Monday, July 9, 2012

800 Words: The I-Word

(with lots of help from Eric Hoffer’s The Ordeal of Change…)

Stop and think for a moment: what is the dirtiest word in the English language, the word that makes the most people stop everything they do, quiver in fear, and go in precisely the opposite direction from where they were headed before? We’ve long since overcome our taboos against the so-called curse words like fuck, shit, asshole and such. It’s still all too dirty to say slurs like ‘faggot’ and ‘nigger’, but there’s far too much advocacy and awareness about how hurtful such words can be for us to say that any prejudicial slur is anywhere nearly so fear-inspiring as it was a generation or two ago. What is the one word in the English Language, the one accusation, the one insinuation, against which there is no defense, no argument, against which all possible refutations are considered ultimate proof of the accusation being true. 


Some insults are so serious that they can never be taken back. Many blacks and gays take pride in words like ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ so that they repossess them from those who would do harm, but among people alleged to be intellectual, there is no such movement. To be intellectual or an intellectual in America is to be the outcast’s outcast because there is no other insult for which any refutation you make is proof positive that the accusation is true. ‘That refutation took a lot of thought. Now we KNOW you’re an intellectual.’ *

I suppose it was as predictable as any development, but the very moment when education became more available to more people than ever in world history was the very same moment when education became something no longer highly prized. After the GI bill and World War II, education ceased to be something for a privileged few, it became democratic and available to anyone who wanted it. Therefore, any claim to erudition is no longer a sign of social status, it’s a sign of weakness. If the greatest source of your pride is based upon your intellectual acumen, that advertises that you have no claims to status in any arena that in which few other people can compete: like physical acumen, moneymaking ability, sexual attraction, longevity.

No doubt, it’s highly wrong to pretend to know more than you do. I try not to, but I catch myself on this blog making exaggerations of my knowledge all the time, sometimes weeks after I’ve already posted. It’s a particularly active fear of mine, in part because that’s the nature of a blog about intellectual subjects, but in part because we all look at intellectual pretensions with a special kind of revulsion. People lie about other sorts of prowess all the time – physical feats of strength, sexual performance and opportunity, age, weight, salary, etc.  But I don’t think it’s a mistake to think we view the exaggeration of intellectual acumen as something particularly awful. People don’t want to seem smarter than they are, and anyone with any degree of social skill goes out of his way not to seem too smart. To the extent that I can say I have social skills, I do exactly the same.

The best possible evidence for this problem is the fact that I honestly don’t view myself as an intellectual. I currently have seven books out from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I probably listen to at least five hours of classical music every day, I spend nearly every free moment reading magazine articles that keep me abreast of current events and issues, and I have a blog on which I can claim knowledge of virtually every intellectual topic without any credential for expertise: yet I don’t consider myself an intellectual.  Intellectuals are over-educated, whereas I have a bachelor’s degree in music. Intellectuals are shielded from the real world, whereas I work in finance and real estate. Intellectuals are humorless, whereas I just have a bad sense of humor. In our day, intellectual is synonymous with ‘buzzkill’, and in my social life I like to think of myself (perhaps wrongly) as anything but a buzzkill. I’m damned entertaining company, and no intellectual is.

So not only do I not view myself as an intellectual, but I can’t help feeling a twinge of horror at the likelihood that others probably do. When I hear other people steering the conversation towards something particularly intellectual at a party, I try to roll my eyes just like everybody else does. I can’t help it, like many others I’ve long since been conditioned to feel revulsion at intellectual pretensions. Having so often been the buzzkill in my early years who ruined everybody’s fun by bringing up politics or literature in the middle of a perfectly harmless conversation about sports, I can’t help it if part of me thinks I deserved whatever followed. Whether in high school or the workplace, there’s no quicker way to become a social outcast than to bring up intellectual topics too often, and no easier way to fit in than to make sure you don’t seem like a nerd. Any serious conversation about learning is too detrimental to the act of making friends to have too often. All intellectual conversations are too redolent of stressful associations like homework, term papers, and class discussions for anyone to view such topics as fun in an age when everybody gets some form of education.

And because intellectuality has so many bad connotations for so many people, nobody should be surprised that intellectual people become extraordinarily resentful, disgusted with the world around them and a contemporary society which guarantees them no secure place in its firmament.

Every piece of empirical data shows us that the society in which we live – meaning the First World society of the United States, Canada, North-Western Europe and a few other outlying countries around the world – is the most effective, most secure, most provided for social contract in the history of mankind. Yet the 20th and 21st centuries have been loaded with intellectuals who want to see this pricelessly amazing social contract burn to a crisp because the results are simply not good enough. It is within living memory that a plurality of Western intellectuals advocated en masse for us to show sympathy and understanding to the Nazi cause, to the Communists, to the worst excesses of Imperial rule, and now to the worst excesses of Islamic law. To them, because our social contract does not solve every problem, it must be prevented from solving any problem. Whether it is Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Saddam, or the Ayatollahs, or anyone else who kills hundreds of thousands, there is the same reason to excuse them – they all may be brutal, but every one of us living in privilege is responsible for creating the conditions which made their rule possible, and therefore we must absent ourselves from their decisions and respect that these people solve their problems in their own way. The more foreign aid the first world gives, the more peace it brokers, the more lives it saves, the more resentful First World intellectuals grow of First World prosperity. The more we give, the more they demand, and the less forgiven First World governments are for the lives they didn’t save. And the less the first world saves, the more attractive demagogues seem who promise that every life will be saved under a different kind of regime – the same demagogues who inevitably provide butchery when given the reins of power. The reason for this intellectual prejudice, sadly, is all too simple. It is not the conduct of the first world which is hated, it is the first world’s very existence.

