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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 4, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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Pico Iyer
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Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

remembering a public intellectual



Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. He is the author of more than 50 books including The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth and Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. Many of his essays, including The Spectacle of Illiteracy, appear on his website at His interview with Bill Moyers is must viewing. He was recently named one of the century's 50 most significant contributors to the debate on education.

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YOUR COMMENTSIn contrast with the constant stockpiling of images and data points believed to be the ultimate source of meaning, the archive not only preserves the long arc of the past but also provides a measure of totality, a comprehensive context, and a temporality in which to understand the works, personal objects, and social relations that inform the lives and careers of artists, intellectuals, and other notable cultural workers.

Having my work archived along with Russell’s was particularly moving since he was a model for me as a public intellectual as I began teaching and writing in the 1960s. I came of age when intellectual, political, and cultural paradigms were shifting. Protests were advancing on university campuses and in the streets against the Vietnam War, systemic racism, the military-industrial complex, the corporatization of the university, and the ongoing assaults waged on women, the poor and the vulnerable. Intellectuals and artists such as Jean Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Ellen Willis, Susan Sontag, Paul Goodman, James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr. were translating their ideas into actions and exhibiting a moral courage that both held power accountable and refused to be seduced by it. This was an age of visionary change, civic courage, and democratic inclusiveness; it was a time in which language translated into actions that enabled people to understand how power operated on their daily lives and how their daily existences and relationships to the world could be more engaging in critical and radically imaginative ways.

For me, Bertrand Russell stood out among these intellectuals in a way that was both iconic and personal. Russell was not only a rigorous scholar but also a public intellectual who moved with astonishing ease through a range of disciplines, ideas, and social problems. He embodied a new kind of public intellectual, one who functioned as a border crosser and traveler who like another great public intellectual, Edward Said, refused to hold on to scholarly territory or a disciplinary realm in order to protect or bolster his fame or ego. Careerism was anathema to Russell and it was obvious in his willingness to push against conceits and transgressions of power whether it was contesting World War 1 as a conscientious objector, dissenting against the authoritarian populism consuming much of Europe in the 1930s, protesting against the threat of nuclear weapons, or criticizing the horrors and political depravity that marked the United States’ war against the Vietnamese people.

In pushing the boundaries of civic courage and the moral imagination, Russell took risks, put his body on the line, and made visible the crimes of his time, even if it meant going to jail, which he did as late in his life as the age of 89 after protesting against nuclear weapons. Russell lived in what can be called dangerous times and he responded by placing morality, critical analysis, collective struggle, and a profound belief in democratic socialism at the center of his politics.

I was always moved by his courage, and his belief in the political capacities of everyday people and the notion that education was central to politics itself. Russell believed that people had to be informed in order to act in the name of justice. He believed that politics could be measured by how much it improved people’s lives, gave them a sense of hope, and pointed to a future that was decidedly better than the present. Russell, like Vaclav Havel, another towering public intellectual, believed that politics followed culture and that there was no possibility of social change unless there was a change in peoples’ attitudes, consciousness, and how they live their lives. Russell believed that a critical education could teach young people not to look away and to take risks in the name of a future of hope and possibility. Russell’s radical investment in the power of education was more than simply a strong conviction. Not only did he start his own progressive school in the 1920s, but he believed that one demand of the public intellectual was to be rigorous and accessible and to make one’s work meaningful in order for it to be critical and transformative. Russell connected education to social change and believed that matters of identity, desire, power, and values were never removed from political struggles.

Not only did he write incessantly as a public intellectual, but he was always willing to throw his body and mind into the thick and fray of the social problems he addressed. As a writer and political activist, he was overtly derided, and even condemned by other intellectuals. One episode that moved me immensely when I learned of it was that he was denied a position at the College of the City of New York. At the time, powerful conservatives both in and out of the Catholic Church saw his ideas as dangerous, going so far as to claim if he took up the job at CCNY he would be occupying a “Chair of Indecency.” I read about this period in Russell’s life soon after I was denied tenure for political reasons at Boston University by the notorious right wing president, John Silber.

He made clear that there had to be a crucial element of love and solidarity in the ability to feel passionate about freedom and justice. Erich Fromm, one of the great Frankfurt School theorists, called Russell a prophet because his “capacity to disobey is rooted, not in some abstract principle, but in the most real experience there is—in the love of life.” In an age of “fake news,” Russell is an extraordinary and insightful reminder in the power of informed rationality, science, and evidence. At a time when the threat of a nuclear disaster looms larger than ever, Russell offers both in words and deeds the recognition that security cannot be gained through a culture of fear, fraud, armaments, and armed struggle.

At a time when democracy is under siege, authoritarian populism is on the rise, public values are under assault, and people are losing faith in democratic institutions, Russell’s writings, actions, and struggles offer a potent reminder of the need for civic courage, moral outrage, critical thinking, and the necessity of a politics that can do the work of translating private troubles into broader social issues. Russell reminds us of the value of not only being a public intellectual, but of the power of ideas and the necessity of education as the precondition for never allowing justice to grow dead in us while remembering that no society is ever just enough.

For Russell, politics was not just about changing the economic structures of domination, it was also about a struggle over agency, identity, values, and modes of identification. The latter seems particularly important at a time when unbridled individualism, unchecked belief in privatization, and a reductive investment in self-interest have been elevated to the highest ideals of many Western societies, contributing to an age in which dangerous forms of authoritarianism are once again emerging in many countries. Against this collapse into nihilism and the abyss of authoritarianism, Russell provides a vision that is expansive and life-giving. His work and life offer a model of hope tempered with courage, and his actions speak strongly to the importance of collective struggles and the need for broad-based social movements. Remembering Russell is to reclaim a vision in an age that seems to lack one, and in doing so to develop a sense of responsibility in the face of the unspeakable, and to do so with dignity, self-reflection, and the courage to act in the face of injustice. Sharing a space with Russell’s archives for me is a great honour, because it is a constant reminder of not only how to learn from the past, but what it means to work in the shadow of a life committed to justice, equity, joy, and civic courage.




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