Marching with the Worker Ants of Pure Intellectual Labor

In-between punching back against the latest screed from Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token RINO, Ace of Spades writes, “I believe Republicans should be more intellectual, generally. Actually, I think all people should be more intellectual, generally:”


Let me explain: I think most readers of this site are actually intellectuals to one degree or another. Anyone who’s quoting Hayek? Congratulations, you’re an intellectual.

If you’re strongly interested in ideas and you read a fair amount, and you enjoy abstract thinking and arguing about concepts and principles, you’re an intellectual.

Now, conservatives hate this designation and they run from it. I am generalizing from my own experience, here: I never wanted to think of myself as an intellectual. I think I tried to hide my intellectualism in the guise of anti-intellectualism, but that is still basically an intellectual position.

Conservatives don’t hate intellectualism, per se. They hate faux intellectualism, which is certainly the dominant form of “intellectualism” that exists in the current age. (Let me just throw in a broad guess and say that’s probably the dominant form of intellectualism in any age.) And this faux intellectualism, this faux sophistication, generally takes the guise of a faux thoughtfulness — see Bob Costas — or pettifogging sophistry.

So people run from the label and don’t self-identify that way. Those who do identify as intellectuals, and adopt the Cultural Signifiers of the Intellectual Tribe, tend not to be terribly thoughtful and not actually, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Not that smart. So the self-identifying intellectuals — most of them, the… bitter clingers, if you will, to a false, contrived shallow signification of intellectualism, have damaged the brand.


I wish there was another word in the common vocabulary for “people who pass themselves off as reasonably smart and opine on the issues of the day” besides intellectuals. “Pundit” works, I suppose — though I associate pundits mostly with those who write weekly columns. But nowadays, someone working in “media” could be a blogger, a radio or TV talker, a YouTube clip maker (such as Bill Whittle, Steven Crowder or England’s Pat Condell), etc. But I associate the word “intellectual” with Tom Wolfe’s description from his “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists” essay in his 2000 anthology, Hooking Up. The I-word came into play at the start of the 20th century, during the Dreyfus case:

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 mid-afternoon.

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.


With the exception of Mencken, who comically seemed to loathe everyone, regardless of his race, creed, or color, that description doesn’t seem to fit the vast majority of conservative inte…pund…whatever you want to call them. But just as “liberal” no longer really applies to the ban-it-all, tax-it-all, and regulate everything else to within-an-inch of it life left, but is still part of the common vocabulary (aka, the “liberal media”), we’re also apparently stuck with “intellectual” as a common phrase for us “ordinary worker ants of pure intellectual labor.”


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