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Archive for February, 2010

War! Uh! Huh! What Is It Good For?

with 5 comments

Well, it’s about that time–midterms, I mean–for a little bitching, and so I’m going to bitch.

I got a paper this week than included the sentence, “Americans should be taught to know about world wars one, two and three.”

This was in a paper about what it means to be “educated,” in which I gave them the chance to outline what they themselves thought  people should know.  Forget all the things we talk about here, forget the decades-long argument about the nature of a university education, forget it all.  They could just outline what they thought was necessary to know and tell me whether or not they thought the knew it.

On one level, of course, the statement I quoted above is prescient–not because there is going to be a world war three, but because “knowing about” it, about the possibilities for it and the ways it can be avoided, probably is something everybody should know.

Which brings me to one of the things Sowell discusses in his book, and something that has intrigued me now for years.

Why are some people completely incapable of accepting the idea that people who say they intend to go to war and wipe everybody else off the earth probably mean they intend to go to war and wipe everybody else off the earth?

Sowell has been talking about the lead up to the second world war and the hystircal insistence on the part of the educated public opinion of the time that Hitler was only rearming the Rhineland because…well, because he was head of a nation that should be the equal of all other nations, and besides, he was afraid of France, and…

And Hitler kept telling everybody, quite plainly and without much in the way of subterfuge, that what he intended to do was rearm until he felt himself capable of winning a war, and then launching that war with an aim to take over most of the nations of Europe, especially France.

What is it, exactly, that makes so many people find it difficult to take people like this at their word?

The present day circumstance that I kept getting into arguments about is Iran, and once again I see the same thing:  the man keeps telling us what he wants, he keeps saying that he wants to wipe Israel off the map and that, in the future, Europe will have “to Islam.”  He is not being subtle about this and he is not being coy.

So why do so few people believe him?

And no, it’s not enough to say that the people who don’t believe him hate their own society, because even if they do, I’m pretty sure they aren’t interested in living with the reality of an Islamic victory in Europe.  They have to intention “to Islam.” 

And in spite of all the gobbledygook about “multiculturalism,” I don’t find these people to be particularly “multicultural.”  That is, their pronouncements on war and peace, international relations, or even the moral validity of the welfare state are not couched in relativistic terms. 

In almost every other area of disagreement between the modern day American “conservatives” and the modern day American “progressives” (we’re not saying liberal anymore–although why anybody who actually knew anything about the progressive movement would want to call herself a progressive is beyond me), the issues at hand are largely matters of options.

That is, if the progressives have control of the local public schools and you don’t like it, you can send your kids to private schools or homeschool.  If the conservatives have that control and you don’t like it, the same.

It’s annoying, and sometimes infuriating, to be forced to pay taxes to support bad public art, or to watch the local branch of the state university put on a production of The Vaginia Monologues or Corpus Christi, but in the end there are ways to counter such things, and a right to protest, and the supreme right to simply not pay attention. 

It’s annoying that in spite of everything you’ve supported for years on end, the local Christian school just insists on presenting Creationism as fact, or going to church, or any of the rest of it–but they’re not making you do it, and you can walk away from it if you want.

Okay, I’m pretty much saying here that the intensity of our culture wars have a lot in common with the intensity of faculty meetings–they are as virulent as they are at least in part because there’s very little at stake.  It’s a big country.  As long as nobody is making laws that stop me from pursuing happiness–would Jefferson be really mad at me if I called that following my bliss?–anyway, as long as I have the opt out, and I usually do, intracultural issues of this kind are open to flexible and varied solutions.

What Iran is threatening is not open to flexible or varied solutions.  In countries under Islamic religious rule, it’s not a matter of the gay couples living in San Francisco while the straight white Christian live in Little Rock.  Shari’a demands that people found practicing homosexual sex be put to death, that women not only be veiled but restricted from vast areas of education and endeavor, that free speech is to be defined as “the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah”

In case you think I’m making that up, it comes from the Cairo Declaration on Human RIghts in Islam.  You can find the entire document here:

http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/cairodeclaration.html

which is the University of Minnesota site. 

But in case you haven’t noticed, that defines free speech as your freedom to speak in favor of what Islam already believes to be true, with no right to speak against it.

It’s very much like the definition of individual rights adopted by the Catholic Church in the Counterreformation.  Since “error has no rights,” you had the right to the freedom to join the Catholic Church and to speak in defense of her, but not the right to join other religions or speak against the Church, since those things were “errors,” and “error has no rights.”

At any rate, these things are not negligible.  It is not a matter of being uotraged that Sarah Palin’s book is making more money than yours.

One would think that people who are so passionate about their own rights when faced with blue laws or antiabortion protestors would be at least as outraged by the declaration of somebody like Ahmadinejad that he intends to build a nuclear missle program and make the world Islam. 

And lately he’s been showing everybody on the planet what he’s got, so that it isn’t as if he’s keeping it all a secret.

Of course, Hitler kept trying to show the world what he had, and journalists in France and England didn’t report it, because they were afraid it would lead to war.  So there’s that.

But then, just to get incoherent here and off the track of linear thought, some of what is going on in Europe lately is a little startling. 

There are neighborhoods in London where non-Islamic women feel compelled to wear a hajib when they go out because without one they are harrassed on the street and in danger of assault–and the police basically tell them, well, that’s what you have to do, they can’t protect you.

There are neighborhoods in Amsterdam where gay couples cannot go without fear of being assaulted, and situations in Sweden where the law looks the other way at honor killings because to do otherwise would be to impose cultural imperialism on immigrants.

