commitment and initiated “Green” programs in the last decade. A growing number of religious groups view environmental stewardship as an important religious obligation, indeed, one central to mankind’s purpose.
Given the above, an optimist would assume growing complementaries between Christianity and environmentalism. However, there is considerable evidence that for many people, especially the highly educated and well off in Europe, environmentalism has replaced the Christian religion. It may not be the next great awakening, but it surely is a fundamental challenge to American Christians.