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"A Brave Old World: Utopia, Dystopia, and the Intellectual Historian"
an online discussion with Professor Russell Jacoby, Department of History, University of California-Los Angeles, beginning Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2001, at 9:00 a.m. CST
H-Net Joins the Debate on the
Future of the Public Intellectual
Russell Jacoby of UCLA will be joining the wider H-Net community from
Feb. 13-19 to field questions and participate in a wider discussion on the
past and future of public intellectuals. The H-Ideas editors hope to spark
discussion on a debate that in recent weeks has spilled into the pages of
_Harper's Magazine_ and _The Nation_: have public intellectuals
abandoned all hope of a more humane society?
This online discussion is unrelated to, but neatly coincides with, the publication of a forum, held several weeks ago in New York City, on the "future of the public intellectual" (_The Nation_, Feb. 12, 2001). Panelists in this forum included Russell Jacoby, Stephen Carter, Herbert Gans, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Christopher Hitchens, John Donatich, and Steven Johnson. A transcript of their exchange can be viewed at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010212&s=forum.
Over the past decade, historian Russell Jacoby has distinguished himself as
an incisive and provocative critic of contemporary liberalism. In his most
recent book, _The End of Utopia_, Professor Jacoby lamented the retreat of
public intellectuals from once-inspiring Enlightenment ideals. Their inward
turn has hastened the decline of a critically-engaged progressive politics:
"radicals have lost their bite," he wrote, "and liberals their
Two months ago, in an article printed in _Harper's Magazine_, Professor Jacoby focused his critique on early twentieth-century thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper. Revulsion at Nazism and Soviet Communism fueled in these intellectual historians a deep skepticism of utopian platitudes. But despite the defeat of Nazism, the retreat from utopianism continued unabated. Jacoby finds contemporary intellectuals awash in a "convenient cynicism" that "dismiss[es] utopian visionaries as dangerous cranks." Lost is the spirit of hope that "inequality and suffering are not inherent to the human condition, that a more humane society is possible."
The H-Ideas editors have invited Professor Jacoby to help us address a vital question, one that transcends the putative boundaries between politics and the practice of the history of ideas:
Have public intellectuals--specifically, intellectual historians--abandoned
all hope of a more humane society?
 Russell Jacoby, _The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of
Apathy_ (New York: Basic Books, 1999), xii.
 Russell Jacoby, "A Brave Old World: Looking Forward to a
Nineteenth-Century Utopia," _Harper's Magazine_, vol. 301 (Dec. 2000),
Preparations for the H-Ideas exchange with Professor Jacoby will begin on
Feb. 9, when a summary of his _Harpers_ article will be posted to the
H-Ideas discussion list. After a brief exchange between Professor Jacoby
and the H-Ideas editors, the discussion will be opened to the entire
H-Net community on the morning of TUESDAY, FEB. 13. ALL list
subscribers are invited to post questions to Professor Jacoby and
participate in a moderated discussion.
Those interested in the discussion may monitor its progress http://www.h-net.org/~ideas/. Potential participants should subscribe to the H-Ideas discussion list. (Subscription instructions are provided on the aforementioned website.) For more information, please contact Andrew Rieser, Co-Editor, H-Ideas, firstname.lastname@example.org.