It’s almost as if the real issue is not the proclaimed rights themselves, but the need to push back against opponents who seem to be weak and fall back from opponents who appear to be strong. 

I don’t know if that’s making any sense, either. 

Let’s just say that the more I look at this situation, the less I understand it.  I believe in the near-absolute freedom of speech, in the near-absolute right to the free practice of religion, in the separation of Church and State, in half a dozen things like that, and when I feel them threatened I fight like hell. 

“Multiculturalism” doesn’t cut it with me–I don’t think societies that execute people for being homosexual are just “different cultures.”  I think they’re wrong, period.  And although I am not in favor of invading them to get them to do it my way, I am in favor of making damned sure they can’t force me to do it theirs.

This seems to me to be a fairly consistent position.  And maybe it’s just my lack of imagination that means I find it impossible to understand how you go from “human rights are everything” to whatever is going on right no in regards to the reality of what Iran is presenting, or the reality to what those no-go zones in European cities are presenting. 

But here I am, and it’s Sunday, and I think I may listen to some opera, or maybe to Swan Lake.

I think the next thing I read is going to be off my stack of Agatha Christie novels.

Written by janeh

February 28th, 2010 at 7:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday

with 2 comments

Well–the issue isn’t how many members of the working class/lower class/immigrant population become intellectuals, but how many intellectuals started out as members of those classes, and how many are “privileged.”

John says that “most” children of immigrants take practical university training in things like computer science and engineering, but so do “most” university students of any background. 

And I’ve never read the Wolfe novel, although I’ve heard about it, so I’m not sure what it says and can’t comment.

I can say, however, the it doesn’t take a degree from a first tier university–or any university at all–to become an intellectual.  The more I read about Harry Truman, the more convinced I am that the man qualifies on at least some levels–this was a person who read Cicero in Latin for fun and relaxation–but he never studied at any university and did not have a university degree.

In my own family, we have my father and his brother, both the sons of immigrants, one of whom studied history before law school and the other who majored in philosophy and theology.  We also have my late husband, the son of a man who worked all his life on an assembly line in a vacuum cleaner factory, who studied literature. 

In my department, the faculty contains the first-generation-American (parents were immigrants) sons and daughters of people from Poland, Nigeria, and Vietnam. 

On the public intellectual front, we’ve got Bill O’Reilly, brought up in Levittown and graduated from Marist College, a small working-class school in Poughkeepsie, NY, that has nothing like a “name,” and really didn’t when O’Reilly graduated from it.  There’s also Susan Jacoby, middle class graduate of Michigan State, now author of books on everything from freethought to…intellectualism.

And all I’m doing right now is going through the stuff I know without having to bother to look it up.

If you look at actual intellectuals in the United States, you do not find a little knot of “privileged” people mixed with a few “brilliant” ones of other backgrounds.  You find a fairly ordinary mix of fairly ordinary American stories.

This may be changing, because the schools have become so antagonistic to the life of the mind–well, all right, they always were, to some extent–

But the schools have ceased to provide the necessary background, the organized study of history and literature and mathematics and science that used to form the core of the public school curriculum and now does so only in a few places. 

I think that part of the problem here is the underlying assumption that the life of the mind is an extra, a luxury, and some people do not see any reason why anyone would pursue it except as a sort of hobby, which they could indulge in if they were rich enough not to worry about having to make a living.

But that is not what it is.  In my own life, to the extent that I’ve been able to achieve it at all–and next to somebody like David Bentley Hart, say, or even William F. Buckley or Lionel Trilling, I’m an amateur–it’s been a kind of driving force.

When I was growing up, people used to accuse me of reading the books I read only to “show off.”  I didn’t actually like any of that stuff.  Probably, when I went home, I secretly spent all my time in front of the television set.  I was only carrying around whatever it was that week so I could look down my nose at them.

The truth was that I read the books I read because the pleasure of reading them was actually a physical sensation.

I’ve tried to describe this for people on and off over the years, and mostly I don’t get anywhere.  But let me try again.

My physical brain inside my skull feels differently when I read certain things.  Actually having to work at the ideas in a book–not having to strain and stuggle, but having to work–has a physical feeling, and the feeling is absolutely great.  I love it. 

I do not get this physical sensation in any other way–I don’t get it from movies, or television, or music.  It’s something directly connected to reading.

And my guess is that I would have gone on reading the kind of book that gave me that sensation no matter what my circumstances were.  I would have ended up being me one way or the other.

People who opt for the life of the mind don’t do it as a hobby.  They do it as a compulsion.  Sometimes they do it while making the bulk of their income doing something else.  Liebniz ground lenses for eyeglasses for a living, but we don’t remember his lenses, we remember his philosophy.  And Liebniz was, no mistake about it, an  intellectual.

I am myself, and I can’t be anybody else.  Part of being myself is an inability to understand how anybody lives any other way–how anybody can go through a day without reading the kind of thing that gives me that sensation, how anybody can see books and art and music as anything less than fundamentally essential to life. 

When we were going through God knows what financial problems when Bill was sick, my mother used to get indignant when she found that Bill and I would buy books anyway, having spaghetti instead of something “better” for dinner to do it if we had to.
      
“After all,” she’d say, “food is a necessity.  Books are just a luxury!”

But no, for me, they’re not.  And I don’t understand how they were for her. 

