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Intellectuals Redux

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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

7 Responses to 'Intellectuals Redux'

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  1. I fully agree.
    OK, not about the President, who seems to have explained himself to excess, but the main point. It is–understandable–that the Left should claim that all serious intellectual activity leads to their conclusions, and that ariving at any other conclusion shows one is not serious. The big guns of “anthropogenic climate change” are currently playing the same game. That some conservatives should accept this is a bad move on their part.

    However, I understand where it comes from. 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. And that “intellectual concensus” will always be a weapon in the hands of freedom’s enemies. This leaves the conservative intellectual with two options. He can, effectively, kick over the table–“the opinions of the majority of intellectuals are of no importance, because they are of no importance”–Of he can do what Buckley and Rand did: argue that the life of the mind is important, but that most people who pursue it get the politics of it utterly wrong.

    The second is the intellectually correct option. It may even be the politically smart version over the long haul. But it’s a terribly difficult and lonely path. It is easy to convnce oneself that there must be an easier way.


    20 Feb 10 at 8:29 am

  2. What is an intellectual? Is it someone who has a PhD and a job in academia or a Think Tank (do they still call them that?)? Or is it someone who has an aptitude to deal with big ideas and the tools and knowledge to actually do so?

    It’s tempting to think that the two groups are the same today, what with the lack of independantly wealthy people at the cutting edge of science or philosophy, that we might have had in the recent past. And maybe the two groups have coalesced into one; I’m neither an intellectual nor an academic, so I feel that I have a lack of information on this subject.

    But it sounds to me almost as though ‘intellectual’ is picking up the meaning of “University ivory tower bureaucrat” and losing the one of “Studies and writes on the big issues of how humans should live and how societies should be organized.”

    Which inspires me to ask – is a scientist an intellectual? What if the scientist is working at a university, but stdying the sex life of trilobites rather than some GUT?


    20 Feb 10 at 8:51 am

  3. I can’t resist posting again. I’ve just started an old book by Andrew Greeley that caught my eye – “The Sinai Myth”. Near the end of the introduction he wrote “Whether the book is profound is not for me to say; I do not equate seriousness or profundity with either obscurity or the scholarly apparatus. I refuse to accept the right of academics and their fellow travelers to define what is important and serious and at the same time to insist that the only worthwhile things are written principally for scholars.”


    20 Feb 10 at 9:30 am

  4. I think this opinion piece from the NY Times may be relevant

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/opinion/19brooks.html?em. I hope you’ll forgive a long quote!

    ” The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower.

    Why has this happened? I can think of a few contributing factors.

    First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.

    Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too.

    It could be that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then, with good reason.”

    On a side issue, no one in the US is talking about health care reform, they are all talking about health care change. And change of a large complex system doesn’t necessarily improve it. I wonder if much of the popular opposition to the health care changes is based on a distrust of changes.


    20 Feb 10 at 1:04 pm

  5. The reaction against “intellectuals” really reminds me of the middle-school push to tear down anyone who stands above the crowd. If we as a society want to keep our kids juvenile far into the years when they should be adult, then we can’t be so surprised when juvenile behavior, including the dislike for the smart people who screw up the curve, persists into adult life.

    This may be far too simplistic. But as Jane has written before, we’ve got a real issue of self-loathing going on here, loathing for our country, society, and humanity among the people who should be forward thinking leaders. I wish we could see more liking and admiration for those who accomplish something, whether it’s intellectual, financial, or humanitarian.

    Now I feel like I’m thrashing about. Off to do something real with my day. That third bedroom needs painting.


    20 Feb 10 at 1:36 pm

  6. I admit to some confusion here. I have a PhD in Physics, have studied philosophy, and am interested in History. Does that qualify me as an intellectual?

    On the other hand, I remember Pol Pot, Mao, and Lenin and Stalin with grandiose plans to improve society.

