Intellectuals – their role and influence

An intellectual criticism of intellectuals? Yes. The irony is not lost on me. More boring than watching paint dry? Hopefully not.

There is a long, not-so-storied tradition of ‘outsider’ intellectuals writing criticism, or exposés of intellectual culture and opinions. Sometimes they make a splash, but seldom with the right people, and the impact is always short-lived.

Three of my favourites are Paul Johnson, Roger Scruton, and Thomas Sowell. I will comment on their work in more detail in later posts, but here is a brief overview of their writing on intellectual culture and ideas.

Paul Johnson is a former journalist and editor of The New Statesman, and now a historian. He is the author of over 40 books on historical epochs, events, themes, and key figures.

One of his most famous is the 1988 classic, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky. It is focused not so much on their ideas, but on their lives. A few common themes emerge that are characteristic both of egg heads of the more distant past and present day alike. He starts with the advent of the secular intellectuals in 17th century, many of whom thought that they could reshape the world of theory and practice through the exercise of their intellects, abandoning all that came before them. The most brilliant influential are also the most outlandish, profoundly egotistical, uncaring, ill-tempered, and depressive people. Another recurring theme is having loose morals, and financial problems.

From my experience in the academic world, an intellectual is someone who tends to see every problem through the general, and abstract lens. In the place of an individual person, and the human relations that make up their lives is a focus on the theoretical and impersonal. Intellectuals are prone to conceive of issues as the product of the complex interplay of the social, cultural, and historical ‘systemic’ forces working through everyone. They will help out in the moment (at times), though the more pressing work is always major social change to restructure anything and everything in order to avoid all problems in the future.

I have certainly been guilty of this behaviour, and am happy at least to have recognized it!

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher by trade who has achieved fame and infamy for his heretical views on a wide range of subjects, never shying away from the politically sensitive issues of the day.

In a book that effectively ended his career in mainstream academia, he took aim at the intellectual trends of the 20th century on the left. Thinkers of the New Left, revised and reissued in 2015 as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands details the thought of American, British, French and German intellectuals who were leaders of their respective movements. He is a careful and sympathetic reader of their positions, doling out criticism where it is deserved, and retaining a grudging respect for the originality and complexity of thinkers such as Foucault and Sartre. He has discussed it recently here.

The history of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have characterized the political landscape since first coined – the ‘left’ referring to the ‘third estate’ that sat to the left of the king in the French Estates General of 1789, just prior to the French revolution and consequent Reign of Terror. The ‘left’ is characterized by the simultaneous pursuit of liberty and equality, conceived of not as ordinarily understood, but in the extreme.

Scruton writes, “the liberation advocated by left-wing movements today does not mean simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed. It means emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society” (Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 3).

Likewise with equality. What is really meant is ‘social justice’, “no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship…The goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged…In every sphere in which the social position of individuals might be compared, equality is the default position” (Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 4).

It is not as though these goals – though qualified a great deal – are not good things in context; it is that they allow nothing to stand in their way. “No existing custom, institution, law or hierarchy; no tradition, distinction, rule or piety can trump equality, if it cannot provide itself with independent credentials“. (Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, 4)

These two goals of absolute liberty and equality are clearly incompatible. Yet, you will see the same people waving placards one day, nearly frothing at the mouth and demanding freedom from the constraint of some norm, and the next day complaining that the answer to some disparity is yet more institutions and norm-creation to support the latest victim group. The government is supposed to ‘achieve’ this of course – an entity that is considered either good or bad depending on the mood of the day. A few seconds of reflection should allow you to arrive at the conclusion that you cannot advocate for complete freedom from norms whenever they are displeasing, and then demand that the government enforce certain views and norms via institutions the next.

Intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it” (12). Certainly right about that.

Roger Scruton interviewed by Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College

Thomas Sowell is an economist by training, who has become somewhat of a social philosopher over time. He studied Marx in his early years, began working in a government agency, and ended up at Chicago, which promptly cured him of all that. Since then, he has worked in many premier American academic institutions, taken up residency as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and has written many books and columns.

In Intellectuals and Society, he shows how the recent trend among intellectuals has been to influence public opinion, primarily through the academy and media.

He defines an intellectual as someone ‘whose chief output is ideas’. There are obviously many people whose work is intellectual, but whose end products are not ideas. Nor are the standards by which they are judged the acceptance of their peers. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, business people, and managers do ‘intellectual’ work, but are not referred to as intellectuals.

