This originally ran at Pajamas Media. Because of the recent article “Mao’s Little Helpers” at Standpoint and a current review at American Spectator, I thought there would be interest in seeing it again. Happy Friday all.
Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell
Says brother T.S. Eliot:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it; or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
Sowell produces this apt quotation, a neat summary of his important new book. And what a frustrating book it is! It can be read only in snatches, absorbing two, at the most three, examples of the insufferable arrogance and unteachable ignorance of those who “exalt themselves by denigrating the society in which they live and turning it members against each other.”
What is an intellectual? It is a person who thinks that because he knows the precise dimensions (in millimeters) of thimbles used in medieval Poland, or can translate Mayan hieroglyphs into Hattic, that this qualifies him as the ideal spokesman for the poor and downtrodden.
An intellectual acts
as if [his] ignorance of why some people earn unusually high incomes is a reason why those incomes are suspect or ought not to be premitted.
An intellectual is the kind of person who can say with a straight face what dead playwright Harold Pinter said—“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false”—and be perfectly oblivious of that statement’s logical contradictions. Its farcical impenetrability, which should bar its utterance in polite company, instead induces the same emotion as when a kindergartner is awarded a gold star for scissor work.
An intellectual is a person who substitutes what could have happened, but did not, for what did happen, when what did happen was at variance with his desire. And does this not just once, but repeatedly—and then uses this pseudo-history as confirmation that his deepest beliefs are justified.
For example, Ronald Reagan was excoriated routinely by intellectuals because they assumed that his policies would cause a nuclear confrontation with Russia.
That assumption was demonstrated to be false when President Reagan’s military buildup in the 19802 proved to be more than the Soviet Union’s economy could match—as Reagan knew. The fact that the actual consequence of Reagan’s policy was the direct opposite of what the “arms race” argument had predicted—that is, the consequence was the end of the Cold War, rather than the beginning of a nuclear war—has had as little effect on the prevailing [intellectual] vision as other facts which directly contradict other premises of that vision.
In short: an intellectual is a self-inflated, self-congratulatory, lover of self; a person so in thrall to beautiful theories that he is incapable of correction and impervious to evidence. Superman had kryptonite: but an intellectual’s shield of self-assurance cannot be breached by any known substance, especially fact.
Exceptions exist. Or, rather, it is the term “intellectual” which is the problem. There are always among us the brilliant, but the proportion of these immortals is always far smaller than recognized—or desired. The void in desire we fill with pesky, unqualified volunteers whom we label “intellectuals.”
What separates intellectuals from the brilliant is the standard of verification. Physicians, engineers, rocket scientists, and other such folk bursting with gray matter submit themselves to the harsh judge of reality. Prescribe a patient the wrong pill and he craps out; screw in the wrong bolt and the bridge collapses. The mistake-prone in these fields aren’t awarded lucrative book contracts or chairs at universities.
But an intellectual can agitate for minimum-wage laws and then ignore the reality of increased unemployment rates. He will say he is appalled that so many are imprisoned, yet the subsequent decrease in crime “baffles” him. On Tuesday, he shouts “Free Mumia!”, and by Friday he is penning an op-ed condemning excessive force by the police.
The utterly un-self-critical attitude of many intellectuals has survived many demonstrably vast, and even grotesque, contrasts between their notions and the realities of the world. For example…[intellectuals] were throughout the 1930s holding up the Soviet Union as a favorable contrast to American capitalism, at a time when people were literally starving to death by the millions…and many others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.
For the self-anointed, what counts is not fact but esteem. Intellectuals look to the mirror and to the soothing cooing of their coterie for confirmation of their convictions. “Does my position make me feel good?” is their driving question. “Does it work?” or “Could it cause harm?” are never asked.
The glow from their halos blinds. To cushion the inevitable blows caused by stumbling into unseen reality, the intellectual wraps himself with the warm blanket of self-righteousness. But this suffocates and creates fever and hallucination; it causes the intellectual to imagine he is soaring.
The “ruthlessness with which the anointed assail others” is astonishing. Those who oppose him are condemned as immoral, thieving, baby-seal-clubbing, rapacious, toxic-chemical-spill-loving, war mongering, hate-filled maniacs.
The arguments used against him are irrelevant: it is the act of dissent which enrages. Intellectual shibboleths are anyway not constant and have undergone, as Paul Johnson tells us, a “shift in emphasis from utopianism to hedonism.”
We know this because a century ago intellectuals were telling us that the white race was the most eugenically pure; now they insist it is the least among equals. As Wilsonians we were assured that war and conquest were noble and just; now it is evil and motivated by filthy lucre. Once dissent was the highest form of patriotism; now it is one step shy of open rebellion.
Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it.
But there are limits beyond which the infestation becomes a menace. So if you see an intellectual in the wild, do not approach him! Do not attend his lectures, or read his books; neither subscribe you to his paper nor comment on his blog. Intellectuals feed on attention: the only way to eradicate them is to starve them of it.