By Barry Rubin
Something’s missing. Or at least it seems to be missing. Today when liberty is at threat from Western left-wing ideologues, revolutionary Islamists, and sometimes from governments themselves, we–or I, at least–keep expecting some mass protest, some upsurge of criticism and exposure, among the intellectuals. Since this is a group I belong to (I say this in sadness rather than to brag), it is especially painful for me to admit this fact.
For years, in their thousands they have proclaimed their courage. Just let some authoritarian or totalitarian or just plain mean, human-rights’ denying movement raise its head, they’ve been telling us and themselves, and we’ll swing into action! And as long as the threat is tiny or distance and opposing it is fashionable, that happened sometimes.
Yet the notion of fearless intellectuals who dare speak truth to power and defend what is right like a lioness protects its cubs is largely the creation of…intellectuals themselves. They are best fearless when there is nothing much to fear.
But let someone threaten violence if a cartoon of Muhammad appears and they crumble up like a cardboard suit in a tropical downpour. What they are really good at, however, is coming up with excuses for making going down on their knees seem an act of exquisite humanity.
This situation has actually been worsened by the credentialization and professionalization of intellectuals. They are defined in large part as people with the right certificates–we call them degrees–and the proper jobs.
As the Wizard of Oz explained it, “Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning–where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts–and with no more brains than you have [and this is being said to the straw man, remember!]…. But! They have one thing you haven’t got! A diploma!”
But a college professor a fellow at a think tank, perhaps the most readily identifiable examples of a professional intellectual, is not necessarily one but merely a person who has dug a hole narrow and deep enough to become an “expert” in some field by passing certain tests set up for the purpose. It is remarkable how little many of these people know much outside their fields. Indeed, when it comes to international affairs, it is often remarkable how little many of these people know inside their field, how limited the sense of how policy is really made or foreign societies actually function.
Back when students had to sit through a two-semester Western Civilization class and fulfill course requirements that were intended to lay the basis for a broad literacy in history and philosophy, at least having a diploma meant something more.
Academia, especially in recent decades, has done more than any other institution to kill intellectual life by creating an army of technocrats. Among the negatives are: narrowness rather than breadth of knowledge, the transformation of a yearning for wisdom into a yearning for a salaried position, and the glorification of inexperience with the real world.
Why one could, just to set up a hypothetical example, go from undergraduate to graduate student to adjunct professor with a few months of community organizing experience to a few more months in a legislative body to the White House. This might be hard to believe but it could happen.
And then the country is divided into two groups: those who think you are a marvelous intellectual and those who are astonished that you have no idea how to make decisions, forge coalitions, balance a budget, or administer a huge organization. Imagine, just because you lack any real experience but merely apply theories you learned in school to complex situations!
What is most important for a leadership, however, is not to be “smart” but to be “wise.” Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were despised by intellectuals but were two of the wisest men in American public life, despite the fact that they held very different views.
Of course there is no such thing as a monolithic intellectual class. Yet if you have a stratum of society with a common background, parallel work experiences, and certain other characteristics (even geographical concentration) a herd instinct does seem to emerge.
The late William F. Buckley, a genuine intellectual who I respected though I rarely agreed with him, correctly said that he would rather be ruled by people chosen at random from the phone back than by the faculty of Harvard University. He was right.
When we look at history we see over and over again that if there is any “constructed” myth it is that of the intellectuals as heroes and leaders. As Walter Laqueur, the best kind of old-school intellectual, wrote recently in his memoir, “Best of Times, Worse of Times”:
“The record of the French and Italian intelligentsias in resisting fascism had been less than brilliant during the war [World War Two]: collaboration with the Nazi and fascist regimes had been widespread. Most leading French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, had not joined the resistance, and his plays continued to be performed all through the occupation. Even in Britain the record of the Colonel Blimps [i.e., traditionalist, conservative patriots] resisting fascism had been better than that of many intellectuals, as George Orwell observed….The New Statesman in particular had been reluctant to denounce the Moscow trials and Stalinism in general. It had opposed rearmament in the 1930s and in 1938 had found it difficult to decide whether Hitler should be appeased or not….