Intellectuals use tactics that Sowell describes as ‘verbal virtuosity’ – sneering, clever phrasing, euphemisms to dismiss opinions they consider beneath themselves. They often reject arguments as ‘simplistic’ for having come from a certain person or group of people. A favourite is to constantly invoke ‘rights’ where there are none or at least none that could be enforced, and to ceaselessly advocate for a vague ‘change’, attaching all of these ‘ideas’ to superior moral righteousness and progress.

Surely though, abstract and general thinking about complex social matters has a great deal of merit to it. It is just that, according to Sowell, the particular climate of academic life in certain fields is such that groupthink dominates and facts are seldom checked if they conflict with the core tenets of the world view currently in vogue. Key to his argument – and to his social and economic philosophy in general – is that intellectuals do not face the consequences of the proposals that they suggest, as they do not have to implement them. They are unique in this respect, as almost everyone else engaged in practical endeavours face the consequences of their actions in a more immediate way.

Intellectuals can easily condemn any display of force by the police and military as ‘excessive’ without paying any consequences for having said so – unlike the police officer or commander whose life may very well depend on it. Intellectuals only receive accolades for such ‘moral condemnations’.

I like to think of it this way. Of the many ‘elite’ classes in society today, the intellectuals are but one small part. In the Middle Ages and times prior, the intellectuals in the West belonged chiefly to the priesthood, and were subservient to the worldly warrior-aristocrats and princes. Nonetheless, their status was guaranteed, and a good many of them could influence politics via the institutional church, or pagan religious institutions.

With the scientific and cultural revolutions taking place in Europe, new classes arose, and the landscape of the power elite shifted. Today, academics, journalists, religious leaders, influential celebrities, business people, and politicians all compete for different slices of the power-and-influence-pie.

‘Learned’ intellectuals have been losing their influence for quite some time now, as most people go about their lives unbothered by the latest fad in academia, and ‘high’ culture. It seems as though part of their radical progressivism and utopian theorizing is due to a desire for more influence. Who is to design and implement the next government redistribution strategy, welfare program, or international governmental organization designed to ‘solve’ the world’s problems? Why – intellectuals, of course.

Thomas Sowell interviewed by Peter Robinson on ‘Uncommon Knowledge’ at the Hoover Institution

Another favourite pastime of intellectuals is to heap disdain on anything average or normal in the world of culture and lifestyle. There is nothing worse than ‘mass culture’, ‘consumerism’, and ‘bourgeois values’. Fleeing persecution by the Nazis, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer – founders of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory – were welcomed to America with open arms. Being the sad bunch that they were, they quickly became appalled by the work ethic, can-do attitude, good-natured and down-to-earth pursuit of happiness by Americans. They proceeded to denounce what they called the ‘culture industry’ – the media products enslaving the people to their masters, thwarting the revolution of the proletariat. This was the new theoretical piece in their explanatory toolkit to save Classical Marxism from defeat.

A figure who deserves special attention is Noam Chomsky. There is no man with greater wit, breadth of knowledge, and eloquent writing and speaking ability who utters such profound nonsense, and massages the truth ad nauseam.

Paul Bogdanor, and a chorus of others have been sounding the alarm for decades to no avail. Mr. Chomsky rightly became famous after revolutionizing the study of linguistics with his theory of Universal Grammar and the publication of Syntactic Structures in ’57. He turned the field into a science, and was one of the key figures in overturning the excesses of the paradigm of behaviourism in psychology and the social sciences.

Chomsky-Foucault debate on Human Nature way back in the 70s.

Since then, he has become one of the world’s foremost intellectuals, and critics of all things American, capitalist, and so forth. I will say that I enjoy his anti-postmodernism, if only because he his such a prominent figure on the left himself. Yet, he seems to engage in his own version of it – making sensational statements, clothed in intelligent jargon his bread and butter. The defining mark of his brand of political commentary is that he will capitalize on negatively perceived events and trends, and turn them into catastrophes with strident comparisons that fail the test of common sense and logic.

The problem is that the ranks of the The New York Times, The Guardian, and the airwaves of CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and the CBC swell with intellectuals, or those under the influence of their ideas, consciously or not. Whatever you may think of this, it is good to at least beware of the pervasive bias. When someone like Trump, for example, refers to the media as ‘The Opposition Party’ touting ‘fake news’, he is just referring to the fact that they are hopelessly biased.

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