I never understood my mother at all, really.  She never read a book, not even one of mine.  She never read anything but short, extremely simple newspaper and magazine articles, and then only when she knew in advance that she would agree with them.  She was extensively acquainted with particular works of art–paintings and operas, especially–but she really knew little or nothing about either painting or music, and didn’t seem to care to learn.  

And the sight of me reading made her angry.

We get into discussions here every once in a while about reading for “entertainment” and “relaxation,” and they always make me nuts.

I guess that when I hear people say those things, it sounds to me as if they’re saying “I read to turn my mind off.”

But I read to turn my mind on.  I don’t think I could survive any other way.

That being said, I have started reading the Sowell. 

And I think that the unfortunate thing about this book is that he actually has a point–the group of people he’s talking about are a distinct group, and his analysis of the way they work is very interesting, but their salient characteristic is not that they’re “intellectuals.”

And that’s too bad, because we could use a sane public discussion of the way in which we want to accept, reject, or consider “expert” opinion, and we’re not having it here, because Sowell is spinning his wheels trying to get his group to fit his vocabulary.

What he really wants–and, I think, what  Robert really wants, and maybe some of the rest of you–is a group that will include Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Michael Moore, Janeane Garofolo, Eric Foner, and Mary Daly.

And, like I said, I think there is such a group.  I just don’t think that group is “intellectuals.”

Written by janeh

February 27th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Self Fulfilling Prophecies

with 4 comments

Every once in a while, somebody says something that so startles me that I don’t know what to do with it.

Mique said:

>>>Your sons and, I suspect, most other kids with the ability to achieve a life of the mind will either come from privileged backgrounds with sufficient family intellectualism and relative wealth, or simply be so brilliant, like Sowell, to make it despite the real and perceived obstacles to be faced by most adequately talented people.  But the reality for the rest is relative poverty, the need to work to survive all levels of their education, and to compete for limited opportunities in academia against more privileged people while
still trying to live a semblance of a normal life among family and friends who most likely share neither their talents nor their
ambitions.
<<<<

And I’ve got to work out how to work through this.

First, let me clear up a misconception.  When I said “my fourteen year old kid,”  I didn’t mean one of my children, both of whom are–well, well over the age of fourteen. 

I meant “my” as in “the one I’ve been talking about in these posts.”

But beyond that–

First, it’s simply not true that most poeple who want and achieve the life of the mind are from “privileged” backgrounds, unless you’re using “privilege” in a very different way than I am.

It’s almost never the case that the children of “privilege” in the sense of those coming from the top rungs of the socioeconomic ladder opt for the life of the mind.

In fact, I doubt that there are many societies in which this particular social strata did so opt.  Renaissance Italy might be an exception.  The people who make serious money in the  US, however, do not do it in intellectual pursuits, aren’t interested in intellectual pursuits, and tend to be far more sports-and-pop-culture oriented than concerned with Shakespeare and Scarlatti.

Successful intellectuals in the US rarely get much higher than the upper middle class, which is itself composed mostly of people like doctors and lawyers who are themselves not much interested in the life of the mind.

What that class does have, however, is a strong commitment to formal education, so that they push their kids to get the grades and board scores and extracurricular resumes to make them attractive to “name” schools, where their wholesale anti-intellectualism is the bane of their teacher’s lives. 

Even most academics in the US come from ordinary middle class backgrounds, and often less.  And that is as true in the Ivies as in the lower tier colleges. 

One of the better aspects of the American educational system is the fact that it doesn’t matter what a mess you’ve made of your life, you can always go back to school and take another shot–and people do, all the time.  They drop out of high school at fifteen to have a baby, stay on welfare for a decade, get fed up, get their GED (general ed degree–a high school diploma you can get by taking a test instead of actually going to high school), find a college to take them (there are lots) and go on from there. 

Granted, most of these people, and the ones who start college in prison, and the ones who start college in old age, will do something “practical,” but the call for adult education courses in things like philosophy and literature, and the success of enterprises like The Teaching Company that provide DVD and audio “courses” in the liberal arts, say that a lot of people out there who are neither privileged or brilliant are interested.

As for brilliant–well, brilliant never hurts, certainly, and Sowell is certainly brilliant, but I doubt whether most intellectuals are. 

I think intellectuals have to have a talent for certain kinds of thinking, but I’d hesitate to say that they’re more intelligent as a whole than, say, old Henry Ford. 

Most intellectuals are like most of anybody else–of average intelligence, from average families, with average resources. 

Finally, I don’t think that the anti-intellectualism of much American public life will discourage vast numbers of these people from doing intellectual work or from making themselves intellectuals–although it does deter some.

I do think that the impression given that only one side of the political spectrum is hospitable to intellectual work increases the chances that such people will pick that side of the spectrum.

And I do think that that impression will lead to younger people–and older people, like those adult students–not even bothering to look into writers like Edmund Burke, Frederick Hayek, and, for that matter, Thomas Sowell.

In other words, the present American climate, where the “conservative” side is constantly railing at how awful, stuck up, immoral, and despicable “intellectuals” are, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Of course most intellectuals are on the left these days–they’ve been given the distinct impression, since childhood, that nobody else would have them.

And I think it’s interesting that nobody yelled at me about that populism quote, but I think I’ll just end this here and go find some music.

In case you’re wondering, the music this morning will probably be intellectual enough, but my mania this week is a gospel piece by a (white) country singer named Josh Turner, called “Long Black Train.”

Written by janeh

February 26th, 2010 at 7:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cranky

with 3 comments

Okay, here’s the thing.

I promise–I ABSOLUTELY PROMISE–

Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never

To get sarcastic on this blog.

