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Humpty Dumpty Was Wrong

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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

2 Responses to 'Humpty Dumpty Was Wrong'

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  1. 2AM and tinnitus has a freight train running through my head. That may explain why this comment is incoherent and nasty tempered.

    Jane says words tend to have standard definitions. They should have because we use words for communication and unless they have standard meaning we can’t communicate. But I have long ago decided that certain words should be treated as meaningless noise even if they have dictionary definitions.

    Some of the words I treat as noise are left wing, right wing, liberal, conservative, nazi, fascist, communist, socialist, justice, racist, genocide, religion, equality. I’m about ready to add Intellectual to the list.

    Jane wrote: 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…

    Yes, I see her point. But its the people on THIS side who claim to be intellectuals who have made “nazi”, “racist”, “genocide”, “equality” meaningless.

    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?

    jd

    24 Feb 10 at 11:31 am

  2. People who say they are left wing or right wing are not polar opposites in all respects, as Jane pointed out. Just as mental processes aren’t strictly confined to either the left side or right side of the brain. I didn’t agree with the content of the texts by William Buckley or George Will but the writing was superb. Both were (or are in Will’s case) intellectuals. Politicians who claim to be just plain folks do so to attract votes and provoke a knee jerk reaction to complicated and controversial issues, such as integration in the ’60s. In some circumstances these populists have encouraged a perception of intellectuals as elitists who ignore the wants and needs of common folks, whatever that term is supposed to mean.

    jem

    24 Feb 10 at 12:02 pm

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