Matt Bieber in The Wheat and Chaff:
Carlo Rotella is one of the most exciting thinkers I’ve ever met. He’s a professor, writer, and public intellectual, and his mind ranges everywhere: from boxing to the blues and free play to fantasy novels.
A couple of weeks ago, Rotella wrote a brilliant column in the Boston Globe about the challenge of conveying nuanced ideas in media formats which value glib summaries above all else. (Even the title – “Why Academics Turn Into Robots on TV” – was great.)
I emailed Rotella, and he agreed to talk some more about his ideas. I called him a few days later, and I did my best to follow his fertile mind as it criss-crossed acres of political and cultural terrain.
MB: In a recent essay in the Boston Globe, you talked about the relative absence of experts on TV and radio who are capable of articulating complicated ideas in a digestible way. You suggested that there’s a “sweet spot between the eminent scholar who had so much to say but couldn’t find a way to say it and the media pro who didn’t have much to say but managed to get it said memorably in a few seconds of airtime.”
It sounds like you’re lamenting a lack of real public intellectuals. Who do you think of as the best occupants of that sweet spot right now?
CR: Well, at the risk of starting up by saying, “Well, Matt, it’s complicated,” let me just amend the first part of that. I think there are a lot of people who can do it on both sides. That is, there are a lot of academics who are able to talk to a general audience and who have an ambition to make things more complicated than they often come out in the press. And on the other side, there are a lot of people in the writing trades and journalists who are interested in what academics have to say, and are familiar with that world and want the academics to give them that material.
So, a lot of what I’m talking about is actually the technical difficulty of squeezing it in to the niches that are made available to do it. Even with goodwill on both sides, sometimes it’s hard to do, right? So I’m not lamenting the lack of people who can do this; I’m saying that it’s hard to do and it’s a very specific skill, separate from having something to say. And so, it often doesn’t work even when there are good intentions on all sides.