The Prospect/Foreign Policy list of 100 global public intellectuals suggested that the age of the great oppositional thinker was over, but Noam Chomsky’s emphatic victory shows many remain nostalgic for it
The two most striking things about this poll are the number of people who took part and the age of the winners. Over 20,000 people voted for their top five names from our longlist of 100, and they tended to reinforce the trends of the original list. More than half of the top 30 are based in North America. Europe, by contrast, is surprisingly under-represented—a cluster of well-known names in the top 20 (Eco, Havel, Habermas) but then it is a long way down to Kristeva (48) and Negri (50). The most striking absence is France—one name in the top 40, fewer than Iran or Peru.
There is not one woman in the top ten, and only three in the top 20. The big names of the left did well (Chomsky, Habermas, Hobsbawm) but there weren’t many of them. Scientists, literary critics, philosophers and psychologists all fared badly. And voters did not use the “bonus ball” to champion new faces. The top two names, Milton Friedman and Stephen Hawking, do not represent new strands of thought. (In fact, Friedman was specifically named in last month’s “criteria for inclusion”—along with other ancient greats like Solzhenitsyn—as an example of someone who had been deliberately left off the longlist on the grounds that they were no longer actively contributing to their discipline.)
The poll was in one sense a victim of its own success. Word spread around the internet very quickly, and at least three of our top 20 (Chomsky, Hitchens and Soroush), or their acolytes, decided to draw attention to their presence on the list by using their personal websites to link to Prospect‘s voting page. In Hitchens’s and Soroush’s case, the votes then started to flood in. Although it is hard to tell exactly where voters came from, it is likely that a clear majority were from Britain and America, with a fair sprinkling from other parts of Europe and the English-speaking world. There was also a huge burst from Iran, although very little voting from the far east, which may explain why four of the bottom five on the list were thinkers from Japan and China.
What is most interesting about the votes, though, is the age of the top names. Chomsky won by a mile, with over 4,800 votes. Then Eco, with just under 2,500, Dawkins and Havel. Only two in the top nine—Hitchens and Rushdie—were born after the second world war. And of the top 20, only Klein and Lomborg are under 50. This may reflect the age of the voters, choosing familiar names. However, surely it also tells us something about the radically shifting nature of the public intellectual in the west. Who are the younger equivalents to Habermas, Chomsky and Havel? Great names are formed by great events. But there has been no shortage of terrible events in the last ten years and some names on the list (Ignatieff, Fukuyama, Hitchens) are so prominent precisely because of what they have said about them. Only one of these, though, is European, and he lives in Washington DC.
You can read more elsewhere in this issue about Chomsky. Even if you disagree with his attacks on US foreign policy, there are two reasons why few would be surprised to see him at the top of the poll. First, his intellectual range. Like a number of other figures in the top ten, he is prominent in a number of areas. Havel was a playwright and statesman; Eco a literary critic and bestselling author; Diamond was a professor of physiology and now has a chair in geography at UCLA, and writes on huge issues ranging over a great time span. Second, and more important, Chomsky belongs to a tradition which goes back to Zola, Russell and Sartre: a major thinker or writer who speaks out on the great public issues of his time, opposing his government on questions of conscience rather than the fine print of policy.
I said last month in my commentary on the original Prospect/Foreign Policy list of 100 names that it seemed to represent the death of that grand tradition of oppositional intellectuals. The overwhelming victory for Noam Chomsky suggests that we still yearn for such figures—we just don’t seem to be able to find any under the age of 70.