221 Intellectuals and Society

“Experts,” according to an ancient and prescient adage, “should be on tap, not on top.”  Specialists of all sorts are invaluable—as brain surgeons or shortstops, actors or accountants, plumbers or professors—but they almost always err egregiously when they assume their mastery of a given subject qualifies them to pontificate on or control areas apart from their expertise.  This is especially true regarding “public intellectuals” determined to shape society.  The 20th century, troubled by totalitarian regimes, sadly witnessed, noted Mark Lilla in The Reckless Mind, how famed “professors, gifted poets, and influential journalists summoned their talents to convince all who would listen that modern tyrants were liberators and that their unconscionable crimes were noble, when seen in the proper perspective.”  

Still more, as Eric Hoffer said:  “One of the surprising privileges of intellectuals is that they are free to be scandalously asinine without harming their reputation.  The intellectuals who idolized Stalin while he was purging millions and stifling the least stirring of freedom have not been discredited.  They are still holding forth on every topic under the sun and are listened to with deference.  [Jean-Paul] Sartre returned in 1939 from Germany, where he studied philosophy, and told the world that there was little to choose between Hitler’s Germany and France.  Yet Sartre went on to become an intellectual pope revered by the educated in every land” (Before the Sabbath).  Amazingly, says Thomas Sowell in Intellectuals and Society (New York:  Basic Books, c. 2009):  “As late as 1932, famed novelist and Fabian socialist H.G. Wells urged students at Oxford to be ‘liberal fascists’ and ‘enlightened Nazis.’  Historian Charles Beard was among Mussolini’s apologists in the Western democracies, as was the New Republic magazine” (p. 99).  “W.E.B. Du Bois was so intrigued by the Nazi movement in the 1920s that he put swastikas on the covers of the magazine he edited, despite protests from Jews” and celebrated, in 1936, the fact that “Germany today is, next to Russia, the greatest exemplar of Marxian socialism in the world’” (p. 99).  

As we all know, wisdom easily eludes highly educated individuals.  There are no “wise fools,” but “smart fools” populate most every coffee shop and faculty lounge.  Similarly, one may be highly intelligent without being an “intellectual,” and it is important to carefully define the “intellectuals” Sowell studies, for he restricts them to “an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like” (p. 2).  As “intellectuals” they easily take their own “notions” to be certain knowledge, and they often ignore the “common sense” of the multitude (living and dead) whose accumulated knowledge far exceeds their own.  Consequently, as Robert L. Bartley, late editor of the Wall Street Journal, stated, the free market “‘is smarter than the smartest of its individual participants’” and provides “more knowledge for decision-making purposes, through the interactions and mutual accommodation of many individuals, than any one of those individuals possesses” (p. 16).  

Given this guiding principle, Sowell applies it, in successive chapters, to various realms of society:  economics, social visions, the media and academia, the law, and war.  In economics (Sowell’s specialty) one finds utterly unlearned intellectuals (novelists and preachers, journalists and professors) making “sweeping pronouncements about the economy in general, businesses in particular, and the many issues revolving around what is called ‘income distribution” (p. 34).  Demonstrable factual errors—e.g. the “widening gap between the rich and the poor”—gain credence simply through endless repetition.  Renowned thinkers, ranging from George Bernard Shaw to Bertrand Russell to John Dewey, have made inexcusable (and elementary) mistakes when they become self-anointed authorities on the economy.  Decrying “greed” and calling for “compassion,” such intellectuals generally reveal the poverty of their understanding of basic economic principles and realities.  Apparently innocent of any historical grounding, they cite as true the Progressive muckrakers’ calumnies regarding “robber barons” and the New Dealers claims to having “ended” the Great Depression.  What actually happened is quite irrelevant as a fabricated past is promulgated to advance a current cause.  Sowell patiently—and cogently—shows the baneful consequences of taking seriously most intellectuals’ economic pronouncements.

Intellectuals in the media serve mainly as filters, promoting their social visions.  Thus in the 1930s Walter Duranty, the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for articles on Stalin’s Russia “‘marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity’” (p. 122).  That he failed to mention the massive starvation that killed millions of Ukrainians or the brutalities of the gulag hardly dented his reputation since he aired politically correct views.  Politicians from the heartland, such as Harry Truman, a voracious reader and thoughtful leader, are often tarred as country bumpkins, while the likes of Adlai Stevenson, who rarely read anything but “had the rhetoric and the airs of an intellectual,” are touted for their sophistication.  In our day:   “No factual information that could reflect negatively on homosexuals is likely to find its way through either media or academic filters, but anything that shows gays as victims can get massive coverage” (p. 126).