    And I remember high rise welfare housing which was supposed to relieve poverty and ended up being torn down as unworkable. I remember green field planned communities which failed because there was no place to work or shop.

    I remember the “law of unintended consequences” – all human activity has unintended consequences. And I distrust glorious plans to make major changes in how things are done. Academic intellectuals don’t seem to share my distrust.

    I don’t dislike intellectuals, I do dislike their plans for “reform”.


    20 Feb 10 at 5:21 pm

  7. I agree with John about this. (I’m the least educated and have the least claims to intellectualism of anyone here, but as always I do have “views”. :-))

    I read a fair bit in the Australian, British and American media and, at least within the past 25 years of so, to the extent that there is one, the common thread has been the frequently uncritical reverence paid by the media and politicians to the prognostications of the so called “intelligentia”. Indeed, the term “Public Intellectual” seems to have appeared out of nowhere during the past 10 years or so to honor those with whom the media pundits agree. The idea that a genuine intellectual with whom the commentariat disagree might have an even more valid claim to the honorific never seems to dawn on these self-selected arbiters of public intellectual tastes/fashions. Thus, we have the ridiculous situation here in Australia where a left-right-left individual like Robert Manne is revered by the media and leftists everywhere while Keith Windschuttle, a conservative with credentials at least as good as Manne’s, and who has destroyed Manne’s intellectual credibility many times in books, opinion pieces and in face to face debate, is detested.

    Manne, whom Wikipedia describes as a lecturer of politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, has built a recent reputation by fighting for the left wing side of the Aboriginal history wars in support of the virtually unanimous bien pensent leftist intellectual view that Australia is as guilty as Nazi Germany of genocide. Windschuttle has had the temerity to fact-check their allegations and supporting footnotes against the official documentation and contemporary media and highlighted their lies and distortions. Not only has he demonstrated these authors’ virtually total lack of any credible relevant evidence, but also he has found – among their own sources – compelling contradictory evidence. Thus, he is anathema.

    I do not think that success in academia is, of itself, any indication of wisdom. In fact, having worked for and with highly qualified people for many years, it is not until they have achieved a considerable amount – many years, mostly – of real world experience that their opinions can be trusted to be worth as much as far less qualified, but highly experienced practitioners. Any senior non-com in the military can dine out for years on the follies of highly educated junior officers whom they’ve had to mentor through their early post-graduate years.

    Architecture is another area where, particularly in Australia, intellectuals have ridden roughshod over the wishes/needs of the clients/users of their monumental but impractical monstrosities, thus forcing users to adapt themselves to serious design deficiencies. The Sydney Opera House is a classic example. Externally beautiful and justly famous as such, internally it has been, at least until now, pretty much unsuitable for any purpose to which it has been put – except, perhaps, as a tourist attraction. As an “Opera House” it is an unmitigated disaster. But the intellectual purists could not have cared less at the time it was being built about the runaway costs that threatened the entire state budget, thus forcing the conservative government of the day to close the virtually open cheque book that the previous leftist government had granted its architect and structural engineers struggling to solve the seemingly insurmountable design and technical problems. The descendants of those same intellectual purists today could not care less that the costs of “rectifying” the expedient “short cuts” forced on the builders by the then government are equally outrageous.

    Similarly, among several others, there’s a particularly ugly stack of reinforced concrete here in Canberra which a couple of generations of government workers, including myself, have found to be a complete disaster to work in or even to visit. It was built as a homage to le Corbusier and is beyond dire both visually and practically. Yet when the local government decided to demolish it, the outraged bleats of the architectural and academic communities were deafening. Never mind the ugliness. Never mind the impracticality. It’s a rare example of this brutal school of architecture in Oz and should be preserved for this reason alone. Go figure.

    So, if there is a perceived dislike for “intellectuals” among hoi polloi, I think it results more from a dislike of the arrogant and dismissive behaviour of many intellectuals, than it does from a dislike of intellectualism as such.


    21 Feb 10 at 2:35 am

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