September 22, 2002

Us Damned Anti-Intellectual...

Us Damned Anti-Intellectuals [W]hat we're seeing is that politicians, former presidents, generals, columnists, and even right-wing rabble-rousers are taken, to various degrees, seriously. Writers who've made a name for themselves as public intellectuals, on the other hand, are not. People who've commented on public and political affairs for more than five decades — often prompting useful intellectual debate — are now being written off as extreme left-wing, anti-American cranks. The attacks on Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal — the most prominent characters in this category — represent a blossoming of an ugly strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture that has always been present, but which is now, after September 11, in full force. Since Mr. Bronski seems allergic to what he calls "something beyond disagreement. Call it outright dissing," ... I'll be polite: I don't think that's true. Many people who I've seen diss Gore Chomskytag these past 12 months are quite fond of law professors, software developers-turned First Amendment specialists who graduated from UCLA at age 15, Harvard students, Silicon Valley pioneers, even noted left-wing intellectual types. I suspect a more cogent issue is that since Sept. 11, some of us have concluded that we're more likely to hear intelligent comment from East Bay punk rockers rather than elitist expatriate novelists fond of saying things like

We had planned to occupy Afghanistan in October, and Osama, or whoever it was who hit us in September, launched a pre-emptory strike.
and
Well, [Bush] might as well have been bombing Denmark. Denmark had nothing to do with 9/11. And neither did Afghanistan.
Does that mean Gore Chomskytag's being "written off"? By some, sure. But I suspect that, to the contrary, Noam Chomsky's never had a wider audience. It's just that many of his new readers don't agree with him, and aren't shy about saying so, despite his "five decades" of comment compared to their five months. I would go as far as suggesting that what we are witnessing is a further democratization of political/intellectual debate, rather than some kind of grunting Cossack putsch.

Speaking for myself, I haven't "written off" those three at all -- I'm not about to throw away my half-dozen Gore Vidal books, particularly my copy of Palimpsest, which he autographed with a "Best Wishes" just a few months ago. If I write about Vidal or Chomsky (and I'm less and less inclined to these days), it's precisely because I take their words, and their popularity, quite seriously.

Bronski goes further -- "What we are witnessing here is a full assault on the dwindling structures of intellectualism," etc. -- but it's mostly more of the same. Two points he brings up that I tend to agree with (and I'm paraphrasing, wildly): 1) people might not be noticing enough how the parameters of what is considered to be acceptable debate have been shifted, and 2) there is some value in the exercise of thinking and elucidating thoughts considered to be beyond the pale. Still, when you do so loudly, and people respond with vigorous counter-arguments, seems to me that's a golden opportunity for a debate, rather than another excuse to claim censorship, intolerance, or anti-intellectualism.

Posted by at September 22, 2002 12:21 AM
Comments

Bronski's piece seems to assume there are no intellectuals very much to the right of Vidal & Co. I think that the hammerlock the left/liberals have had on much of the national media is changing and they are disconcerted by it. I make a point of reading Sontag, Chomsky, Said and Vidal, if only to confirm that they are adrift. I'll be sarcastic: They could use a rudder, but that might be a Dead White Man's invention.

Posted by: Brooks at September 22, 2002 07:50 PM

Damn right-- the reason these folks are suddenly being dismissed is that their ideas have actually been ENGAGED, by someone other than their acolytes.

Chomsky made the tactical mistake of putting the first words out of his mouth after 9-11 into paperback form. So everyone can read him saying that WE would be starting a cycle of violence if we responded to the (evidently non-violent) deaths of 3000 Americans, and asserting in absolute confidence that a famine was planned by the Pentagon for Afghanistan last winter. Any surprise that a few people have called him on that on the Internet (which he's also spouted off about in sublime ignorance, I might add)?

Vidal has staked out a position in which Timothy McVeigh’s “rebellion” against a vaguely creeping American imperialism is natural and patriotic, but helping the Iraqi people overthrow someone who actually uses poison gas on them is, well, American imperialism. Maybe it's corporate control of the media that makes me think that's kinda weird. Maybe.

