The Crimes of the Intellectuals

February 7th, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

The common mantra of most modern intellectuals (with notable but rare exceptions) is that they are trying to “do good,” that they are in fact working hard to improve the world, and that if they really didn’t care about society all they would have to do would be to sit back and do nothing.

I once told a friend who said this that if I had to be absolutely honest with her, the truth would compel me to admit that I would prefer she do exactly that.  Apparently Thomas Sowell, in his new book Intellectuals and Society, agrees with me:

While virtually anyone can name a list of medical, scientific, or technological things that have made the lives of today’s generation better in someway than that of people in the past… it would be a challenge for even a highly informed person to name three ways in which our lives today are better as a result of the ideas of sociologists or deconstructionists….  There have been landmark writings, even works of genius, in what are called the social sciences, though so many of these have been implicitly or explicitly attacks on things said by other writers in the social sciences that it is not at all clear how much net loss the society would have suffered if none of them in the whole profession had said anything…. While it is difficult to put together a case that intellectuals as producers of ideas have created major and lasting benefits for the vast majority of people at all comparable to what people in other professions, or even in some mundane occupations, have created, what would be far less of a challenge would be to name things made worse by intellectuals, both in our own times and in other times.

I do not completely agree with Thomas Sowell that the world might well have been a better place if the profession of thinker had never been invented at all.  There have been great intellectual thinkers who have moved all of society forward with the products of their thought.  But I do agree with him that most of what has been produced by the intellectual professions, especially in the last two centuries, are thoughts and ideas that have led to such horrors that the world may indeed have been better off if the profession of thinker had indeed ceased to exist sometime around the beginning of the 19th century (and no, it is not a coincidence that the date I list is immediately after the creation of the United States of America).  As to why, here is a list, in the words of Thomas Sowell, of the numerous crimes committed by the modern intelligentsia which have led to real-world horrors whenever they have escaped the confines of the ivory tower to be put into practice in the real world:

Imperfections or inefficiency can seldom destroy a nation.  But the disintegration of its social bonds and the demoralization of its people’s confidence and allegiance can.  Intellectuals contribute greatly to both these processes.  Setting group against group by arbitrarily viewing innumerable situations through the prism of “race, class and gender,” setting unreachable standards of “social justice,” and setting impossible goals of redressing the wrongs of history, guarantee never-ending strife and an undermining of any society with a crusading intelligentsia and a public uncritically accepting the intellectuals’ view of society and of themselves.  So long as sweeping presumptions are accepted as knowledge and lofty rhetoric is regarded as idealism, intellectuals can succeed in projecting themselves as vanguards of generic “change” — for whose consequences they remain unaccountable.

A full record of the effects of the intelligentsia, in countries around the world, would require a book much larger than this one, if not multiple volumes.  Here it is possible to list only some of their most prominent effects, and in summary form, since some of the specifics have already been discussed in previous chapters.

The intelligentsia have changed the high achievements and rewards of some members of society from an inspiration to others into a source of resentment and grievance for others.

The intelligentsia have largely ignored or downplayed the things in which Americans lead the world — including philanthropy, technology, and the creation of life-saving medicines — and treated the errors, flaws and shortcomings that Americans share with human beings around the world as special defects of “our society.”

They encourage people who are contributing nothing to the world to complain, and even organize protests, because others are not doing enough for them.

They have rationalized the breaking of laws by those who choose to picture themselves as underdogs fighting an oppressive “system,” even when these are college students from affluent homes.

They have, both in America and in France, verbally turned military heroes who put their lives on the line for their country into victims of war, people whom one might pity but never want to emulate.

In the schools and colleges, the intelligentsia have changed the role of education from equipping students with the knowledge and intellectual skills to weigh issues and make up their own minds into a process of indoctrination with the conclusions already reached by the anointed [intellectuals].

They have put the people whose work creates the goods and services that sustain a rising standard of living on the same plane as people who refuse to work, but who are depicted as nevertheless entitled to their “fair share” of what others have created — this entitlement being regardless of whether they observe even common decency on the streets or in the parks.

The intelligentsia have treated the conclusions of their vision as axioms to be followed, rather than hypotheses to be tested.

Some among the intelligentsia have treated reality itself as subjective or illusory, thereby putting current intellectual fashions and fads on the same plane as verified knowledge and the cultural wisdom distilled from generations of experience.

Intellectuals give people who have the handicap of poverty the further handicap of a sense of victimhood.

They have acted as if they are anointed to decide which segments of society to favor, who should be allowed to pick their own associates and who should not, which small risks people should be forbidden to take and which larger risks are all right.

They have romanticized cultures that have left people mired in poverty, violence, disease and chaos, while trashing cultures that have led the world in prosperity, medical advances and law and order.  In doing so they have often disregarded, or even filtered out, the fact that masses of people were fleeing the societies intellectuals romanticized to go to the societies they condemned.

The intelligentsia have been quick to find excuses for crime and equally quick to attribute wrong-doing to police, even when discussing things for which they have neither expertise nor experience, such as shootings.

They have encouraged the poor to believe that their poverty is caused by the rich — a message that may be a passing annoyance to the rich but a lasting handicap to the poor, who may see less need to make fundamental changes in their own lives that could lift themselves up, instead of focusing their efforts on tearing others down.

The intelligentsia have acted as if their ignorance of why some people earn unusually high incomes is a reason why those incomes are either suspect or ought not to be permitted.

