18 November 2008

A little knowledge makes one a wise guide to the masses

When the novel began to replace the poem in eighteenth century England, cultural elites responded as if it spelled the end of civilization. Matthew Arnold’s father denounced the serialized novel from his pulpit. It was a terrible thing, the serialized novel; poor children (think of the children!) could not concentrate on their studies because all they could think about was what would happen in the next installment. (Sort of like watching Twenty-four.) Other elites worried about the effects of the novel on the working class, who might fritter away time (which should be spent working) on reading novels. The cultural elites so looked down on the novel that many poets who took a turn at novel writing did so under assumed names.

Cultural elites (who are usually a self-selected, self-organized court) always think that anyone who does not share their tastes are cretins. And those who do not share their opinions are “anti-intellectual”, stupid, or insane.

Not surprising that our era’s cultural elites have expressed joy that with the exit from the White House of George W. Bush & Co., the “anti-intellectualism” will be over. One of them, Nicholas D. Kristof, opines:

Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.
Gag me with the quill pen Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence. The American people weren’t looking for an intellectual in this election any more than they’ve ever looked for one.

One just has to wonder: How does Kristof define an intellectual?

An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and — President Bush, lend me your ears — that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.
Maybe he’s right about what makes a person an intellectual. The question ought to be: How much of an intellectual must a leader be? Personally, while I don’t think the man is a genius, I doubt President Bush is utterly uninterested in ideas or complexity. I suspect Kristof’s real problem is the President’s lack of interest in leftist ideas. I don’t blame him.

Adlai Stevenson manages to make Kristof’s list of intellectuals.

Thomas Sowell has a dose of reality to share with Kristof:

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Adlai Stevenson was certainly regarded as an intellectual by intellectuals in the 1950s. But, half a century later, facts paint a very different picture.

Historian Michael Beschloss, among others, has noted that Stevenson "could go quite happily for months or years without picking up a book." But Stevenson had the airs of an intellectual — the form, rather than the substance


As for reading the classics, President Harry Truman, whom no one thought of as an intellectual, was a voracious reader of heavyweight stuff like Thucydides and read Cicero in the original Latin. When Chief Justice Carl Vinson quoted in Latin, Truman was able to correct him.

Yet intellectuals tended to think of the unpretentious and plain-spoken Truman as little more than a country bumpkin.

Similarly, no one ever thought of President Calvin Coolidge as an intellectual. Yet Coolidge also read the classics in the White House. He read both Latin and Greek, and read Dante in the original Italian, since he spoke several languages. It was said that the taciturn Coolidge could be silent in five different languages.

The intellectual levels of politicians are just one of the many things that intellectuals have grossly misjudged for years on end.


How have intellectuals managed to be so wrong, so often? By thinking that because they are knowledgeable— or even expert— within some narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns, that makes them wise guides to the masses and to the rulers of the nation.

But the ignorance of Ph.D.s is still ignorance and high-IQ groupthink is still groupthink, which is the antithesis of real thinking.

I did find something humorous, in Kristof’s column. I hesitate to mention it because, although I fit his definition of an intellectual (you know, someone who reads the classics even when no one is looking, et cetera), he’s won two Pulitzer Prizes. But who cares?

Kristof says “leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.” I am always amused when I hear or read some leftist pundit make light of anyone’s possession of moral clarity. I find it amusing because the only time the left lack moral clarity is when they are inspecting rightist policies.

There is never any lack of moral clarity when it comes to leftist policies. No leftist I can recall just off hand lacks any moral clarity about the permissibility of a baby’s being ripped limb from limb from a uterus and having his head crushed and sucked out like a bit of garbage.

No leftist I’m familiar with has any lack of moral clarity about taking a man’s money on the grounds that he has “plenty” or, worse, “too much” and giving it to another. No leftist I know has any lack of moral clarity in making the top 1% of income earners pay more than 50% all income taxes paid in this country. No leftist I know has any lack of moral clarity when it comes to leftist morality. None whatsoever.

I don’t think a group of homosexuals (who have acquired favored aggrieved community status among the left) disrupting a church service shows a lack of moral clarity.

Oh. Wait. I get it. The left have moral clarity; they just aren’t intoxicated by it. I see. It’s a good thing they aren’t intoxicated by moral clarity. Can you imagine what they’d do if they were so?


About Me

James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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