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

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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

3 Responses to 'Fools to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right…'

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  1. You think you can PROVE that? Someone’s Bach didn’t agree with her this morning–though I’ll grant you hastily throwing a fresh defintion into the breach helps your case somewhat. Without going any further: the ability to construct a consistent narative is not “proof” of any sort.
    And though the Soviet Union went away and took its subsidies with it, campus life looks as whacky as ever from here. The ROTC bans, the unilateral disarmament pushes, the hatred of industrialization–or free enterprise generally–and the sexual and racially based quotas and departments are all “intellectual” orthodoxy. The kids protesting the Pershing Missile deployments are now tenured professors and government-subsidized “activists” cheating on their second wives, and haven’t seen a Russian check since Bush I was elected–and, as you point out, Cato, Hudson and the Heritage Insitutue are still hiring and publishing. It’s not foreign money holding the system up.
    But it may be money all the same. If the university system miraculously disbanded next week, Ford and Pfizer would still be paying the engineering and chemistry faculty to teach, because they’d still need chemists and engineers. Banks would still need economists and the Departments of State and Defense would still need “foreign area specialists” and young people who knew miliary history or political-diplomatic history of the Rankean sort. Now tell me what one does with the women’s studies departments, the deconstructionist end of English and the grievance studies end of History–all intellectuals precisely as Sowell defines the term, and the engines of American leftism. To say that Sowell’s critique does not apply IF YOU USE A DIFFERENT DEFINITION FOR THE KEY WORD is not helpful.

    And please note that none of the founders called himself an intellectual. They called themselves “printer” “farmer” “planter” “Merchant” “teacher” or “lawyer” and, in reference to learning, “students of” or “scholars of” this or that subject. I don’t have an OED handy, but I’ll bet you “intellectual” as an English noun–something to BE, as apart from subjects one ought to study–doesn’t come in until just about that WWI shift to the left.

    It is a vastly different thing to say “I, and all merchants or planters, need to understand political history and theory that we may establish and maintain sound government and go about our business” than it is to say “I want to think deep thoughts about government, and to be paid for thinking them”

    But your last sentence is entirely correct. I said so yesterday.


    21 Feb 10 at 11:11 am

  2. Jane, Noam Chomsky is perceived to be an intellectual. He is also famous for making comments about US foreign policy.

    “You get what you pay for” True but what does it say about all those leftists in the 1930s who wrote about the USSR as a workers paradise and denied the Ukrainiana famine and the Gulag? Were they deliberately lying?


    21 Feb 10 at 12:53 pm

  3. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘demanding deference’; if it means being patronized by people who want my compliance while implying that I’m too stupid to make my own decisions, sure, I’ve encounterd that – although rarely – from people in medical fields and K-12 education.

    But I’ve encountered it far more often among the supporters of various ideologies focusing on the environment, politics, and moral/social issues like abortion and euthanasia than I have among nurses and social workers and K-12 teachers. It’s just that it’s less likely to be face-to-face with the ideologues and more likely to be through their writings while I tend to encounter nurses etc face to face.

    I actually think (ideologues going on and on about the seal hunt etc aside) that the respect-for-experts, either demanded or offered, that used to be more common, is now nearly dead. Even respect for technical expertise has fallen victim to a combination of genuine mistakes (like thalidomide or the early dismissal of the infection theory about ulcers) and an intellectual climate in which everyone’s truth is equally true, so there’s no particular reason not to try to cure your cancer with apricot pits.


    21 Feb 10 at 3:11 pm

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