When I said Ward Churchill didn’t have the credentials, I was being sarcastic. 

And I’m beginning to think I’m really bad at this, because I never seem to be able to get out from under when I do it.

Ward Churchill does not have the credentials to be an academic.  No major university–and he teaches in one–hires full time faculty with less than a doctorate, and really doesn’t promote them to full professor without one.  Churchill not only does not have a doctorate, but his master’s degree is from a third tier (at best) school in a largely irrelevant field and his publications are…how should we put it?…less than scholarly. 

Churchill is a creature of the grievance departments.  His only claim to expertise in anything was his (false) self-identification as Native American, and that was the only reason he was hired.

Churchill lakes the erudition to be an intellectual, and erudition is essential.

“Intellectual” is not a job.  It’s not something you do.  It’s something you are. 

And it doesn’t matter what Thomas Sowell’s definition of “intellectual” is, either.

I am not criticizing Sowell for his arguments.

I’m criticizing him for using the word “intellectual.”

It doesn’t matter how he’s defining it, because most people will never read the book.  They’ll just see the title.

And since “intellectual” has a standard definition, a lot of them will think–with perfectly good reason–that the title refers to the standard definition.

And that Sowell is therefore bashing ACTUAL intellectuals, rather than the weird little group of intellectuals-and-others that he’s aiming at.

And that fourteen year old kid of mine, the one with the talent and the drive and the  passionate commitment to the life of the mind, will get the impression, yet again,  that anything to the right of Keith Olbermann is antagonistic to everything he loves.

It’s bugging me that I seem to be having a very hard time getting this across. 

And no, don’t tell me I’m doing that thing where I go, “Oh, you’d agree with me if you only UNDERSTOOD!”

I have no idea if anybody would agree with me or not, but when these posts are followed by people saying “but you can’t change Sowell’s definition!” then no, I’m NOT being understood. 

Sowell’s definition of “intellectual” is IRRELEVANT to the argument I’m making.

Okay, it’s rainy, I’ve just gone through a copyedited manuscript where the copyeditor apparently didn’t know things like that there’s a church (the building) and the Church (the total institution), so that she kept lowercasing “church” in all cases and then rewording things because I wasn’t making any sense. 

Among other really interesting things.

I’ve got to go get this thing to UPS before the snow starts.

So let me throw a (rhetorical) bomb, and see what happens.

This is from the book Last Exit To Utopia by the late Jean-Jacques Revel.  He’s describing the French LEFT in politics. but it reminds me of something else a little closer to home.

So here it goes:

<<<<<Populism boils down to simplistic ideas, unwarrented assertions, erroneous or grossly exaggerated facts, ad hominem attacks on opponents, the art of stuffing the heads of a well-trained audience by delusions of conspiracies by “the real rulers of the world”–whether Jews, capitalists, journalists, television producers, the agents of globalization or whoever happens to be the current hobgoblin.”

Like, you know, “intellectuals.”  And “the elites.”

Written by janeh

February 25th, 2010 at 7:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

HDWW, Addendum

with one comment

So, John Oliver says:

>>>Mique has been talking about the history departments in Australian universities.
I tend to agree with him. They have adopted a politically correct party line of
historical interpretation. Am I expected to respect them as “intellectuals” who
work with ideas or should I despise them as people who have destroyed the
concept of a university as a place of free thought and free debate?
>>>

And my answer is:

Neither.

What you should do is recognize that what you don’t like about them has nothing to do with whether or not they’re “intellectuals.”

It’s not their intellectualism you don’t like.

It’s their specific ideas.

So criticize their ideas,or criticize the group they actually belong to, but don’t mislabel them “intellectuals” as if that is what causes them to falsify the history of Australian aborgines or to get on the bandwagon for Pol Pot. 

Some of these people may be intellectuals and some may not, but the category they actually belong to that you don’t like isn’t “intellectuals.”

Written by janeh

February 24th, 2010 at 11:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Humpty Dumpty Was Wrong

with 2 comments

John tells me that “ordinary people” think “intellectual” means college professors who write books, and Robert tells me we have a perfectly good word for the class of people he’s thinking of (with certain kinds of jobs in certain kinds of institutions) and that that word is “intellectual.”

My problem is twofold.

First, Humpty Dumpty was wrong.  Words do not mean what we want them to me.  They tend to have standard definitions.  The word “intellectual” has a standard definition which is a lot closer to mine than to Sowell’s, Robert’s, or the “ordinary person’s” on the street.

Second, I don’t really care what the ordinary person on the street thinks in this case. 

What I do care about is what the fourteen-to-eighteen year old kid with a talent and passion for doing intellectual work thinks, because he’s the guy who has to be recruited into any historical movement of ideas if those ideas are to last, never mind triumph.

And that kid defines “intellectual” closer to the dictionary’s definition, and mine, than he does to Sowell’s, Robert’s, or the ordinary person’s.

And when that kid turns on the television set and hears everybody on THAT side over there talking about how “intellectuals” are awful, elitist traitors who are evil and snobbish to the core, and then hears everybody on THIS side saying that intellectuals are interesting people and the life of ideas and the mind is a good thing…

…he should be forgiven for getting the impression that it’s no good looking into the ideas of THAT side, since they have declared themselves, up front, to be violently opposed to everything he is and an enemy of everything he loves. 

Robert says there’s no way to know if he’s right that intellectual work is just “more congenial” to people on the left, or if I’m right and that it’s an historical phenomenon, but I think we should get to a good approximation of an answer by looking at the work of intellectuals historically.

