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Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them, or Something

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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

4 Responses to 'Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them, or Something'

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  1. Jane may be using a definition of Intellectual that is to sophisticated. If I remember correctly, this discussion started with Jane asking why there is a popular culture which holds intellectuals in contempt.

    She says Noam Chosmsky is an an intellectual and Ward Churchill is not. But to the ordinary person, they are both university professors who write books accusing the US of genocide or war crimes. And the ordinary person calls university professors who write books intellectuals.

    I doubt that the man in the street spends much time thinking about universities. But universities advertise themselves as places for free and open discussion. University deans and presidents are certainly considered intellectuals. Yet they have hired Ward Churchill and the various “feminists” to teach a party line. At least to me, the guardians of intellectual freedom have betrayed their own principles and I no longer trust them. And I call them intellectuals even if Jane is trying to use a different definition.


    22 Feb 10 at 2:02 pm

  2. I hate to say anything nice about Ward Churchill, are credentials the appropriate test for being an intellectual? William Sloane Coffin, if I remember correctly, had pretty good credentials, and Eric Hoffer virtually none. But Hoffer was a man of ideas, and Coffin a man of (leftist) reflexes. It would be convenient if everyone who was well-read and reasoned shrewdly had appropriate paperwork and no ill-informed fuzzy thinker had a “good” degree, but life is not like that.

    As for needing a word, I think we can fall back on the trusty English combination of noun and adjective. We need a noun for “academics and writers belonging to certain kinds of departments and publications at certain kinds of institutions and universities” and I think “intellectual” fills this nicely–though some freelance writers certainly ought to be included. We need an adjective to describe a certain kind of these people. I would use “leftist.” I think their own choice du jour is “progressive.” But it’s important to keep in mind that not all leftists/progressives are intellectuals by any stretch. Michael Moore and Duranty are two obvious examples: leftist but not intellectuals. And Sowell himself is an example of the converse: an intellectual without being a leftist.

    The difficulty comes when someone confuses a common trait of a group with a defining trait. It’s the “black swan” problem. Even if every swan you’ve ever seen is white, that doesn’t mean the bird must be white to be a swan.

    Sowell, from the descriptions I’ve read of his book, realizes the problem. He knows that not all intellectuals are progressives, but feels the distribution skews heavily that way–possibly because leftists are more attracted to the work. Jane argued yesterday that while the bias among modern American itellecutals was to the left, it wasn’t as much so as Sowell believed, and was so for different reasons.

    Opinions by two well-informed, articulate people. If anyone can think of a way of proving either opinion right or wrong, please keep me informed. Oterwise, we’re just making Lord Kelvin’s point.


    22 Feb 10 at 6:15 pm

  3. Librarian that I am, I looked at the word intellectual in three dictionaries: The OED, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. All define it much the same way Jane does. Just like poor people or black people or deaf people, “ordinary people” or the “man in the street” can’t be lumped together like a sack of Granny Smith apples. Certainly some folks who are not formally educated do ridicule “professors” and “people who write books.” Some police officers are crooked. Some women are prostitutes. Not all people in the three groups do, however.
    What do (or did) George Wallace, Spiro Agnew and Sarah Palin have in common? They all disparage(d) intellectuals. Pointy headed intellectuals, nattering nabobs of whatever . . . And Sarah’s good ol’ girl speeches, by golly, doggoneit.
    I like very little that Thomas Sowell writes but he was also hired by a university and continues to work there. His reasoning is repellant to me but it is just that, reasoning, thinking things through instead of relying on emotion.In 2003, he was awarded the Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement. I don’t like David Brooks’ columns on the op-ed page but he doesn’t resort to feeling over thought either.
    What does the “man on the street’s” supposed perception of intellectuals have to do with the actual definition of intellectual?


    22 Feb 10 at 6:17 pm

  4. Jem asked
    >>>What does the “man on the street’s” supposed perception of intellectuals have to do with the actual definition of intellectual?

    The discussion started sometime ago about why there seems to be a popular culture of dislike of intellectuals.

    SO it is reasonable to ask what “popular culture” defines as intellectual.


    22 Feb 10 at 7:32 pm

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