Ed Driscoll

In the Land of the Rococo Intellectuals

Glenn Reynolds links to a post at Hacker News on “the American distrust of intellectualism:”

Part of the problem is that the American distrust of intellectualism is itself not the irrational thing that those sympathetic to intellectuals would like to think. Intellectuals killed by the millions in the 20th century, and it actually takes the sophisticated training of “education” to work yourself up into a state where you refuse to count that in the books. Intellectuals routinely declared things that aren’t true; catastrophically wrong predictions about the economy, catastrophically wrong pronouncements about foreign policy, and just generally numerous times where they’ve been wrong. Again, it takes a lot of training to ignore this fact. “Scientists” collectively were witnessed by the public flipflopping at a relatively high frequency on numerous topics; how many times did eggs go back and forth between being deadly and beneficial? Sure the media gets some blame here but the scientists played into it, each time confidently pronouncing that this time they had it for sure and it is imperative that everyone live the way they are saying (until tomorrow). Scientists have failed to resist politicization across the board, and the standards of what constitutes science continues to shift from a living, vibrant, thoughtful understanding of the purposes and ways of science to a scelerotic hide-bound form-over-substance version of science where papers are too often written to either explicitly attract grants or to confirm someone’s political beliefs… and regardless of whether this is 2% or 80% of the papers written today it’s nearly 100% of the papers that people hear about.

Or as Bookworm writes in her new e-book, “Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts.”

One of Glenn’s readers responds, “Thoughtful article, but I am always disturbed by conservative anti-intellectualism:”

Particularly, what disturbs me, is that it equivocates intellectualism per se with a specific species of intellectualism (statism of various stripes.) Why have conservatives ceded the title of intellectual to their opponents, instead confidently putting their faith in their gut instincts, “common sense,” and other decidedly “non-intellectual” ways of deciding? While it may be superior to statism in this case, it doesn’t make it good.

So why not instead say “These intellectuals have failed. Our intellectuals have a better grasp of reality and how men must live in it”? Why a rejection of intellectualism per se? It troubles me, because I have a profound respect for rational thought and a systematic approach to the troubles humanity faces, and seeing people mock that because one crop of intellectuals chose their theoretical models over reality can’t bode well.

One reason might be that many conservatives are working off the definition of intellectual as defined by Tom Wolfe in his essay, “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists” from his 2000 anthology, Hooking Up. Historically, as Wolfe posits, it’s not really a general-purpose term that refers to pundits, journalists, academicians, and the like, but a very specific group of elitists:

The word “intellectual,” used as a noun referring to the “intellectual laborer” who assumes a political stance, did not exist until Georges Clemenceau used it in 1898 during the Dreyfus case, congratulating those “intellectuals,” such as Marcel Proust and Anatole France, who had joined Dreyfus’s great champion, Emile Zola. Zola was an entirely new form of political eminence, a popular novelist. His famous J’accuse was published on the front page of a daily newspaper, L’Aurore (“The Dawn”), which printed 300,000 copies and hired hundreds of extra newsboys who sold virtually every last one by midafternoon.

Zola and Clemenceau provided a wholly unexpected leg up in life for the ordinary worker ants of “pure intellectual labor” (Clemenceau’s term): your fiction writers, playwrights, poets, history and lit profs, that whole cottage industry of poor souls who scribble, scribble, scribble. Zola was an extraordinary reporter (or “documenter,” as he called himself) who had devoured the details of the Dreyfus case to the point where he knew as much about it as any judge, prosecutor, or law clerk. But that inconvenient detail of Zola’s biography was soon forgotten. The new hero, the intellectual, didn’t need to burden himself with the irksome toil of reporting or research. For that matter, he needed no particular education, no scholarly training, no philosophical grounding, no conceptual frameworks, no knowledge of academic or scientific developments other than the sort of stuff you might pick up in Section 9 of the Sunday newspaper. Indignation about the powers that be and the bourgeois fools who did their bidding-that was all you needed. Bango! You were an intellectual.

From the very outset the eminence of this new creature, the intellectual, who was to play such a tremendous role in the history of the twentieth century, was inseparable from his necessary indignation. It was his indignation that elevated him to a plateau of moral superiority. Once up there, he was in a position to look down at the rest of humanity. And it hadn’t cost him any effort, intellectual or otherwise. As Marshall McLuhan would put it years later: “Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity.” Precisely which intellectuals of the twentieth century were or were not idiots is a debatable point, but it is hard to argue with the definition I once heard a French diplomat offer at a dinner party: “An intellectual is a person knowledgable in one field who speaks out only in others.”

After the First World War, American writers and scholars had the chance to go to Europe in large numbers for the first time. They got an eyeful of the Intellectual up close. That sneer, that high-minded aloofness from the mob, those long immaculate alabaster forefingers with which they pointed down at the rubble of a botched civilization-it was irresistible. The only problem was that when our neophyte intellectuals came back to the United States to strike the pose, there was no rubble to point at. Far from being a civilization in ruins, the United States had emerged from the war as the new star occupying the center of the world stage. Far from reeking of decadence, the United States had the glow of a young giant: brave, robust, innocent and unsophisticated.

