Treason of the Intellectuals was the title of a 1928 book by JulienBenda,originally published in French as La Trahison des Clercs. The term Clerchas an obvious similarity to the word cleric, and Benda used it in thesense of people who devoted their lives to ideas and thought without necessarilybeing concerned with practical applications. Benda was distressed at the wayintellectuals of the early 20th Century had been increasingly seduced by theappeal of power, and by the possibility that men of ideas might have a real role inshaping human events. Some devoted their energies to justifying nationalism,others to fanning class rivalry. One group would soon furnish an intellectualbasis for fascism, the other had already been swept up by early Marxism, dazzledby the Russian Revolution. Benda warned that if these political passions werenot reined in, mankind was "heading for the greatest and most perfect warthe world has ever known."
Society and intellectuals had been jointly responsible for this process.Particularly in Germany, universities had been redefined as institutions forproducing skilled scientists and engineers, and the increasing success ofscience and technology in producing practical results had led to a shift from abelief in knowledge as good in itself to knowledge as good for practicalpurposes. Universities discovered that people who doled out money grudgingly forabstract knowledge were quite happy to spend money for knowledge with practicaluses. The intellectuals of whom Benda wrote had aspirations of beingphilosopher-kings. Not philosopher-kings in the ancient sense, kings who usedthe insights of philosophy to rule more wisely and justly, but philosophers who also happened tobe kings and who would be able to use the power of the state to advance theirown philosophical agendas (and presumably quash opposing views).
Volume II, of course, would be a study of the way Westernintellectuals prostituted themselves to Communism during the Stalinist era andthe Cold War.Innumerable books on this subject have been written. Most of those of Cold Warvintage were derided as mere anti-Communist hysteria or, ironically,"anti-intellectual." Norman Podhoretz' Breaking Ranks is arecent account of how one former radical came to be disillusioned. Mona Charen'sUseful Idiots has generated shrill screams of rage from leftistintellectuals.
When I was growing up (some people argue that using the term "growingup" in any context involving me is a contradiction in terms, but nevermind) in the 1950's, I got a fairly standard view of the horrors of Communism.By the mid 1960's, I had come to regard a lot of that information as merepropaganda. Then, early in my college career at Berkeley (1965-69, no less) Igot a revelation. I was browsing in the library stacks and came across a sectionon Soviet history. I discovered that everything I had been taught to regard aspropaganda was in fact true, and moreover, the documentation was massive andeasy to find. Then I read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago anddiscovered that what I had been told in the 1950's wasn't the whole truth. Thereality was far worse. Only the most massive and willful denial ofreality could have accounted for the mind-set of Western intellectuals.
The Soviet Union is gone, and while nominal Communism lingers in Cuba, China,Vietnam and North Korea, Communism as a global magnet for intellectuals is gone.One preposterous claim, seriously advanced by some intellectuals, isthat they played a role in the downfall of Communism, when in fact theyobstructed and ridiculed opposition to Communism at every turn. But surely the mostwonderful irony is that the CIA set up front foundations during the Cold War to fund leftist intellectualsand thereby provide an alternative to Marxism. Bertrand Russell, thearchetypical anti-Western Cold War intellectual, was actually covertlysubsidized by the CIA. I love it. Russell, to me, symbolizeseverything that made the Twentieth Century a scientific golden age and aphilosophical desert, a thinker whose reputation was based solely on his ownhype machine. With his colossal ego, he never for a moment suspectedthat his funding was anything other than richly deserved. The irony isbeautiful.
But a new magnet for intellectuals is emerging: radical Islam. It's not that intellectuals are likelyto embrace radical Islam themselves anytime soon - for one thing, therequirement of believing in God would deter many of them. But what they can dois obstruct efforts to combat radical Islam and terrorism, undermine support forIsrael, stress the"legitimate grievances" of radical Islamists, and lend moral supportto the "legitimacy" of radical Islamic movements.
This is a phenomenon at first glance so baffling it cries out for analysis. Both fascism andMarxism censored, harassed, and imprisoned intellectuals, but they also gave lipservice to intellectualism. Russia and Germany both had great universities. Bothfascism and Marxism appealed to their respective nations' cultural heritage insupport of their ideologies. Our mental picture of fascism is now mostly coloredby images of Nazi book burnings and bad art, but before World War II fascism wasquite successful at passing itself off as a blend of socialism and nationalism.