Intellectuals, like all other people, can only relate to what they’ve already experienced. In eras when the capacity for book learning was scarce, intellectual pursuits were given great credibility and honor. Intellectuals therefore were feted by all facets of society, given a distinguished seat at the table of power as advisors, judges, and administrators. The poet-warrior had a special mark of distinction in all pre-modern eras, and to be esteemed both as a man of action and a man of contemplation was considered the highest possible honor.  

But today’s intellectual has no such glories on his horizon. In the best of circumstances, he is given a job which boxes him in an obscenely narrow specialization. At worst, he must either ‘sell out’ by taking job for which his temperament is completely ill-suited, or must struggle his life-long for a career with no rewards from society – miniscule pay, no power, no glory, no esteem. If he can at all help it, he will not socialize with any non-intellectual person, because he may very well be subject to the bullying which all weak people are. Even the most successful of intellectuals in a first-world country are rarely if ever granted access to genuine wealth or any elite hall of power.

Like all other people, intellectuals are primarily motivated by social status – and any intellectual who claims otherwise is either lying or stupid. In our day, we tend to think of intellectuals as being people of the Left. But the eras of monarchy and feudalism are not too long ago, and in those societies, intellectuals were fundamentally a conservative phenomenom. Kings and noblemen were a guaranteed source of patronage for the humanities and were advised by their most well-read subjects. Until the fall of European monarchies in World War I, it was by and large true for entire millenniums that more university professors and students, more writers and teachers, more artists and musicians, respected tradition over innovation and authority over democracy. In their particular society’s version of it, intellectuals were a phenomenon more of the Right than of the Left or Center.

But the intellectual’s recent neglect has not stopped him from trying to claim his share in this world just as any other person would. In every major world revolution since the Renaissance, we’ve seen the intellectual at its vanguard – only to be brushed aside once his revolution is successful by more practical types who have devoted more of their lives to understanding people than ideas.  Now that he sees that nation-states have failed to recognize his value, he reasons that perhaps socialist states, anarchic states, perhaps even Islamic states would value him more.

In his famous 1955 book, The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron famously observed “Intellectuals want, more than anything else, to be taken seriously, and Communism is the sole party to grant them any importance – if only by putting them in prison. It is the United States which takes intellectuals least seriously, even while paying them fortunes.” In democratic societies with secure economies, there are all sorts of contingencies in place when crises happen, most having once been thought of by intellectuals, so there is no sense of urgency for intelligent thought to contribute to society’s maintenance; whereas in dictatorships, dysfunctional democracies, and failed states, there is little but a series of crises with no contingencies in place. Whether or not they consciously acknowledge it, there is a vested interest for intellectuals to either dismantle a functioning modern society, or to make people believe that their modern society is inadequate.

One doesn’t see the end result of this problem in America or Western Europe, or even China and Russia. One sees the end result among the newly educated classes of the developing world, where the only experience possible of these differing ways of life is whatever they read in books and magazines. And when they see that democracy and capitalism inspires so much contempt, how can they believe that such a state is preferable to authoritarianism and planned economies? For the most part, western intellectuals were spurned by American governments. But Stalin and Fidel never ceased to court them and make them feel as though their opinions were listened to, and as such they trounced America in the war for ‘hearts and minds’ in the third world. Not because what they believed was correct or even well-intentioned, but because America didn’t even show up for battle.

In times of particular economic despair, revolution is always a possibility; and as ever before in recent history, it is the intellectuals who would lead it. The direction of such revolutions is yet to be seen, but we currently see their beginnings in the Middle East. When revolution is in the air, it is the intellectual, and only the intellectual, who has the capacity to inflame the public with new or old ideas. If the First World’s men of action believe, truly believe, that democracy is preferable to authoritarianism, that well-regulated capitalism is preferable to planned economies, then they have to convince others of this fact. It is a particular arrogance of our time that people believe that the benefits of capitalism and democracy speak for themselves and need no advocacy – one which you would think the Bush administration would have tempered, but to no avail. It is at best difficult to believe that the current  First World way of life will survive into the twenty-second century unless the intellectuals are won over and brought back into the mainstream of contemporary life. And that means far greater patronage of the humanities in all its facets. Everyone involved in the humanities from educators to practitioners must be supported by governments as though what they do is absolutely paramount to national security, because it still may turn out to be exactly so. We may have revulsion of intellectuals, but overcoming it may prove to be the only thing which can save society from an ultimate downfall. It may be true that a society who gives  teachers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers something like the reverence they give to athletes and movie stars will be an unhealthy society on the brink of collapse, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Intellectuals may seem ineffectual, but if the society in which we live crumbles, they may again show themselves out to be the most lethally effective people of all.

* not that any non-intellectual would use a word like 'refutation', witness Sarah Palin for the results of that...

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