And if you look at the work of intellectuals historically, you don’t fine a skew to the left until very recently–until we get to the point where “the left” makes a point of supporting such work (and not just monetarily, either) and “the right” does not.

I’m putting quotes around “left” and “right” because the words are beginning to make me crazy. 

We tend to use them, in the US, to mean bi swatches of things that don’t necessarily go together on all points. 

For instance–is support of gay marriage “left” or “right?”  Well, maybe “left,” except for the libertarians, who are considered “right,” and who are in favor of gay marriage. 

You could do that down the whole list of social issues.  Libertarians are “left” on social issues almost universally, but they’re “right” on things like private property, taxes, the regulatory state and social welfare programs. 

“The right,” in the meantime, includes both economic conservatives and social conservatives who are often quite “left” on a lot of economics.  And a lot of the religious right were big supporters of social programs until those programs began to be used to shove alien social ideas down their throats.  They’d be back on the bandwagon for social security, socialized medicine, worker’s comp and soaking the rich tomorrow, if they thought it could all be run the way FDR did it.

So let me be honest here–I don’t really care, one way or the other, whether “conservatives” (meaning social conservatives) shoot themselves in the foot over this kind of thing.  I’m not a social conservative, and never was. 

What I am is a person who is suspicious of all centralized power, whether that power is in government or private hands.  I have no use for either the social security state or for the rationalized corporation for the same reason–they like to make rules about behavior that is better left to individuals to decide.  The state outlaws smoking cigarettes.  The corporation demands that its employees not smoke even at home and off the clock.

So it does matter to me how libertarianism is perceived by those fourteen to eighteen year olds trying to make up their minds about how to use this thing they’re good at and that they love. 

And being the kind of person I am–the kind of person who likes to read that Trollope and listen to that Bach and read books with “big words” in them because they’re just interesting–it does matter to me how the life of the mind is perceived in the culture at large. 

It matters to me even more that so much “education” in the United States today is anything but, that too many kids come out of college not knowing anything at all about the intellectual history of their country or their civilization, that our entire public discourse seems to have gotten down to the point where one side preens itself on “learning” that consists almost entirely of knowing things that are not true and the other side preens itself on never having bothered with anything stupid like learning stuff.

If you see what I mean here. 

“Intellectuals” is a word with a meaning, and it does not mean what Sowell is using it to mean.

And using it in that sense does real damage in the real world, even to the conservatives who use it that way. 

Short term electoral advantage will not save them from the long term effects of a paucity of ideas.

Intellectual work is neither negligible nor optional.  Without it, political movements, social movements, moral movements all die.  That was why “conservativism” was on life support in the US until Bill Buckley–an intellectual if there ever was one–revived it.

Written by janeh

February 24th, 2010 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them, or Something

with 4 comments

This is one of those days when doing this blog should be easy, since I’m on the good computers, but of course it isn’t, because there are half a dozen people in this room blasting music out of–well, what do they blast it out of?  If it’s coming out of their earphones, they’re going to be deaf in another week.  But you see what I mean.

So let me answer a few questions, and go on from there.

First, I didn’t “change” Thomas Sowell’s definition of intellectual. Lymaree and Cheryl asked me for my definition, and I gave it by bouncing off Sowell’s as a way to clarify what I was saying.  I wasn’t commenting on Sowell’s book, which I haven’t read yet.  I’ve only glanced through it.  The most I was doing was complaining about the fact of Sowell’s book, one more conservative diatribe against “intellectuals.”

But here’s the thing–I think Sowell is using, and Robert is concuring in, the word “intellectual” to describe a group of people that really is recognizable as a distinct group.  It’s just that their distinctness does not reside in their intellectualism.

Okay, that was a convoluted sentence.  But bear with me here.

John wanted to know if Noam Chomsky is an intellectual, and he most definitely is–but Ward Churchill is not.  And yet people like Sowell rightly put the two men into a single distinct category, because they belong in one.

Robert wants to know about all those “victim studies” departments–aren’t all those people going to be useless without government supporting them and don’t they therefore necessarily favor left-leaning positions?

And I’d say yes to the second question), but most of them (see Ward Churchill, again), aren’t intellectuals.

What I think Sowell, and Robert, and a lot of otherconservative writers want is a single word that would describe “certain kinds of academics and writers belonging to certain kinds of departments and publications at certain kinds of institutions and universities.”

Which is convoluted, I know, but it’s closer to the truth than to call all these people “intellectuals” just because they make a living writing things or teaching in a university.

The various studies departments are a good example of the problem with this.  You might want to try Daphne Patai and Noretta Kortege’s Professing Feminism to see what some of the problem is here.  They do a pretty good job of documenting departments on “elite” campuses who hired people without doctorates or intellectual credentials of any kind but who happen to have the right “experience” to “teach”–well, they’re hired to teach a political party line.  It’s something of a tautology to complain that they then teach it, and it says nothing about what anybody not hired to teach it would think on the same subjects.

Ward Churchill was hired, with piss poor credentials, because he was thought to be Native American and because he spouted a specific set of opinions, determined in advance to be the “right” ones.  He’s no more an intellectual than my cat.

But he is that other thing.

John also asks if some of these people just lied, back during the Thirties or so when the Communist parties were paying them–well, yes, quite a few of them did, and everybody knew it.  You can find some good reports on the lying in Orwell’s essays, especially “Homage to Catalonia.”  In France there was Wilfred Burchette (I think I’m spelling that right), an Australian emigre who spread the word that the US was using biological warfare in the Korean War–something that was provably not true even at the time and has since been completely debunked by released KBG records, since they were the people who started the rumor and asked Burckette to spread it. 

