PAUL JOHNSON ON WHY WE SHOULD BEWARE OF ‘INTELLECTUALS.’
I think I detect today a certain public skepticism when intellectuals stand up to preach to us, a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers and philosophers, eminent though they may be, to tell us how to behave and conduct our affairs. The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. I share that skepticism. A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia. But I would go further. One of the principal lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is—beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.
Part of the problem is that the American distrust of intellectualism is itself not the irrational thing that those sympathetic to intellectuals would like to think. Intellectuals killed by the millions in the 20th century, and it actually takes the sophisticated training of “education” to work yourself up into a state where you refuse to count that in the books. Intellectuals routinely declared things that aren’t true; catastrophically wrong predictions about the economy, catastrophically wrong pronouncements about foreign policy, and just generally numerous times where they’ve been wrong. Again, it takes a lot of training to ignore this fact. “Scientists” collectively were witnessed by the public flipflopping at a relatively high frequency on numerous topics; how many times did eggs go back and forth between being deadly and beneficial? Sure the media gets some blame here but the scientists played into it, each time confidently pronouncing that this time they had it for sure and it is imperative that everyone live the way they are saying (until tomorrow). Scientists have failed to resist politicization across the board, and the standards of what constitutes science continues to shift from a living, vibrant, thoughtful understanding of the purposes and ways of science to a scelerotic hide-bound form-over-substance version of science where papers are too often written to either explicitly attract grants or to confirm someone’s political beliefs… and regardless of whether this is 2% or 80% of the papers written today it’s nearly 100% of the papers that people hear about.
I simplify for rhetorical effect; my point is not that this is a literal description of the current state of the world but that it is far more true than it should be. Any accounting of “anti-intellectualism” that fails to take this into account and lays all the blame on “Americans” is too incomplete to formulate an action plan that will have any chance of success. It’s not a one-sided problem.
If you want to fix anti-intellectualism, you first need to fix intellectualism and return it to its roots of dispassionate exploration, commitment to truth over all else and bending processes to find truth rather than bending truth to fit (politicized) processes.
But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.
Indeed. Their pronouncements should be viewed with deep suspicion, especially when — as is almost always the case — they have no skin in the game.