Sunday, October 5, 2014

Treason of the Intellectuals, Volume 3

Treason of the Intellectuals

Treason of the Intellectuals was the title of a 1928 book by Julien Benda, originally published in French as La Trahison des Clercs. The term Clerc has an obvious similarity to the word cleric, and Benda used it in the sense of people who devoted their lives to ideas and thought, without necessarily being concerned with practical applications. Benda was distressed at the way intellectuals of the early 20th Century had been increasingly seduced by the appeal of power, and by the possibility that men of ideas might have a real role in shaping human events. Some devoted their energies to justifying nationalism, others to fanning class rivalry. One group would soon furnish an intellectual basis for fascism, the other had already been swept up by early Marxism, dazzled by the Russian Revolution. Benda presciently warned that if these political passions were not reined in, mankind was "heading for the greatest and most perfect war the world has ever known."

Society and intellectuals had been jointly responsible for this process. Particularly in Germany, universities had been redefined as institutions for producing skilled scientists and engineers, and the increasing success of science and technology in producing practical results had led to a shift from a belief in knowledge as good in itself to knowledge as good for practical purposes. Universities discovered that people who doled out money grudgingly for abstract knowledge were quite happy to spend money for knowledge with practical uses. The intellectuals of whom Benda wrote had aspirations of being philosopher-kings. Not philosopher-kings in the ancient sense, kings who used the insights of philosophy to rule more wisely and justly, but philosophers who also happened to be kings and who would be able to use the power of the state to advance their own philosophical agendas (and presumably quash opposing views).

Volume II: Marxism

Volume II, of course, would be a study of the way Western intellectuals prostituted themselves to Communism during the Stalinist era and the Cold War. Innumerable books on this subject have been written. Most of those of Cold War vintage were derided as mere anti-Communist hysteria or, ironically, "anti-intellectual." Norman Podhoretz' Breaking Ranks is a recent account of how one former radical came to be disillusioned.

When I was growing up (some people argue that using the term "growing up" in any context involving me is a contradiction in terms, but never mind) 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 mere propaganda. Then, early in my college career at Berkeley (1965-69, no less) I got a revelation. I was browsing in the library stacks and came across a section on Soviet history. I discovered that everything I had been taught to regard as propaganda was in fact true, and moreover, the documentation was massive and easy to find. Then I read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and discovered that what I had been told in the 1950's wasn't the whole truth. The reality was far worse. Only the most massive and willful denial of reality 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, is that they played a role in the downfall of Communism, when in fact they obstructed and ridiculed opposition to Communism at every turn. But surely the most wonderful irony is that the CIA set up front foundations during the Cold War to fund leftist intellectuals and thereby provide an alternative to Marxism. Bertrand Russell, the archetypical anti-Western Cold War intellectual, was actually covertly subsidized by the CIA. I love it. Russell, to me, symbolizes everything that made the Twentieth Century a scientific golden age and a philosophical desert, a thinker whose reputation was based solely on his own hype machine. With his colossal ego, he never for a moment suspected that his funding was anything other than richly deserved. The irony is beautiful.

Volume III: Islamic Fascism

But a new magnet for intellectuals is emerging: radical Islam. It's not that intellectuals are likely to embrace radical Islam themselves anytime soon - for one thing, the requirement of believing in God would deter many of them. But what they can do is obstruct efforts to combat radical Islam and terrorism, undermine support for Israel, stress the "legitimate grievances" of radical Islamists, and lend moral support to the "legitimacy" of radical Islamic movements.

This is a phenomenon at first glance so baffling it cries out for explanation. Both fascism and Marxism censored, harassed, and imprisoned intellectuals, but they also gave lip service to intellectualism. Russia and Germany both had great universities. Both fascism and Marxism appealed to their respective nations' cultural heritage in support of their ideologies. Our mental picture of fascism is now mostly colored by images of Nazi book burnings and bad art, but before World War II fascism was quite successful at passing itself off as a blend of socialism and nationalism.

Marxism in particular offered an intellectual framework that many intellectuals bought into. 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 to the general poverty of everyone else rather than in real terms, the economy was so decrepit that the money couldn't purchase much of value, and a lot of the academic institutions were second-rate in comparison to any American community college, but at least the Soviet Union could put forth an illusion of fostering intellectual inquiry. (I once sent a letter to the Soviet Embassy inquiring about films on the Soviet space program. This was after word-processors had become universal in American offices. I got a reply - a couple of years later - typed on a manual machine that looked as if Lenin had typed his high school term papers on it, and the embassy was still using the same ribbon.)

But radical Islam is openly hostile to intellectual inquiry. Iran under the Ayatollahs banned music. In the United States, the work Piss Christ ignited a fierce debate - not over whether such work should be allowed, but whether it should be publicly supported. In parts of the Islamic world, dissident works invite not debate over public funding, but death sentences. Fascism and Marxism at least offered the illusion that they supported intellectual inquiry. Radical Islam offers intellectuals nothing.  It openly aims to destroy all intellectual life except for a barren form of Koranic pseudo-scholarship. So why aren't Western intellectuals whole-heartedly behind any and all diplomatic and military attempts to combat radical Islam?

Hatred of Democracy

When we try to discover what fascism, Marxism, and radical Islam have in common, 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 no societies have ever empowered so many people to such a degree as Western democracies.