Marxism inparticular offered an intellectual framework that many intellectuals boughtinto. Marxism presented a facade of support for culture and science, paid intellectuals highly and created huge academic institutions.True, intellectuals in the Soviet Union were well paid mostly in comparison tothe general poverty of everyone else rather than in real terms, theeconomy was so decrepit that the money couldn't purchase much of value, and a lotof the academic institutions were second-rate in comparison to any Americancommunity college, but at least the Soviet Union could put forth an illusion offostering intellectual inquiry. (I once sent a letter to the Soviet Embassyinquiring about films on the Soviet space program. This was afterword-processors had become universal in American offices. I got a reply - a coupleof years later - typed ona manual machine that looked as if Lenin had typed his high school term papers onit, and the embassy was still using the same ribbon.) But radical Islam is openly hostile tointellectual inquiry. Iran under the Ayatollahs banned music. In the UnitedStates, the work Piss Christ ignited a fierce debate - not overwhether such work should be allowed, but whether it should be publiclysupported. In parts of the Islamic world, dissident works invite not debateover public funding, but death sentences.Fascism and Marxism at least offered the illusion that they supportedintellectual inquiry. Radical Islam offers intellectuals nothing. Sowhy aren't Western intellectuals whole-heartedly behind any and all diplomaticand military attempts to combat radical Islam?
Most people have a tendency to forgive excesses committed in the name of somecause they support. They either regard them as unfortunate misdeeds by aberrantindividuals, or as necessary evils in the name of some higher good. That is, ofcourse, if they admit them at all. Very few things were more bizarre than the spectacle of free-love advocatesin the Sixties extolling the virtues of Marxism, which had produced some of themost prudish, repressed and sexually ignorant societies in history.
Denying the mass murders of Marxist regimes is on exactly the sameintellectual level as denying the Holocaust, and I never met any intellectualswho denied that Marxist societies were pretty oppressive. Still, I recall beingon a panel that attempted (for the gazillionth time) to redefine generaleducation. One panelist suggested that students should have exposure toHolocaust literature. I suggested that the Gulag Archipelago might be aworthy addition to the list (unlike any other members of the group, I hadactually read it.) Oh, nononononononononoNO, he replied, that wasn't atall the same.
Social misfits defected to the Soviet Union; intellectuals,regardless of how much they lionized Marxism in the comfort of their livingrooms, for some reason or other almostnever did. But when confronted with questions about the atrocities of Marxism,they came back with a standard litany of Western sins: racism, support foroppressive anti-Communist regimes, poverty, inequality, and so on. The faults of Marxist regimes were on a completely different scale than those ofthe West, and a lot of apparent "social justice" in Marxistsocieties looked good at the time but turned out to be smoke and mirrors. The nomenklaturaor Party elite were as entrenched as any Western plutocrats, the "freemedical care" was primitive, and their environmental record was atrocious.
Nobody can deny that American society has some severely messed up values. Whywould a society that is based on science and technology frequently pay aninventor less than the lawyer who draws up the patent papers? What rationalsociety would pay Shaquille O'Neal millions of dollars for skills that, shorn ofthe hype, amount to bouncing a rubber ball, and pay a teacher far less?
Surely we could eliminate such absurdities by putting the decision-makingprocess in the hands of an informed leadership. Of course, to know whatdecisions to make, you need to know what will work - you need a ruling theory.Both Marxism and fascism were happy to supply them.
The problem was that the decisions weren't very good in practice. Bothsystems excluded talented individuals for purely ideological reasons. Peopletended to twist the system to their own short-term advantage or take the path ofleast resistance. A commonly cited example was that of a Soviet factory thatmade nails. If their production goal was defined in terms of weight, they turnedout large nails. If it was determined in terms of number, they turned out tinynails. The one thing they didn't do was turn out the variety and quantity ofnails people actually needed.
In Western democracies, even in the U.S. where the hostility to regulation isgreatest, there is a vast amount of central decision-making, but day to daydecisions are left to market forces. A lot of the regulation - everything frombolt threads to type fonts - is carried out by tens of thousands ofstandardization agreements worked out by the industries involved. The solutionsthat arise aren't always optimal, but they usually end up being workable.After two decades of fumbling, we have settled on a de facto standard forcomputer operating systems. It has imperfections - some serious - but itgenerally works. Imagine being saddled with a computer architecture defined bysome central planning committee in 1983. At about that time, someone in the U.S.Government realized with horror that all the standardization agreementsmentioned above were being made and enforced with no government oversight.So the Government convened some hearings. The unanimous consensus, even by Ralph Nader, was that attempting to regulate this process was an invitation to chaos.
