Stephen Fry is a public intellectual. Great Britain seems to produce these persons by the hogshead. I think America produces them, too, but we don’t notice them so much. Public intellectuals seem to matter more in Europe.We lump Dick Cavett in with Pat Buchanan as “talking heads,” turn off the TV and go fishing, generally.
Stephen Fry might want to be Oscar Wilde, but ultimately they all want to be Bertrand Russell. They wish to flash an intellect so vast that they can indulge their crabby little opinions with impunity. The US version of these sorts of people seem to come from the stands at baseball games (see Limbaugh, Rush) or from seedy theaters with sticky seats (see Maher, Bill), but in Great Britain they all seem to have upper crust crumbled on their Eton ties. There’s a kind of Posh School Mafia that runs the media on that pile of rocks and coal in the North Atlantic now –Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Jeremy Clarkson, Eddie Izzard. Only Gordon Ramsay comes to mind as being anything but a toff, and he’s not exactly a soccer hooligan — he sounds like a little kid or a woman when he swears.
Fry is fairly well known in America because of his various terrific turns in TV shows, Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, etc.; but I’ll always think of him for his marvelous, if miscast (too young) turn as Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster.
It’s hard to pass up a job that entails wandering around, eating at the best restaurants on an expense account, and having opinions. Stephen Fry seems to have discovered that he could make a living on a Twitter stream at this point, why bother with anything else, and was sent to America to get some footage and offer a mordant opinion or two.
I imagine the Beeb, or whatever entity sent him, mistakenly figured they were getting a Tocqueville, but Fry will do. He’s genial and curious, two attributes almost totally lacking in public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens, who are just rustbucket brain freighters laden with tedious opinions drifting around the world looking for any odd pier to bump into to spill their cankered cargo all over.
My impression of Europe is that it’s the place where the timid stayed. Bravery is entirely a matter of how you fared in the gang showers at a gothic campus and whether Beeb producers answer your telephone calls. At least Stephen Fry knows enough to gape in awe at what bumpkins can cook up when they’re off the leash.
His observation that we’re “overpopulated” shows a glimpse of intellectual garter that he just can’t help, though: too many of you, just enough of me. It’s hard to be Not Quite Our Class of Persons, Dear, but we Americans try to bear up under the shame of it.