Commentary Magazine


A World of Ideas, by Bill Moyers

The Thinker as Everyman

A World of Ideas.
by Bill Moyers.
Doubleday. 513 pp. $29.95.

A World of Ideas, the series of interviews that Bill Moyers conducted on PBS last winter, has now been gathered together in book form. This new format is generally more satisfying than the original broadcasts because it permits us to study more closely those arguments that possess real substance, and to skip over much cant and attitudinizing. Thus, while the broadcasts were generally duller than polite people were willing to concede at the time, these transcripts do provide some moments of genuine intelligence and illumination.

The book consists of forty-two “conversations with thoughtful men and women about American life today and the ideas shaping our future.” It is divided into two parts, “Our Changing American Values” and “American Values in the New Global Society.” The roster of names is remarkably and perhaps even shrewdly comprehensive, containing not only celebrities but also many personalities from science and law who are apt to be unfamiliar to most readers. Feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and even Canadians will find no reason to feel left out, while conservatives, who are not always well served by public television, will be comforted that writers like Peter Berger and John Lukacs have been included. The only significant omissions would seem to be musicians and visual artists, and with the glaring exception of Noam Chomsky, controversial political spokesmen from the far Left or the far Right.

In general, these interviews are most valuable when the subjects have some very specific expertise to bring to the discussion, and when they are allowed to use that expertise in all its specificity: the pediatrician T Berry Brazelton on contemporary child care, Arturo Madrid on the condition of Hispanics, and William Julius Wilson on the condition of blacks in contemporary America. However, the interviews are most entertaining when their subjects turn out to be live wires whom Moyers, despite his best efforts to the contrary, cannot contain within his narrow orbit: men like Tom Wolfe and Isaac Asimov who, bless him, seems sublimely oblivious of all the contemporary orthodoxies to which “thoughtful people” are supposed to subscribe.

Least interesting of all, and unfortunately in the majority, are those “thoughtful” people whom Moyers has obviously selected because they intuitively share his own leftist centrism, generalists who are theoretically “interesting” but who in fact could not invent a genuinely provocative statement if they set their minds to it for weeks in advance: F. Forrester Church, pastor; Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University; Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, educator; and many more.

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The popular success of A World of Ideas, as of most of the other projects with which Bill Moyers has been associated over the years, evidently results from the distinctive chemistry generated among the three parts in the equation—Moyers, his subjects, and his audience. It is this equation that, ultimately, is the most interesting aspect of what, with only slight exaggeration, may legitimately be called “the Moyers phenomenon.”

The first and most essential component of the equation is, of course, Moyers himself. For many Moyers addicts who are more interested in the interviewer than in his subjects or what they are saying, the present volume is likely to be something of a disappointment—this, for the very reason that the book is superior to the telecasts, namely that Moyers, who was irremovably omnipresent on the screen, imposes himself far less in print. Yet even in print Moyers—the Thinker as Everyman—remains a presence, and his addicts will get some measure of the fix they came for in this volume.

What is perhaps most striking and least obvious about Moyers is his utter mirthlessness. A Southerner who is ever eager to invoke his deeply religious upbringing, Moyers seems to take everything absolutely in earnest. Here is a man without ironies, for whom the opportunity to discuss ideas is “truly joyous.”

In one of his earlier and most successful endeavors, The Power of Myth, Moyers interviewed the mythologist Joseph Campbell, who had much to say about the power of archetypes. Those meditations seemed especially pregnant to Moyers, no doubt because he himself traffics conspicuously in archetypes.

Thus—and here we come to the second component of the equation—so many of the personages included in A World of Ideas seem to be there not because they have any intriguing or important or original ideas to express, but because they conform obediently to one of several archetypes of what Moyers apparently imagines a thinker looks and sounds like.

There is, for example, the patriarchal Grand Old Man, the exalted father figure, embodied in the historians Henry Steele Commager and James MacGregor Burns, and the literary critic Northrop Frye. There are those elegant, soft-spoken “Noble Savages” like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott. There is the slightly oddball and alarmingly hirsute Jewish Explainer, represented by the novelists E.L. Doctorow and Joseph Heller, who are called upon to provide a kind of comédie interlude to the more ponderous meditations that are going on around them. There is the Liberated Woman, who is not thereby precluded from being attractive or having a family (the historian Elaine Pagels, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and the novelist Louise Erdrich).

Finally, to complete the equation, we come to the audience, the viewers of public television. These are people caught up in careers and in “getting and spending,” who are apt to feel that “the world is too much with us,” and for whom it is reassuring to know that there are certain remote corners of the country where ideas are still discussed and taken seriously.

And yet along with this commendable sentiment, there is at work here a less lovely element, one that is only occasionally exposed, an oddly complacent, never fully articulated suspicion of unearned superiority. For to watch Moyers and his guests is to join effortlessly in a process of wrinkling one’s nose at the supposedly meretricious glitz of mainstream American life.

It is this ability of Bill Moyers to persuade his millions of viewers of their essential apartness from the workaday pursuits and preoccupations of their own society that, surely, is the secret of his success. He has squared the circle and brought into being a miracle: elitism for the masses.

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