Putting the decision-making process in the hands of an informed leadershipsounds attractive but it more often than not ends up being less efficient thatthe trial-and-error consensus process of Western democracies. And when you thinkabout it, the standardization agreements I've discussed aredecision-making by an informed leadership. In fact, they aredecision-making by the informed leadership.
One of the biggest mysteries about Marxist societies, to me, was why theypersistently purged technologists when they came to power. All technologistswant, more than anything else, is to be left alone to do their jobs. Had Marxistgovernments freed their technological elites from bureaucratic interference,they would have created the most rabidly loyal supporters imaginable.
Unfortunately, technologists have one gaping weak spot. They believe thedata. And with their technical expertise, they are in a position to sayauthoritatively that some ideas simply will not work. Communism, which more thanany other political system was based on crackpot conspiratorial thinking andpseudointellectualism, simply could not tolerate that.
When we try to discover what fascism, Marxism, and radical Islam have incommon, the field shrinks to a single common theme: hatred of democracy. Despite all the calls for"Power to the People" from radical intellectuals, the reality is that nosocieties have ever empowered so many people to such a degree as Westerndemocracies.
The problem is that people in democratic societies usually end up using thatempowerment to make choices that intellectuals hate. How can we reconcile thefact that the masses, whom intellectuals profess to support, keep making wrongchoices? I've got it - they've been duped somehow. Those aren't their realvalues; they've been brainwashed into a "false consciousness" by society. Ifthey were completely free to choose, they'd make the "right" choices. But ofcourse we have to eliminate all the distractions that interfere with theprocess: no moral or religious indoctrination, no advertising or superficialamusements, no status symbols, no politically incorrect humor. "Falseconsciousness" is a perfect way of professing support for the masses whilesimultaneously depriving them of any power to choose; a device for being anelitist while pretending not to be.
The post-Soviet version of "false consciousness" is"internalized oppression." If you're a woman who opposes abortion, ablack with middle class values, or a person with a lousy job who neverthelessbelieves in hard work, those aren't your real values. You've internalizedthe values of the white male power elite and allowed yourself to become theirtool. You don't really know what you believe. When the enlightened elite wantyour opinion, they'll tell you what it is.
Democracy confronts radical intellectuals with a threat more dangerous thanany censor, secret police, or religious fatwa - irrelevance. Anintellectual working on behalf of a totalitarian regime can imagine himself asan agent of sweeping social change. If he ends up in a labor camp or facing afiring squad he can at least console himself that his work was so seminal that the onlyway the regime could cope with it was to silence him. He made a difference.A radical intellectual in a democracy, on the other hand, finds the vastmajority ignoring him. They never heard of him. His most outrageous works gounknown or are the butt of jokes. He watches in impotent rage as the massesignore art films and go to summer blockbusters. Worse yet, things that arenoticed get co-opted, watered down and trivialized. Works that are supposed toshake the System to the core are bought by fat cats to decorate corporateheadquarters or stashed in bank vaults as investments. Fashions that screamdefiance of everything the society holds dear end up being the next generation'sTrick or Treat costumes. Protest songs end up being played on elevators twentyyears later.
Eric Hoffer, the longeshoreman-philosopher, nailed it perfectly:
The fact is that up to now a free society has not been good for the intellectual. It has neither accorded him a superior status to sustain his confidence nor made it easy for him to acquire an unquestioned sense of social usefulness. For he derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning- from minding other people's business- and is bound to feel superfluous and neglected where people believe themselves competent to manage individual and communal affairs, and are impatient of supervision and regulation. A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual's sense of worth as an automated economy is to the workingman's sense of worth. Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual.
We can see the hatred of democracy most clearly in criticisms of the economicworld. Wehear that theautomobile creates pollution and urban sprawl. Megastores undercut localmerchants and produce armies of low-paid workers. Agribusiness drives familyfarms out of business and puts agriculture in the hands of corporations.(Actually what is driving the family farm out of business is the family farm -people in Western societies have been moving off farms for the last 800 years.) Aquaculture results in marine pollution and mixing of cultivated fish with wildpopulations. Every single innovation that provides the masses with morefreedom or material goods is a target for intellectual disdain. You'd thinkpeople who are concerned with poverty would be delighted by more abundant andcheaper consumer goods, or that people who are concerned about hunger would bethrilled with cheap, abundant food. Exactly the opposite. You'd think thatpeople who are concerned about the dichotomy between rich and poor countrieswould be ecstatic over globalization and the spread of jobs to underdevelopedcountries. Surely people who are concerned about peace would glory in seeing theleaders of the industrialized world meet to discuss how to better integratetheir economies. Yet every economic summit is besieged by protestors railingagainst globalization.