  The law too suffers at the hands of Progressive intellectuals who assume themselves superior to legislators past and present and determine to impose “social justice” through judicial fiat.  With justices such as Roscoe Pound (dean of Harvard Law School a century ago) and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, they find the Constitution to be a “living document” ever malleable in the hands of a select few.  Pound “advocated that an anointed elite change the nature of law to conform to what they defined as the ‘vital needs of present-day life,’ despite being at variance with (‘in advance of’) the public, with whose ‘moral sense’ the law was supposedly being made to conform.  Law, according to Pound, should also reflect what he repeatedly called—without definition—‘social justice’” (p. 164).  This is not the “legal justice” embedded in documents but a “social justice” emanating from the warm hearts of robed reformers!  

Sowell devotes two chapters to the intellectuals’ stance on war.  Anti-war sentiments have been cascading through our elite institutions since WWI, the “great war” that precipitated the laments of the “lost generation.”  Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a “war to end all wars” that would establish a “world made safe for democracy” lay shattered in the trenches of France.  Pacifism quickly became the mantra of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and anti-war novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms molded a new consciousness in the West.  School teachers (“one of the elements of the intelligentsia in the penumbra surrounding the inner core of intellectuals” {p. 294}) especially focused on the victims of the conflict who suffered and died, not the heroes who exemplified patriotic virtues.  While Hitler rearmed Germany, intellectuals in the West championed disarmament and “peace at any price.”  The Second World War would briefly revive support for the military, but within a decade the pleas for peace (especially with the USSR) resounded again.  

Evaluating this, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared, in his 1970 Nobel Lecture:  “The timid civilized world has found nothing with which to oppose the onslaught of a sudden revival of barefaced barbarity, other than concessions and smile.”  Anti-war activists, chanting pacifist slogans, subverted America’s effort to defend South Vietnam by alleging (with Walter Cronkite following the ’68 Tet offensive) that we were mired in stalemate” in an unwinnable “civil war.”  We now know Cronkite was wrong, for the guerrillas were crushed in Tet, but the “Communists political success consisted precisely in the fact that media outlets like the New York Times declared their military offensive successful” (p. 250).  As in France in the ’30s, so too in America in the ‘70s—anti-war forces demonized the military and championed appeasement, the Neville Chamberlain strategy which “became the leitmotif of media and academic discourse during the decades of the Cold War” (p. 259).  And it revived, with rancorous fury, as America invaded Iraq in 2003.  “Disdain for patriotism and national honor,” Sowell concludes, “was just one of the attitudes among the intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s to reappear with renewed force in Western democracies in the 1960s and afterwards.   How far history will repeat itself, on this and other issues, is a question for the future to answer.  Indeed it is the question for the future of the Western world” (p. 280).  

Should “intellectuals” continue to shape Western culture, there’s little hope for the future, Sowell suggests.  If the past century is a prelude for the next, there’s every reason to believe that intellectuals such as MIT’s Noam Chomsky and Stanford’s Paul Erlich, lambasting capitalism and predicting catastrophic ecological events, will continue to shape public policy.  “Many among the intelligentsia see themselves as agents of ‘change,’ a term often used loosely, almost generically, as if things are so bad that ‘change’ can be presupposed to be a change for the better” (p. 306).  But such is not often the case!  Indeed, should we entrust the future to the kinds of thinkers who have brought us to this point, we may very well witness the loss of those most precious goods secured by our traditions.  

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In logic one learns of the ad hominum fallacy—discrediting the argument by demeaning the advocate, shooting the messenger rather than considering the message.  Though logically fallacious, there remains a certain legitimacy in evaluating what’s claimed in accord with the character of the speaker.  Two decades ago the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson did precisely this when he penned Intellectuals (New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, c. 1988), stressing that “the rise of the secular intellectual has been a key factor in shaping the modern world” (p. 1).    As many of these intellectuals were personally reprehensible, Johnson demands we consider this before taking as true their theories.  His work is perennially worth pondering, for by drafting biographical vignettes of eleven influential thinkers, he builds a case against trusting them for guidance in most all areas of life.  

