Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Of what use is an Intellectual Class?

I come from a family of intellectuals.  Dad was a PhDs and tenured University professor and Mom was a librarian, so my intellectual bona fides are fully paid up. I myself have two University degrees: Electrical Engineering, and a double major in History and Economics. I was in the Honors program at State U. I say this not to brag, but to set out at the beginning that this is not an anti-intellectual screed. Well, not a normal anti-intellectual screed, anyway.

The question under consideration is what is the value to society in having an intellectual class?

Education, the media, and Hollywood are all the province of intellectuals. They see themselves - as a class - as the "vanguard of progress." The literature is full of self-congratulation that goes all the way back to Socrates (the unexamined life is not worth living) and Plato (the philosophers are the proper guardians of society). In general, there's much to admire here (although ix-nay on the ilosopher-king-pay, thank you very much).

So we can rephrase the question more specifically: if the Intellectual Class does not deliver what it promises, what is the downside? Is this downside worth the bother?

The shortcomings of the Intellectual Class are all around us, and are abundantly documented. The American Thinker writes on why intellectuals as a class are anti-capitalist:
Schooling, maintains Nozick, breeds in intellectuals a sense of superiority, and with it a sense of entitlement to the highest rewards society has to offer - not just top salaries but praise comparable to that lavished on them by their teachers. After completing their formal academic training in the centralized environment of the classroom, intellectuals go forth into a seemingly chaotic capitalist society, which purports to reward individual citizens by merit but in fact applies a different standard of merit from the one imparted in the classroom.
So an open, capitalist society falls just short of satisfying intellectuals' sense of entitlement.
Orson Scott Card (a writer, and therefore an intellectual by definition) is sharper in his criticism, and moves from the general to the specific (as far as societal value is concerned):
These "intellectuals" show not even the slightest sign of ever having questioned their own opinions.
Now, I have to regard this as the minimum standard for being regarded as a genuine intellectual -- that you have questioned your own beliefs and subjected them to rigorous tests of logic and evidence.
What is striking is the number of conservatives or small-l libertarians who used to be liberals. I am firmly in this camp, as is Lissa. If the Intellectual Class were healthy, you would expect former conservatives taking up a liberal mindset, which doesn't seem to happen almost ever.

The problem is that the liberal canon is increasingly unexamined, too. As a result, a lot of the "facts" that they left believes are total hogwash. For example, "Niger Uranium Story Based on Forged Documents" (no it wasn't). "Everyone knows that the temperature is going up, and it's our fault" (the data is surprisingly suspect). These unexamined premises, these incorrect data points, these uncomfortable truths that they don't seem to dare examine lead them to the most astonishing sorts of public hypocracy, like feminists turning their back on Hirsi Ali:
In the UK at the moment, we have a number of ex-Islamists bravely speaking out about the extremism they once espoused. Surprisingly, not all the criticism they have had has come from those they have “betrayed”. Some has arisen from the left, who accuse them of creating trouble, or toadying to Western interests. Perhaps it is a racist view that “brown people” shouldn’t speak out about their religion in the same way that white liberals feel free to do about their own religious backgrounds; perhaps it’s a fear of the extremists themselves; or perhaps it’s a loathing of their own society’s assumed hypocrises that leads to this sort of snidely remark from a liberal academic.
So a warning to Muslims who choose to criticize their religion or even extremist segments of it. Don’t expect to get away with the sort of thing white liberals get away with saying about Catholicism or the Church of England, because they won’t like you causing trouble.
Don’t expect solidarity or support, you will be seen as the authors of your own misfortune.
Most of all, don’t expect the snidely liberals to watch your backs.
They are so very tired of you.
The ultimate example (again, with the feminists) was the sad spectacle of Bill Clinton:
Yet, when sued under that same law by a state employee for an incident that occurred when he was a governor--having a state policeman escort her to his hotel room, where he allegedly demanded oral sexual services from her--he brazenly declared that the law didn't apply to him. Fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.
And when the law suit progressed, he not only lied under oath, but suborned perjury from others, both through bribes, and through threats, both direct and relayed through others, to prevent her from getting a fair hearing in court. It came out that he had not only engaged in the incident for which he was being sued, but had also indulged in sexual activity with another extreme subordinate, on company time at the work place, and (as the most powerful man in the world) exposed himself to potential blackmail through this reckless behavior.
Too often, "debate" is little more than a middle-school level name calling, like "Bush Lied." Card again:
When they trumpet examples of Republican "lies," they usually turn out to be in the following categories:
1. Statements that turn out to be wrong, though they were believed to be right at the time they were spoken. (In the rational world, we call these "mistakes.")
2. Statements that interpret legitimate data in ways that support the Republican view. (In the rational world, we call these "differences of opinion.")
  1. Statements that point out obvious contradictions between what the Democratic candidates say and what they have said and done in the past. These are called "negative campaigning" and "mudslinging" and "distortions" and, of course, "lies," but these countercharges are offered instead of coherent explanations.
His final point is correct, but does not address why they act like they do:
What I find from most self-styled "intellectuals" in American public life is a laziness so profound as to be frightening. These are our opinion leaders and university professors? Have they forgotten that "the never-doubted opinion is not worth speaking"?
Have they forgotten? Of course not (remember, they aced the final). So why do they act like this? A marketing person would say that they're damaging the brand. We certainly see this with the public's reaction to the media: By 5-to-1 Public Thinks Media Trying To Elect Obama. Chart the New York Times share price over the last 5 years and you'll see the downside of what they are doing. Perhaps the most important intellectual tool I learned in Economics, was qui bono? When something doesn't look rational, ask yourself "who benefits"? This is the key to the mystery.

