Thomas Sowell Takes on ‘Intellectuals’
Sowell's Intellectuals and Society examines those troubling folks with an allergy to fact and an addiction to preening.
May 15, 2010 - 12:00 am
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.
Thomas Sowell produces this apt quotation, a neat summary of Intellectuals and Society, 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 its 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 permitted.
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 scissors 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 he 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 1980s 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.”