To compress his case Johnson cites an illuminating 1946 essay wherein Evelyn Waugh enumerated these ten objectives of mid-century intellectuals:  “(1) the abolition of the death penalty; (2) penal reform, model prisons and rehabilitation of prisoners; (3) slum clearance and ‘new towns’; (4) light and heating subsidized and ‘supplied free like air’; (5) free medicine, food and clothes subsidies; (6) abolition of censorship, so that everyone can write, say and perform what the wish . . .; (7) reform of the laws against homosexuals and abortion, and the divorce laws; (8) limitations on property ownership rights for children; (9) the preservation of architectural and natural beauty and subsidies for the arts; (10) laws against racial and religious discrimination” (p. 316).  Rejecting any Christian foundations, they lead the public in “eroding social disciplines and rules” (p. 317).  That their objectives have been realized cannot be denied. 

Johnson begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau—“An Interesting Madman.”  That Rousseau largely shaped the modern world cannot be doubted, for his ideas guided the French Revolution and suffuse those subsequent revolutions designed to perfect both man and society.  Overcoming a variety of obstacles, sampling a dozen vocations, he failed in most everything for 30 years and was censored, by an employer, , the Comte de Montaigu, for exuding a “‘vile disposition’ and ‘unspeakable insolence’, the product of his ‘insanity’ and ‘high opinion of himself’” (p. 6).  The famed philosophe Diderot, who knew him well, “summed him us as ‘deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and full of malice’” (p. 26).  He did, however, have a facility with words and wrote (at the age of 39) his Discours on the arts and sciences which established his reputation in Parisian circles.  To this he then added political prescriptions such as the Social Contract, novels such as Emile (containing his educational philosophy) and La Nouvelle Heloise, all igniting the fires of Romanticism that would impact the 19th century.  He ingratiated himself in polite circles by acting impolite, highlighting “his ostentatious rejections of social norms by a studied simplicity and looseness of dress, which in time became the hallmark of all the young Romantics” (p. 12).  

Carefully examined, however, Rousseau appears eminently untrustworthy!  Touting himself for his commitment to truth and virtue, he filled his Confessions with half-truths, prevarications and distortions.  He wrote eloquently of love but showed remarkably little of it in his personal life, maligning his father and slandering his benefactors.  Quite authoritative in giving advice on educating children, he took an illiterate laundress, Therese, as his mistress for 33 years and heartlessly discarded their five children in an orphanage wherein two-thirds of all babies died in the first year.  Justifying himself, he asserted that children would have hindered his career as a writer and also declared:  “‘I know full well no father is more tender than I would have been’ but he did not want his children to have any contact with Therese’s mother:  ‘I trembled at the thought of entrusting mine to that ill-bred family’” (p. 22).  What he decided was that all children should be entrusted to the State—the perfect patrie he envisioned.  Therein they would be properly reared and become virtuous citizens.   But detached from his evil being Rousseau’s enthralling words took flight.  Few remembered him as the “monster” David Hume described.  Rather, he became, in the words of George Sand, “Saint Rousseau”—the guiding light for philosophers ranging from Kant to Schiller and Mill and novelists such as George Eliot and Victor Hugo.  Amazingly, “Tolstoy said that Rousseau and the Gospel had been ‘the two great and healthy influences of my life’” (p. 27).  

After devoting a chapter to “Shelley, or the Heartlessness of Ideas,” Johnson turns to Karl Marx, who “has had more impact on actual events, as well as on the minds of men and women, than any other intellectual in modern times” (p. 52).  He was reared in a “quintessentially middle-class” family headed by a father who “was a liberal and described as ‘a real eighteenth-century Frenchman, who knew his Voltaire and Rousseau inside out’” (p. 53).  Though inclined to scholarship, being “totally and incorrigibly deskbound,” Marx was actually much more a poet and moralist with an eschatological message; he was “not interested in finding the truth but in proclaiming it” (p. 54).  “In fact his greatest gift was as a polemical journalist.  He made brilliant use of epigrams and aphorisms” (p. 56).  