The Intellectual Class operates essentially as a Guild. The members (professors, senior newsroom staff, etc) have considerable control over who is hired and promoted. For many years, a small intellectual-left core group provided a subtle leftward weighting in hiring and promotion decisions. This has compounded over the course of many decades, until a slight leftward bias has become overwhelming. Over fifty years, the frog has been thoroughly boiled.

OK, so professors are a bunch of pointy-headed pinkos. So what?

The small problem is that they forget how to think. The left has been intellectually impoverished for some time now, and this is due to promoting less qualified leftists and driving away more qualified rightists. It doesn't matter which side is right or wrong, the arguments that you hear in academic circles are weak to the point of sudden failure. Eric S. Raymond describes the catestrophe:
I have encountered entire academic fields that have been effectively
destroyed by Left politics, in the sense that they can no
longer talk about anything other than power relations. Postmodern
literary criticism is only the most obvious example; for that matter,
postmodernist anything is reliably a nihilist swamp obsessed
with ‘agendas’ and ‘power relations’ to the exclusion of its
ostensible subject matter.
Here’s one that affects me particularly: the damage done to
cultural anthropology has been horrific, with the perverse effect of
making my amateur and tentative essays in it look far stronger than
they would have if the field were actually healthy.
OK, so professors are dumb pointy-headed pinkos. So what.

They teach our children, that's so what. They're no longer searching for truth, but are busy indoctriating our kids. While the schools fail at teaching kids how to read, write, and do math, their charges are reliably liberal. Obama may be the first to ride this wave, but he won't be the last. It's all about power. Qui bono? Left-leaning Intellectuals.

Given that the country is split in thirds (Republican/Intependent/Democrat), why should the other two thirds of the country support this? The Mainstream Media and Hollywood are already in big financial trouble, as they drive big portions of their former readers and viewers away. This is fixing itself, in a way that will be astonishingly painful for the MSM and Hollywood.

So what about the schools? This is the third leg of the Intellectual Class, and it's the least responsive to the market. It's also arguably the most important - we'll continue to need engineers, doctors, and computer programmers (chemists, too!). At what point will the public decide that the social cost is more than the social benefit?

A healthy Intellectual Class is probably critical to the health of the Republic. We don't have a healthy Intellectual Class.


Lissa said...

Good one, Ted, and interesting food for thought.

I submit, however, that you can find conservatives that turned liberal -- just look at those in Washington, D.C. Qui bono, indeed.

Rich E said...


To a certain extent I would contend that they were never conservative to begin with Kirsten Gillibrand. It was thought that she was reliably conservative and Pro-gun. Gets to Washington and look what happens. My thought is they do polls and figure out what will get them elected and then say that. No convictions for them just what gets them elected