But young scribblers roaring drunk (as Nietzsche had predicted) on skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt were in no mood to let such … circumstances … stand in the way. From the very outset the attempts of this country cousin, the American intellectual, to catch up with his urbane European model was touching, as only the strivings of a colonial subject can be. Throughout the twentieth century, the picture would never change (and today, a hundred years later, the sweaty little colonial still trots along at the heels of… sahib). In the 1920s the first job was to catch up with the European intellectuals’ mockery of the “bourgeoisie,” which had begun a full forty years earlier. H. L. Mencken, probably the most brilliant American essayist of the twentieth century, led the way by pie-ing the American version of same with his term: “the booboisie.” In fiction the solution was to pull back the covers from this apple-cheeked, mom’s-cooking country of ours and say, “There! Take a good look at what’s underneath! Get a whiff of the rot just below the surface!”-the way Sinclair Lewis did it in Main Street and Babbitt, for which he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and Sherwood Anderson did it in Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson’s specialty was exposing the Middle American hypocrite, such as the rigidly proper, sexually twisted Peeping Tom midwestern preacher. He created a stock character and a stock plot that others have been laboriously cranking out ever since in books, TV, and movies, from Peyton Place to American Beauty.

The Great Depression of the 1930s gave our version of this new breed, the intellectual, plenty of material to get wholesomely indignant about. For a change, America did look dreadful. But even then things weren’t as blissfully vile as they were in Europe, the birthplace of the intellectual. Europe, after all, now had the Depression plus fascism. The solution was what became the specialty of our colonial intellectuals: the adjectival catch-up. Europe had real fascism? Well, we had “social fascism.” And what was that? That was the name Left intellectuals gave to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt’s “reforms” merely masked the fascism whose dark night would soon descend upon America.

“Fascism” was, in fact, a Marxist coinage. Marxists borrowed the name of Mussolini’s Italian party, the Fascisti, and applied it to Hitler’s Nazis, adroitly papering over the fact that the Nazis, like Marxism’s standard-bearers, the Soviet Communists, were revolutionary socialists. In fact, “Nazi” was (most annoyingly) shorthand for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. European Marxists successfully put over the idea that Nazism was the brutal, decadent last gasp of “capitalism.” Few of their colonial cousins in America became doctrinaire, catechism-drilled Marxists, but most were soon enveloped in a heavy Marxist mist. The Marxist fable of the “capitalists” and the “bourgeoisie” oppressing “the masses” – “the proletariat”-took hold even among intellectuals who were anti-Marxist. Prior to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the American Communist Party had great success mobilizing the colonials on behalf of “anti-fascist” causes such as the Loyalists’ battle against the “fascist” Franco in the Spanish Civil War. “Anti-fascism” became a universal ray gun, good for zapping anybody, anywhere, from up here … on the intellectuals’ Everest of Indignation.

After the Second World War, this mental atmosphere led to a curious anomaly. By objective standards, the United States quickly became the most powerful, prosperous, and popular nation of all time. Militarily we developed the power to blow the entire planet to smithereens by turning a couple of keys in a missile silo, but we also accomplished history’s most amazing engineering feat, breaking the bonds of Earth’s gravity and flying to the moon. And there was something still more amazing. The country turned into what the Utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, the Saint-Simons and Fouriers, had dreamed about: an El Dorado where the average working man would have the political freedom, the personal freedom, the money, and the free time to fulfill his potential in any way he saw fit. It got to the point where if you couldn’t reach your electrician or your air-conditioning mechanic, it was because he was off on a Royal Caribbean cruise with his third wife. And as soon as American immigration restrictions were relaxed in the 19é0s, people of every land, every color, every religion, people from Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, began pouring into the United States.

But our intellectuals dug in like terriers. just as they had after the First World War, they refused to buckle under to … circumstances. They saw through El Dorado and produced the most inspired adjectival catch-ups of the twentieth century. Real fascism and genocide were finished after the Second World War, but the intellectuals used the Rosenberg case, the Hiss case, McCarthyism-the whole Communist Witch Hunt-and, above all, the war in Vietnam to come up with… “incipient fascism” (Herbert Marcuse, much prized as a bona-fide European “Frankfurt School” Marxist who had moved to our shores), “preventive fascism” (Marcuse again), “local fascism” (Walter Lippmann), “brink of ‘fascism (Charles Reich), “informal Fascism” (Philip Green), latent fascism (Dotson Rader), not to mention the most inspired catch-up of all: “cultural genocide.” Cultural genocide referred to the refusal of American universities to have open admissions policies, so that any minority applicant could enroll without regard to GPAs and SATs and other instruments of latent- incipient-brink-of-fascist repression.

Which actually dovetails pretty well with Victor Davis Hanson’s latest essay at PJM, on “The Kingdom of Lies.”

Update: Related thoughts from Rodney Graves at the Wizbang blog.