The problem is that people in democratic societies usually end up using that empowerment to make choices that intellectuals hate. How can we reconcile the fact that the masses, whom intellectuals profess to support, keep making wrong choices? I've got it - they've been duped somehow. Those aren't their real values; they've been brainwashed into a "false consciousness" by society. If they were completely free to choose, they'd make the "right" choices. But of course we have to eliminate all the distractions that interfere with the process: no moral or religious indoctrination, no advertising or superficial amusements, no status symbols, no politically incorrect humor. "False consciousness" is a perfect way of professing support for the masses while simultaneously depriving them of any power to choose; a device for being an elitist while pretending not to be.

The post-Soviet version of "false consciousness" is "internalized oppression." If you're a woman who opposes abortion, a black with middle class values, or a person with a lousy job who nevertheless believes in hard work, those aren't your real values. You've internalized the values of the white male power elite and allowed yourself to become their tool. You don't really know what you believe. When the enlightened elite want your opinion, they'll tell you what it is.

Democracy confronts radical intellectuals with a threat more dangerous than any censor, secret police, or religious fatwa - irrelevance. An intellectual working on behalf of a totalitarian regime can imagine himself as an agent of sweeping social change. If he ends up in a labor camp or facing a firing squad he can at least console himself that his work was so seminal that the only way 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 vast majority ignoring him. They never heard of him. His most outrageous works go unknown or are the butt of jokes. He watches in impotent rage as the masses ignore art films and go to summer blockbusters. Worse yet, things that are noticed get co-opted, watered down and trivialized. Works that are supposed to shake the System to the core are bought by fat cats to decorate corporate headquarters or stashed in bank vaults as investments. Fashions that scream defiance of everything the society holds dear end up being the next generation's Trick or Treat costumes. Protest songs end up being played on elevators twenty years 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 economic world. We hear that the automobile creates pollution and urban sprawl. Megastores undercut local merchants and produce armies of low-paid workers. Agribusiness drives family farms 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 wild populations. Every single innovation that provides the masses with more freedom or material goods is a target for intellectual disdain. You'd think people who are concerned with poverty would be delighted by more abundant and cheaper consumer goods, or that people who are concerned about hunger would be thrilled with cheap, abundant food. Exactly the opposite. You'd think that people who are concerned about the dichotomy between rich and poor countries would be ecstatic over globalization and the spread of jobs to underdeveloped countries. Surely people who are concerned about peace would glory in seeing the leaders of the industrialized world meet to discuss how to better integrate their economies. Yet every economic summit is besieged by protestors railing against 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 alleviate poverty 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.

  • First, the money has to be taken by force from the wealthy. Voluntary contributions don't count. Taxation at a level that the wealthy will consent to doesn't count. Any approach that recognizes the wealthy as having rights is unsatisfactory. Even worse is any recognition of philanthropy and the idea that some of the wealthy have social consciences.
  • Second, the programs can only address needs defined by the intellectual elite. We won't provide cheaper cars; we'll force people to use mass transit. One volunteer aid group once did a study of Third World needs, concluded that one of the most pressing needs in Third World countries was transportation, then excluded automobiles from consideration because they felt that automobiles had a negative effect. When mass transit doesn't work in the low-density U.S., we'll try to compel people to live in higher density housing.
  • Finally, the distribution of resources cannot have anything to do with individual responsibility. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." In other words, if you're smart and industrious we expect you to work for no reward.
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 naivete, 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?

The Time Ghetto

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 could engage in it, and it was to the advantage of railroad and steamship companies to foster this development, just as airlines do now. So how to separate yourself from the rabble? Well, a shopkeeper might be able to afford a round trip to Europe, but not a six-month tour. Only the really rich could afford to travel for six months at a stretch. It's significant that so much intellectual disdain is targeted against any innovation that gives the masses more time. You can always create more goods, food, or wealth, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Uh-oh. It turns out you can create more time. You do the routine tasks faster so you have more time to spend doing what you want, or you drive prices down so people need to work less time to buy things, and have more leisure to enjoy them. So it's not surprising that virtually everything that translates into time saving is fair game for the elitists.

Trashing Tourism

If you want world peace and understanding, I can't think of a better way to do it than to have floods of people visiting other parts of the world. Even given the worst stereotypes of tourists, some people at least go places, learn things, and leave money behind. People on the other end get money, learn things about their own culture as guides, learn other languages, and learn about other cultures by being exposed to them. There has probably been no single greater force for peace in Europe since World War II  than the fact that millions of Americans have lived in Germany with the U.S. Armed Forces and millions of Germans had first-hand contact with Americans. I'm not talking about the troop strength, just the ordinary day to day human contact.

If you have some excess wealth to spend, it's hard to come up with a more constructive use for it than tourism. So it's natural that tourism would be abhorrent to the intellectual elite. It gobbles up land for airports, clogs the skies 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 to engage in it; when it took several days by train or ship to get anywhere and when it was so expensive that only the Enlightened could aspire to it. But now all the riff-raff are doing it.

First Class on the Titanic

The dream world that anti-democratic elitists inhabit is the first-class deck on the Titanic, where people of breeding admire and subsidize the intellectual elites. Old money only, thank you, none of that tacky nouveau riche behavior. Not the real first class deck (Leonardo DiCaprio's announcement that he was an artist drew sneers from most of his table mates, and that would likely have been true in reality as well) but one that exists only in nostalgic fantasy. Truth is there has never been a society that supported intellectuals better than ours. Tycho Brahe may have had a lavish court, but he was born into the nobility to begin with. If you were a peasant with a brain in the Middle Ages, you might have gotten a break in the priesthood but that was your only chance. In terms of number of people and level of support, nothing in history even begins to approach how Western societies support intellectuals.