One recent target of opponents of globalization is outsourcing of jobs to Third World countries. This creates real suffering for displaced American workers. But for years, we have heard how grossly unfair it is that the U.S. has such a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and consumes so much of the world's resources. Now the rest of the world is catching up. Jobs, opportunities, and wages are moving into less developed countries, and those countries are increasingly competing with the U.S. for markets and resources. What did you think it would be like, people?
Most of these folks simultaneously demand government programs to alleviatepoverty and hunger, mass transit so the poor can get to where the good jobs are,and international aid to the Third World. In short they want structured,paternalistic programs that address needs defined by the intellectual elite.They are bitterly opposed to innovations that merely give the masses more goods,food, or money and leave the decision making to individuals.
One of the best examples of paternalism is the story of Victor Gruen, father of the American shopping mall. Gruen envisioned recreating the central plazas of European cities where people would gather, interact, linger and socialize. Gruen finally returned to Austria, depressed at how the idea had turned out in practice, and died in 1980. He apparently never figured out that Americans spend most of the day working and the people who have the time to linger in malls are exactly the sorts of people most likely to deter others from coming to malls. But even more, it never occurred to Gruen, or to all the other people who propose European style solutions to American problems, that if Americans wanted to live like Europeans, they would already be living like Europeans. Gruen's story leaves me uncertain whether to pity his naiveté, or feel anger at his arrogance. What gave Gruen the right to decide that Americans need a European lifestyle?
Here's a radical idea. If our cities are plagued by flight of the middle class to the suburbs, why not return control of the cities to the middle class?
There's no more effective social filter than time. By the late 19th century,tourism was becoming well enough established that even the middle classes couldengage in it, and it was to the advantage of railroad and steamship companies tofoster this development, just as airlines do now. So how to separate yourselffrom the rabble? Well, a shopkeeper might be able to afford a round trip toEurope, but not a six-month tour. Only the really rich could afford to travelfor six months at a stretch.
It's significant that so much intellectual disdain is targeted against anyinnovation that gives the masses more time. You can always create moregoods, food, or wealth, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Uh-oh. It turnsout you can create more time. You do the routine tasks faster so you havemore time to spend doing what you want, or you drive prices down so people needto work less time to buy things, and have more leisure to enjoy them. So it'snot surprising that virtually everything that translates into time saving isfair game for the elitists.
If you want world peace and understanding, I can't think of a better way todo it than to have floods of people visiting other parts of the world. Evengiven the worst stereotypes of tourists, some people at least go places, learnthings, and leave money behind. People on the other end get money, learn thingsabout their own culture as guides, learn other languages, and learn about othercultures by being exposed to them. There has probably been no single greaterforce for peace in Europe since World War II than the fact that millionsof Americans have lived in Germany with the U.S. Armed Forces and millions ofGermans had first-hand contact with Americans. I'm not talking about the troopstrength, just the ordinary day to day human contact.
If you have some excess wealth to spend, it'shard to come up with a more constructive use for it than tourism. So it's natural that tourism would beabhorrent to the intellectual elite. It gobbles up land for airports, clogs theskies with aircraft, increases pollution, increases pressure on sensitive sites,and so on. All of that perfectly true.
See, travel was just fine when only The Right Sort Of People had the time toengage in it; when it took several days by train or ship to get anywhere andwhen it was so expensive that only the Enlightened could aspire to it.But now all the riff-raff are doing it.
The dream world that anti-democratic elitists inhabit is the first-class deckon the Titanic, where people of breeding admire and subsidize theintellectual elites. Old money only, thank you, none of that tacky nouveauriche behavior. Not the real first class deck (Leonardo DiCaprio'sannouncement that he was an artist drew sneers from most of his table mates, andthat would likely have been true in reality as well) but one that exists only innostalgic fantasy. Truth is there has never been a society that supportedintellectuals better than ours. Tycho Brahe may have had a lavish court, but hewas born into the nobility to begin with. If you were a peasant with a brain inthe Middle Ages, you might have gotten a break in the priesthood but that wasyour only chance. In terms of number of people and level of support, nothing inhistory even begins to approach how Western societies supportintellectuals.
Created 25 July, 2003, Last Update 24 May, 2020
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