The utterly un-self-critical attitude of many intellectuals has survived many demonstrably vast, and even grotesque, contrasts between their nations and the realities of the world.  For example, many leading American intellectuals in 1932 were publicly calling for a vote for the Communist Party of the United States, and many other leading intellectuals in the Western democracies in general were throughout the 1930s holding up the Soviet Union as a favorable contrast to American capitalism, at a time when people were literally starving to death by the millions in the Soviet Union and many others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

The notion that disarmament and concessions were the way to avoid war has survived the reality that it was precisely these kinds of policies which led to the most catastrophic war of all time.  The very same policies were resurrected by the intelligentsia during the first generation born after that war and proclaimed with at least equal zeal, self-righteousness and demonization of those who dared to think that a different approach was more likely to preserve peace.  Nor was there much reconsideration when opposite policies led to the end of the Cold War.

Intellectuals have — on issues ranging across the spectrum from housing policies to laws governing organ transplants — sought to have decision-making discretion taken from those directly involved, who have personal knowledge and a personal stake, and transferred to third parties who have neither, and who pay no price for being wrong.

They have filtered information in the media, in the schools, and in academia, to leave out things that threaten their vision of the world.

Above all, they exalt themselves by denigrating the society in which they live and turning its members against each other.

As I typed this list, I realized that what it most reminds me of are the grievances listed by Martin Luther against the Catholic Church, or the grievances listed by the signers of the Declaration against King George III.  While I am not particularly knowledgeable of the consequences of Martin Luther’s actions, aside from the obvious facts that it started the Protestant Reformation and greatly diversified the various sects of Christianity, I do know that the writing of the Declaration led to the creation of the United States of America, which in turn led the world into a place that was, while still flawed and imperfect, inarguably an infinitely better place and time than had ever been previously experienced in the history of man.  It is also the place and time that the vast majority of intellectuals, with a few rare exceptions, have unerringly and invariably sought to undermine, excoriate, and destroy.

Perhaps the fact that such a list has been put into publication and the fact that these and similar views are now gaining a more widespread hearing and acceptance by the public through such mediums as talk radio, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the literary works of such non-traditional intellectuals as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Ludwig Von Mises, and Thomas Sowell himself are a sign that a similar and much needed intellectual revolution may soon occur.


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8 Responses to “The Crimes of the Intellectuals”



  1. Tom |

    Thomas Sowell is one of the true wise men of economics and politics these days, but he will never achieve the recognition and exposure he deserves because he deviates from the established agenda of the media and academia.

    I frequently read both Sowell and Paul Krugman, as an example of the problem, and it’s difficult to believe that anyone takes most of what Krugman says seriously. Yet he’s the enthroned liberal economist of The New York Times and a Nobel laureatte, and he and his ilk openly sneer at Sowell. O tempora, o mores!

    It doesn’t bother me so much that many of the intelligentsia blathering today are so wrong. Sowell and others (liberal and conservative) are there, too, and the pendulum will swing. Maybe it’s already happening and the intellectual revolution you refer to is actually coming.


  2. Brianna |

    “Maybe it’s already happening and the intellectual revolution you refer to is actually coming.”

    I hope so Tom. There’s a limit to what a society can endure before disintegrating into chaos, either because of utter confusion from within or because of pressures from without (aka virulent Islam). I’m not sure that “the last, best hope of mankind” can survive much more of this. And frankly, should America ever die, I’m not sure how long I would be able to survive in the sort of world that would inevitably take its place.


  3. Bob Nelson |

    It seems to me that Sowell is fulfilling his own wish.

    He starts with people whose action he disapproves, and label them “intellectuals”.

    Then he observe that “intellectuals don’t do things that he likes”. Gosh! What a surprise!

    Of course, he remove from the category “intellectual”, all those higher-educated folks — “medical, scientific, or technological” — of whom he approves.

    Sowell makes sweeping generalizations:
    Intellectuals contribute greatly to both these processes. Setting group against group by arbitrarily viewing innumerable situations through the prism of “race, class and gender,” setting unreachable standards of “social justice,” and setting impossible goals of redressing the wrongs of history, guarantee never-ending strife and an undermining of any society with a crusading intelligentsia and a public uncritically accepting the intellectuals’ view of society and of themselves.

    For example, many leading American intellectuals in 1932 were publicly calling for a vote for the Communist Party of the United States, and many other leading intellectuals in the Western democracies in general were throughout the 1930s holding up the Soviet Union as a favorable contrast to American capitalism, at a time when people were literally starving to death by the millions in the Soviet Union and many others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

    … without the slightest proof, without the slightest historical context, and without making any presentation of counter-arguments.

    Boiled down to basics, Lowell is saying, “They don’t agree with me, so they’re wrong!”

    He presents no data, just talking points. Powerpoint bullets and empty generalizations… without substance.

    Not “intellectual” at all…


  4. Tom |

    Well, the first “sweeping generalization” is an opinion, and it stands alone pretty well — I understand everything he’s saying, whether I agree with him or not. The second is a statement of fact based on the historical context he provides. Seems your problem is that you disagree, which is fine, but you can’t fault Sowell for not spoon-feeding you the opposition “talking points.”


  5. Brianna |

    Bob, I was quoting from the last 5 pages of a 315 page book. If you want to hear the facts and evidence behind the conclusions, you have to read the other 310 pages of the book. Until you have done so and hence have an informed opinion to offer, as opposed to a biased and unsubstantiated one, I would quite frankly prefer it if you, too kept your mouth shut.


  6. Bob Nelson |

    I would quite frankly prefer it if you, too kept your mouth shut.

    Oh.

    ‘Bye


  7. Brianna |

    I take it that means you’re not planning on reading the book?


  8. Brian Bagent |

    Wouldn’t want him to be confused by the facts.


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