Marx marshaled copious quantities of data to support his arguments regarding the plight of the working man, but he seemed strangely indifferent to real workers “and so far as we know Marx never set foot in a mill, factory, mine or other industrial workplace in the whole of his life” (p. 60).  Citing articles by his colleague Friedrich Engels, he routinely misrepresented economic statistics, portraying England as it was decades earlier and “omitting to tell the reader of the enormous improvements brought about by enforcement of the Factory Acts and other remedial legislation since the book was published and which affected precisely the type of conditions he had highlighted” (p. 66).  He treated both primary and secondary sources with “gross carelessness, tendentious distortion and downright dishonesty” (p. 66) and he deliberately falsified statements by statesmen such as Gladstone and economists such as Adam Smith.  Whatever the subject:  “He can never be trusted” (p. 68).  

Still more, what Marx wrote bears witness to what he was, showing “his taste for violence, his appetite for power, his inability to handle money, and, above all, his tendency to exploit those around him” (p. 69).  These traits are treated in depth by Johnson as he demonstrates the man’s utterly loathsome personality.  In the words of Bakunin:  “‘Marx does not believe in God but believes much in himself and makes everyone serve himself.  His heart is not full of love but of bitterness and he has very little sympathy for the human race’” (pp. 72-73).  Nor did he extend much sympathy to his immediate family, consigning wife and children to poverty through his Bohemian sloth.  His mother “is credited with the bitter wish that ‘Karl would accumulate capital instead of just writing about it’” (p. 74).  

“Of all the intellectuals we are examining,” Johnson says, “Leo Tolstoy was the most ambitious.   His audacity is awe-inspiring, at times terrifying,” for he imagined he could, through his own genius, “effect a moral transformation of society.  His aim, as he put it, was ‘to make the spiritual realm of Christ a kingdom of this earth’” (p. 107).  He declared he had never “‘met a single man who was morally as good as I’” and rejoiced to find within himself an “‘immeasurable grandeur’” (p. 107).  Without doubt he discovered and developed remarkable literary skills and penned some of the greatest novels ever written.  Indeed:  “There are times when he writes better than anyone who has ever lived, and surely no one has depicted nature with such consistent truth and thoroughness” (p. 112).  

But Tolstoy wanted more.  Controlling characters in his novels was not enough—he wanted to control actual persons, to mold them and their society into his vision of perfection.  Though haunted with guilt for his financial prodigalities and sexual indulgences, he deemed himself a Messiah called to rectify this fallen world.  As early as 1855 he aspired “to create a faith based on ‘the religion of Christ but purged of dogmas and mysticism, promising not a future bliss but giving bliss on earth’” (p. 124).  His religion seemed vaguely pantheistic with a sentimental sympathy for the poor (including the serfs on his own estate who occasionally elicited his attention).  He exemplified, as his wife noted, the intellectual who loves mankind but fails to love living persons, beginning with his own family.  “Tolstoy’s case is another example of what happens when an intellectual pursues abstract ideas at the expense of people” (p. 137).  Sadly for Russia, a cadre of intellectuals would take control of the country in 1917 and provoke an “infinitely greater national catastrophe” (p. 137).  Beyond harming himself and his family, his words helped ignite “a millenarian transformation of Russia herself . . . in one volcanic convulsion” that “made nonsense of all he wrote about the regeneration of society” (p. 137).    

“No intellectual history offered advice to humanity over so long a period as Bertrand Russell” (p. 197).  Making his reputation early on as a philosopher whose A History of Western Philosophy “is the ablest thing of its kind ever written” (p. 200), he  devoted most of his energies to advocating various social causes, especially pacifism, opposing armed conflicts from WWI to Vietnam and promoting nuclear disarmament.  Ironically, as Johnson notes, “Kingsley Martin, who knew Russell well, often used to say that all the most pugnacious people he had come across were pacifists, and instanced Russell.  Russell’s pupil T.S. Eliot said the same:  ‘[Russell] considered any excuse good enough for homicide’” (p. 204).  On a personal level, he not only married and divorced a handful of women but took and tossed aside a variety of mistresses throughout his life.  Calling others to be truthful, he lived dishonestly, even taking credit (and money) for articles written by others.  Lascivious, arrogant, dishonest, unkind—hardly a model worth emulating or lauding!

What’s true for Russell applies equally to the other intellectuals (including Ibsen, Brecht, Sartre and Hemingway, Edmund Wilson and Lillian Helman) Johnson describes.  What we should learn, quite simply, is this:  “beware intellectuals.  Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they week to offer collective advice” (p. 342).  “Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget:  that people matter more than concepts and must come first.  The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas” (p. 342).