“The Zeitgeist [spirit of the age] in the 1950s and early 1960s was largely “progressive” in foreign policy–that is to say, neutralist, and even defeatist….It was not that the majority of Western European intellectuals favored the installation at home of a regime like the Soviet regime [though there were many intellectual Communists and fellow travellers as well] but that they argued there really was no such danger, that the Soviet threat was an American invention, or at least a gross exaggeration. Many were not well informed about the situation in the Soviet empire, nor did they want to know too much.”
And then, as Laqueur points out, the intellectuals generally also failed to meet the challenge of opposing Communism. Indeed, today in intellectual circles the fellow travellers have a better reputation than do those who resisted totalitarianism. Today Jean-Paul Sartre is an international intellectual hero despite the fact that he collaborated with the Germans and then believed, in Laqueur’s words:
“that communism…was the wave of the future; that Stalin, all things considered, was an enlightened if somewhat harsh ruler; that the Gulag did not exist; and that the Soviet economic system was making enormous progress.” Shortly before the end of his life, Sartre embraced Maoism which was an affectation treated as a sort of comic misunderstanding but reflects far deeper trends in his thinking and the intellectual’s handicaps.”
In contrast, Raymond Aron, who warned about totalitarianism and was right on just about every contemporary issue “had been ostracized for decades” and is forgotten today. Laqueur points out that there was a saying among intellectuals in Paris: “It was better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.”
Often there is an explicit decision to behave this way. Regarding Alexander Werth, a left-oriented writer who was very well-known at the time, Laqueur notes: “When challenged of having knowingly downplayed the role of the Gulag and the number of victims, he admitted that he had indeed done so, but only because in the 1950s there had been so many people in the West eager to make war agianst the Soviet Union that one could not provide grist to their mills.”
There are equivalent people today. I heard with my own ears those who said they wouldn’t write the truth about Saddam’s Iraq, Islamist Iran, or Syria because it might contribute to stoking a U.S. war with those countries. Advocate any position you want, endorse any policy you wish, but first tell the truth.
Yet why should we be surprised by the failure of all too many intellectuals once again to show courage, to endorse Western civilization, to oppose the erosion of liberties, to analyze and battle against revolutionary Islamism? Nothing should be less surprising.
Indeed, we need a new paradigm to understand the role of intellectuals in society. The one we are accepting now was created by intellectuals: the great heroes bucking social conventions. Galileo? Most of his contemporary counterparts in academia opposed him. And you can go down the list. When there have been intellectual heroes their main opponents have also been intellectuals who adhered to an ideology or world view which could not be justified logically.
No doubt, many intellectuals–if they live long enough or have their defenders–will be like the German assistant to the American businessman in Billy Wilder’s great film, “One, Two, Three” who insisted that he was in the “underground” during World War Two. When challenged on this as an obvious falsehood, he quickly switched to explaining that he meant he worked on the subway. In other words, twenty years from now they will tell us how brave they were.
Another problem rarely admitted is that intellectuals tend to look down on the masses. It can be very lonely to be one fascinated by ideas and absorbed in books among many who ridicule such priorities. While school is supposedly dedicated to education, few are those who genuinely want to read and think on their own. To understand this situation, one need merely list the nasty labels so common among the young created to ridicule such people.
And so there is some in-built sense of fear, loathing, superiority, and a desire for revenge among many. That’s the funny thing. Intellectuals often join causes and groups designed to express their love for the masses when they feel so uncomfortable and unappreciated by the larger group. It is not surprising that some develop the notion that they know best and should design the ways in which others live.
Moreover, intellectuals have notoriously failed to recognize their own “professional deformations,” that is, how does being an intellectual distort one’s picture of the world? What corrections have to be made, most obviously, too much book-learning and not enough practical experience; the wisdom/smartness paradox; isolation from one’s own people; overestimating the value of blueprints; rejecting concepts related to human nature or at least natural human and social processes; a contempt for material well-being; underestimating the importance of community and national identity; thinking that ideas can solve most problems; and many more such misleading concepts.
In this context, during the last century or so, the far left (though at times in the past the far right) has had a special appeal for intellectuals who would like to believe there is some magic formula for understanding the world, an ideology (that is, a set of ideas) which can be put into power, and thus let them direct society rather than let it go its own anarchic way.
That’ll show all those football players and prom queens!
But here’s a more accurate view, from the film “Annie Hall”:
ALVY: “Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave, you know?…”
ANNIE: “M’m, I don’t know, sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.”
ALVY: “You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ’em everything.”
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.
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