In the US, there were people like Walter Duranty, who wrote for the New York Times for decades and filed report after report from the Soviet Union that covered up famines, torture, and mass executions that he himself had either witnessed directly or heard about from the people who perpetrated them.  He also falsified reports of the material well being of the Soviet people–the economy is doing great!  much better than capitalism!–and had a little side business going in destroying the reputations of reporters who tried to tell the truth about the USSR and of escapees from various forms of Soviet state terror.

They not only gave him a Pulitzer Prize, the PP committee refused to revoke it after Duranty’s deceptions had been thoroughly documented.

Duranty, by the way, would go into that same group as Chomsky and Churchill, and Michael Moore.

I was going to try to outline a few characteristics, and I can think of a few right off the bat.

First is the enormous double standard–“I don’t criticize socialist regimes,” William Sloane Coffin said, and he was talking about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  But there’s that thing where everybody lands with both feet on the head of somebody like, say, Pinochet, but lets somebody like Mugabe or Mengistu walk free without much in the way of criticism at all, even though their records of murder and torture are far worse.

This, by the way, is part of the reason why I’m opposed to American participation in the International Criminal Court.  Everybody over there seems eager to snatch Pinochet out of a hospital bed to bring him to justice, but just can’t seem to find anything wrong with Mengistu’s track record, never mind Castro’s.

The double standard, by the way, is to judge all “right wing” dictatorships on the basis of what they do, but all “left wing” ones on the basis of what they say they want to do. 

Me, I think torture is wrong and should be prosecuted, mass famines are wrong and should be prosectured, mass murder is wrong and should be prosecuted, no matter what it is you “meant” by it.

And no, I don’t apply those terms to properly declared wars.

The other tactic is to declare any criticism of the preferred governments–governments “on the left,” as the phrase goes these days–by declaring that that must mean you want the poor to starve and everybody to go back to slavery, or something. 

And, ack, there are a million others.

And now somebody is blaring a sports commercial off a computer.

So, there we go.  I’m getting distracted.

But this is a point that should be made–there should be an accurate term for the kind of people Robert, and Thomas Sowell, are complaining about.  But “intellectual” is not it.

Maybe you want to try Jean-Jacques Revel’s Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era.  It’s an analysis of just the sort of person we’re looking at, although as he exists in Europe rather than the US.

There doesn’t seem to be much difference.

Written by janeh

February 22nd, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Fools to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right…

with 3 comments

So, let’s start here.

Robert says:
>>>>Leftist positions will always be supported by a majority of intellectuals. The underlying premises are more congenial to them, and in a world of more limited government and less deference, many of them would have to find other employment
<<<<<

This is, I think–and I think I can prove–entirely false.

I’m going to skip the whole thing about “deference,” because to this day I don’t understand it.  I’ve known a lot of people who’ve demanded deference in my life, but they haven’t been academics or intellectuals.  They’ve mostly been nurses, teachers, and other people in “not quite really respected” professions, if that makes any sense.  If it doesn’t, I can get back to that later.

But first, to define an intellectual.

For the purposes of his book, Sowell defines an intellectual as somebody whose work begins and ends in ideas.  He deliberately excludes anyone who then goes on to do something that attempts to put those ideas into practice.

I think that this definition is far too limiting.  It excludes people like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Adams, for instance, who were definitely intellectuals.  It even excludes Mique’s architects.

I’d say that an intellectual is somebody whose work in with and through ideas, and who brings to that work a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the life of the mind in his civilization (art, music, literature, philosophy, history, et al).

So some scientists are definitely intellectuals–take, for instance, Steven Pinker–and some are not.  Some academics are intellectuals and some are not.  Some writers and artists are intellectuals and some are not.

But to claim that such people will “always” find positions “on the left” more congenial is to fly in the face of history.

Let’s start by pointing out that not only are “intellectual” and “university academic” just different ways of saying the same thing, they were until very recently assumed to be mutually exclusive.

As late as World War II in the United States,  intellectuals disdained college teachers and college teaching.  Most intellectuals worked on little highbrow magazines, work essays freelance for dozens of tiny journals, and basically starved themselves in places like Greenwich Village.

Every once in a while, such a person would write a book that would command a wider audience, and finally have a little money.  Most of the time, they just went without.  Philip Rahv and “the boys at Partisan Review,” Randolph Bourne–

One of the most illuminating things I ever read was a biography of Mary McCarthy (Seeing Mary Plain) which relates the story of her gall bladder operation.  She went into the hospital and came right home the same day.  Having no money–and medical insurance being largely unknown at the time–she couldn’t stay in the hospital for even a couple of days to recuperate.

As for holding mostly leftist positions, or finding them most congenial, American intellectuals weren’t “mostly on the left” until around the time of WWI, and that might be something of an illusion. 

Most of the intellectuals who were “on the left” in that period were immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, or the children of those immigrants.  Native-born American intellectuals who trended left did so in ways that were significantly different in a number of respects from the left orthodoxy of people like Rahv.

The big surge in leftward identification on the part of American intellectuals comes between the two world wars, and if you think about it, that makes sense.  The Soviet Union was established in 1917.  It started funding left wing writers and artists all over Europe and the United States within a year or two.

If the old saying is true–you get more of what you pay for and less of what you tax–then the reason for a swell in the ranks of specifcially left-leaning intellectuals at this point is perfectly obvious.  There were more of them because the Soviet Union was willing to pay them.

