Bioethics Blogs

The Last Public Intellectual: the Legacy of Jon Stewart

by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

A dozen years ago, polymath and federal appellate judge Richard Posner wrote a book called Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Posner took to task the group of public intellectuals he surveyed in his book (e.g. scholars, artists, public officials, etc.) for the low level quality of their work. As David Brooks (another person targeted in his book) observed: “We stink. Our logic is flawed. Our use of evidence is shoddy. Our ratiocination is crude.” Posner’s analysis focused on the likes of Allan Bloom, Amitai Etzioni, Toni Morrison, and even Bill Moyers.   Although many of the names on his list are people recognizable by people in the academy, most would not be remotely recognizable by the vast majority of individuals who comprise the “public.” And this brings up a serious problem with the notion of a public intellectual–the “public” part of this moniker is quite limited. A traditional public intellectual may reach hundreds, sometimes thousands of individuals–more like quasi-public intellectuals. Of course, this has changed with the advent of social media. But back in the late 1990s with traditional media still ascendant, Stewart was a revelation. A former stand-up comedian, Stewart re-invented the Daily Show to be a show like no other. He pushed satire beyond mere laughs to thoughtful and even incisive social and political commentary. He exposed hypocrisy, fallacies, and plain old stupidity. By the end of his run this week, Stewart became more than just a political satirist.

In an earlier AJOB article, I proclaimed that Jon Stewart was our greatest public intellectual.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.