Sunday, June 28, 2015

Treason of the Intellectuals, Volume 3

Treason of the Intellectuals

Or, How to Get Kicked Off "Little Green Footballs"

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 relationship 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. (I have come to the conclusion that I need to explain that "treason" here means betrayal of the ideals of intellectual inquiry, not political treason). 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 were elevated to the rank of kings simply and solely by virtue of styling themselves "philosophers," 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." When I was growing up 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 karmic 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 analysis. 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. In fact, it is openly hostile to all intellectual inquiry except for a sterile Koranic pseudo-scholarship on an intellectual par with memorizing Jack Chick tracts. It makes no secret of its desire to extirpate all intellectual life. So why aren't Western intellectuals whole-heartedly behind any and all diplomatic and military attempts to combat radical Islam?

Not only do some intellectuals oppose any defense against radical Islam, but they oppose any attempt to label it accurately, in particular, the term "Islamic fascism." No doubt part of the hostility is due to George W. Bush using the term in the aftermath of 9/11, and the man who beat Al Gore can do nothing right. But the salient feature of classical fascism was its emphasis of collective and national rights over individual rights, and "Islamic fascism" is the precisely correct technical term to describe it.

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. Fascism, Marxism, and radical Islam are all elitist movements aimed at putting an ideological elite class in control.

The problem is that people in democratic societies usually end up using their empowerment to make choices that would be intellectual elites 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.
Little Green Footballs

Somehow, a post very similar to this got me suspended from "Little Green Footballs." My previous post had a +19 rating, but a few days after I posted this, it was deleted and my account was suspended. And they have not had the courtesy to reply to any of my inquiries.