Always before then, intellectuals were all over the map politically and philosophically, and in at least one period (the eighteenth century) in one place (the Anglophone sphere) even tended to be what we now call “on the right”–that is, in favor of limited government, free enterprise, and individual rights.

But money matters, and intellectuals have, until very recently, always been poor.  In th ose days, even college teaching made you poor.  Professors with doctorates made much less than middle management in business in those days–and they still do today, outside of a few very elite schools at the very top of the academic heap.

The result of this influx of (underground, and deliberately kept secret) money from the Soviet Union was a rise in left-leaning little magazines, and in left-leaning intellectual guns for hire.

It was also the beginning of a sort of quid pro quo situation–if you were an adolescent with an intellectual bent, if what mattered to you was the life of the mind, then virtually the only  opportunity you had to live such a life was by being able to sell to all those little magazines, the vast majority of which were on the left.

The march into university teaching came after WWII, faciliated by the fact that the GI Bill swelled enrollments and left colleges scrambling for people with any kind of credentials at all to put into teaching.  Most intellectuals of that era did not have PhDs, but they did have publications. 

There’s a difference between “intellectuals naturally tend to find the left more congenial than the right” and “young intellectuals are faced with a situation where only the left seems to care about what they do and be willing to pay for it.”

It’s the second situation, not the first, that we find ourselves in.

And we can prove it in another way–the United States has an active intellectual right because William F. Buckley started the first of a series of institutions that was willing to pay for it.

A kid in France who wanted to live the life of the mind was basically stuck with the Left–it controlled the publications and the universities both.

A kid in the US could join Young Americans for Freedom, get his articles published in Ntional Review, spend the summer taking courses in political philosophy at half a dozen think tanks.

By the time Buckley was done, both founding things himself and encouraging and faciliating other people founding them, there was a network of magazines, television programs, Internet web sites, organizations, think tanks (Hoover, Cato, Heritage), and even publishing houses where a conservative intellectual could work and support himself. 

You get what you pay for.

Buckley’s work paid off big time–we have here a drastically different climate from the one in Europe, and a drastically more diverse intellectual life. 

And, on top of that, havin such people on your side–people who work with ideas–vastly improves the chances that you will see those ideas make an impact on your society.

You get what you pay for.

And not necessarily through the government, either.

What you also get is less of what you denigrate and defame.  

Which is why I say that a constant drumbeat that says that the problem with Eric Foner is not that he’s wrong, but that he’s intellectual, is shooting yourself in the foot.

Written by janeh

February 21st, 2010 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Intellectuals Redux

with 7 comments

I’ve been thinking for a while about getting back to something I tried to express earlier, and got sort of blindsided for.  I never know when to qualify what, if you know what I mean.  I never know when something I say or something I write is going to result in a lot of running around hacking at side issues, so that I never do get the point across and end up putting out brush fires in largely unrelated buildings.

And, you know, ahem–I do understand that annoyance that comes with somebody saying “but you just don’t understand!”  On the other hand, sometimes you just don’t understand.  I’ve been thinking about it in the case of Barack Obama lately.  He’s gotten a lot of flack lately for saying that his big problem on the health care bill is that he hasn’t explained what he’s doing well enough. 

Well, people say, and some of them commenting on this blog, here he goes again–we’re just too stupid to get it.  It’s not that we disagree with the policy.

But if I were Barack Obama, and I knew I’d said X, and the polls said people thought I’d said Y, I’d opt for thinking I might have been misunderstood.

So here I go, although not on the subject of Barack Obama.  Thomas Sowell has a new book out, called Intellectuals and Society.  Like Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, it’s a long screed about why intellectuals are basically awful, immoral, dangerous people, written by somebody who is one.

Let me start out with this:  I don’t understand why people who, like Sowell, are intellectuals, always write about intellectuals as if all of them are left-wing.  Sowell, for those of you who don’t know, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, a conservative think tank.  He’s also black, which gets him a lot of press sometimes.  If you want to know what he does, I’d suggest a book of essays called White Liberals and Black Rednecks, which includes a really interesting piece on the genesis an evolution of “ghetto” culture.

Sowell is not only an intellectual, he works in an institution full of other intellectuals who are all themselves not left wing.  In fact, most of them aren’t even liberal.  Sowell must know that it is possible to be both an intellectual and anywhere on the political spectrum at all.  He must know that his is not a lone non-leftist voice in the ranks of the people who do what he does.

Here’s the thing:  I can understand criticizing Eric Foner for being an addled, supercilious, tenured Marxist twit.  I can understand criticizing Howard Zinn–who died a few weeks ago–for lying about history and trashing all the good things about Western civilization. 

I don’t understand criticizing either of them because they’re “intellectuals.”  It does not seem to me to be their intellectualism that is the problem.

William F. Buckley was an intellectual.  Roger Kimball is one.  So is Gertrude Himmelfarb.  So was Richard John Neuhaus.  There are plenty of conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, and “classically liberal” (meaning economically conservative) intellectuals. 

What’s more, the constant attacks on people like Foner and company for being “intellectuals,” or for having first class educations, makes it sound as if the real grievance is not what these people say, but the fact of their being intelligent and educated at all.

And the problem with that is that hundreds of kids coming up in the next generation get the not entirely wrongheaded impression that conservatives and libertarians are antagonistic to them not because of anything they might do, but because of what they are.

And the problem with that is that no movement, no political system, no culture, no civilization can do without  people who do what intellectuals do.  Lenin might have called them useful idiots, but as idiotic as he thought they were, he did understand that they were useful.

