Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Intellectuals, part 1

From The Guardian via James Russell Ament, a question about intellectuals. Why Don't We Love Our Intellectuals? This really is two sets of questions, a silly one and a sensible one:

  1. Do we dislike intellectuals, and if so, why?
  2. Does the Anglo-American tradition make less of intellectuals than for example, the French or the German?
 Taking the "we" to be a civic we, as in "We the people", the first question is as silly as asking "Do we dislike fashionistas?" We (as in middle-aged men with no fashion sense) do not hate fashionistas; we don't think about them often enough to form an opinion. Now and then we notice the fashion pages with amusement and astonishment, then we forget for another few months. The author of The Devil Wears Prada surely is not one of those people who go to the store in sweats and sneakers.

Look for someone denouncing intellectuals, and generally you will find an intellectual playing populist. Hitler disliked intellectuals, said that it was a pity one needed them, since otherwise one might wipe them out. He was not an intellectual anyone would call satisfactory, but he spent jail time writing a long book; non-intellectuals don't do that sort of thing. Mao made life terrible for intellectuals (among others) with the Cultural Revolution. Yet Mao was the author of The Little Red Book and a poet, though his works have gone out of fashion lately. William Safire wrote alliterative diatribes against "pseudo-intellectuals" for Spiro Agnew, after which he went on to 30 years of writing a column on language for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, writing novels, etc.

Or, in the better case, you may find the true intellectual damning others for failing as intellectuals, taking what is set out for them and not examining. This tradition runs at least from Erasmus through Rabelais and on in more recent times through such as Henry Adams, Nietzche, John Jay Chapman, Mencken, and beyond. I suppose one could carry it back to Socrates.

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