The conservative (and sometimes libertarian) movements in the United States don’t seem to have caught on to the fact that intellectuals are useful, never mind that they might be fundamentally necessary, to the growth and success of any collection of ideas in a literate society.

And that’s kind of funny, really, because there would be no conservative movement in the United States today without an intellectual, William F. Buckley, jr, who pretty much resurrected the movement from the ashes of thirty years of near-suicidal cultural idiocy. 

It’s instructive, too, to look at what Buckley did in his campaign to found a viable conservative movement in the United States:  not only were the hard-right nutcases like the John Birch Society banished from the pages of National Review, but so were the anti-evolution Darwin-is-a-plot-to-destroy-religion fundamentalists.

Buckley was a crusader for intelligence, culture and high standards in literature and art as well as in politics.  We forget that, in the Sixties, it was the American right who defended Shakespeare and Bach against a Left that found all these things “elitist.” 

I have no idea what happened between then and now, but this particular tack, this endless wailing on people not for the content of their ideas but because they dare to be “intellectual” at all, this disdain and contempt for people because they prefer Handel to country music or Trollope to the latest Die Hard movie is counterproductive in the extreme.

Conservatives and libertarians need intellectuals just as much as liberals, socialists and Marxists do.  No society can exist for long without them, because they provide the narratives that frame the cultural experience for all the people in it.  I don’t understand why Buckley understood that and nobody else seems to have since. 

If people like Sowell–and Johnson and Kimball and Himmelfarb–want to criticize the Eric Foners of the world, they should criticize them for the incredible idiocy of their ideas, not for dealing in ideas at all.

If people like Sowell want to actually do something about the Eric Foners of the world, they should encourage younger people with conservative and libertarian ideas to embrace the intellectual life instead of abandoning it–or abandoning conservatism and libertarianism for liberalism and leftism because only liberalism and leftism will offer them a home.

Ack.  I want to go do something, I think, before I have to run out.  

But I would like to note–among the other things Anthony Trollope did, like write lots of novels that have lasted for over a hundred years, while he was working for the Royal Mail (which he did all his life, even after his writing was successful), he invented the street corner mailbox.

There’s a distinction for you

Written by janeh

February 20th, 2010 at 8:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Critical Thinking

with 4 comments

I know, I was off on some other subject the day before yesterday.  And part of me would like to rant and rave here about the Percy Jackson books, if only because I find them incoherent.  Of course, they sell like crazy, so it’s probably me.

But Critical Thinking keeps coming up, and I’m fed up with it.  So let me start there.

In the first place, there may once have been a definition for this that made some sense, but by now it’s come down to a sort of reflexive phrase without a lot of content that everybody can declare themselves in favor ot. 

What should children be taught in school?  Critical thinking!  Why do so many people disagree with me?  They lack critical thinking skills!

That second one is, really, what people do seem to mean when they deplore the “fact” that children or students or readers or whoever don’t know how to do “critical thinking.”

My present annoyance on the subject came from reading this month’s issue of Free Inquiry, which is beginning to drive me almost as nuts as those bulletins the American Family Association puts out.  In case you don’t know the American Family Association, it’s a folk-Protestant/largely Biblical literalist/social conservative organization down south somewhere that does a lot of fulminating about “secular humanism.”

Free Inquiry is the flagship publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, and it used to be one of my favorite magazines.  Back when Bill had first died and I was being driven crazy by the nearly endless outpouring of religiosity that landed on me because of it, FI, along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s monthly newspaper, was about the only thing that kept me sane.

Lately, though, all it seems to do is to print endless rehashes of the same old stuff.  This month’s issue had a mind-numbing obtuse argument about how there’s nothing particularly special about human beings, and science teaches us that.  I sat in the Barnes and Noble cafe drinking some caramel coffee thing my son bought for me and making notes on a napkin for an article about how science actually proves just how really special we all are.

But that was, you know, just an opinion piece, and an opinion piece saying the same thing a couple of dozen other opinion pieces have already said in FI over the years.

The kicker–where critical thinking is concerned–was a longish article by a man named James Haught called Fading Faith.  In it, Haught attempted to “prove” that the United States was becoming just as secular as Western Europe.

If “critical thinking” means anything, it ought to mean being able to see where people are making a mess of statistics, but the editors at FI–who are constantly publishing stuff declaring that secular people are “critical thinkers” while religious people are not (or else they wouldn’t be religious)–don’t seem to have caught the obvious problems with this particular thing.

There is, for instance, Haught’s constant use of absolute numbers when they suit his purposes (as in the record of the decline of mainstream Protestantism), and quick switches to relative stats when the numbers won’t work.

He tells us, for instance, that 96% of Americans called themself Christians in the Fifties, while only 86% do so now–but in the meantime, the population of the country has literally doubled in size, and immigration from non-Christian countries has gone way up.  The fact is that there are at least twice as many active Christians in the US today as there were in 1952. 

Then there are the old numbskull refrains:  the Church may say that abortion is wrong, but even most Catholics who go to church don’t agree!  So what?  Science may say evolution is true, but even most students in science classes probably don’t agree.  Science is not a democracy, and neither is the Catholic Church.

Ack.  There’s not really anything unusual in any of this.  And both sides do it, in spades.  I just wish we could get rid of the whole “critical thinking” business.  What we need is not people who know how to “think critically,” but people who are willing to question what they read even when they agree with it.

That would be a start.

Written by janeh

February 19th, 2010 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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