As for Sontag, I mostly think she got Fisked unfairly, but on the other hand, considering that she didn't say anything that a TV talk show host hadn't already said, that doesn't really say much for the depth of her inisghts as a public intellectual, does it?

When you come down to it, it's pretty funny that the crowd with the "Question Authority" bumperstickers would be squealing this hard when their authorities (of 30 years ago) get the treatment they profess to believe in.

Posted by: Mike G at September 22, 2002 07:57 PM

Damn right-- the reason these folks are suddenly being dismissed is that their ideas have actually been ENGAGED, by someone other than their acolytes.

Chomsky made the tactical mistake of putting the first words out of his mouth after 9-11 into paperback form. So everyone can read him saying that WE would be starting a cycle of violence if we responded to the (evidently non-violent) deaths of 3000 Americans, and asserting in absolute confidence that a famine was planned by the Pentagon for Afghanistan last winter. Any surprise that a few people have called him on that on the Internet (which he's also spouted off about in sublime ignorance, I might add)?

Vidal has staked out a position in which Timothy McVeigh’s “rebellion” against a vaguely creeping American imperialism is natural and patriotic, but helping the Iraqi people overthrow someone who actually uses poison gas on them is, well, American imperialism. Maybe it's corporate control of the media that makes me think that's kinda weird. Maybe.

As for Sontag, I mostly think she got Fisked unfairly, but on the other hand, considering that she didn't say anything that a TV talk show host hadn't already said, that doesn't really say much for the depth of her inisghts as a public intellectual, does it?

When you come down to it, it's pretty funny that the crowd with the "Question Authority" bumperstickers would be squealing this hard when their authorities (of 30 years ago) get the treatment they profess to believe in.

Posted by: Mike Gebert at September 22, 2002 07:58 PM

I enjoyed the observation that these people had commented on public and political affairs for more than five decades - as if this made them more special than a barber who's been yakking with his customers about the Gummint since '52. Just because you’ve been talking about something for half a century doesn’t mean you’re right, and it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to packed houses full of people who dasn’t disagree.

The very term "public intellectual" sounds outdated - it brings to mind someone who sits in the cafe in the posture of Rodin's Penseur, grappling with the issues of the day while we peons live our happy, stupid lives. The idea that “dissing” these self-appointed zeitgeist digesters means we’re caving to the forces of anti-intellectualism is nonsense; it just means that these voices sound tired, predictable, and wholly incapable of having a new reaction to a new world. The author writes:

What we are witnessing here is a full assault on the dwindling structures of intellectualism — both academic and public — in American life. It is less about the events of 9/11 than about the ascendancy of a deeply conservative campaign aimed at creating a national culture that values nationalism over individualism and physical and military might over open-ended dialogue.

As usual, nothing that resulted from 9/11 is ever about the events of 9/11. It’s all about the real agenda: a “campaign” to crush individualism and open-ended dialogue. Fight back, people! Show up for Chomsky lectures! Ask softball questions! The Republic is at stake!

Posted by: lileks at September 22, 2002 08:05 PM

Is Vaclav Havel an intellectual? I think most people would say "yes."

Here's what Noam Chomsky said about Vaclav Havel, in a 1990 letter to Alexander Cockburn, sent just 10 days after the prisoner-turned-president gave a stirring speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress:

"I have in mind what I think is one of the most illuminating examples of the total and complete intellectual and moral corruption of Western culture, namely, the awed response to Vaclav Havel's embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress the other day. We may put aside the intellectual level of the comments (and the response) -- for example, the profound and startlingly original idea that people should be moral agents. More interesting are the phrases that really captured the imagination and aroused the passions of Congress, editorial writers, and columnists -- and, doubtless, soon the commentators in the weeklies and monthlies: that we should assume responsibility not only for ourselves, our families, and our nations, but for others who are suffering and persecuted. This remarkable and novel insight was followed by the key phrase of the speech: the cold war, now thankfully put to rest, was a conflict between two superpowers: one, a nightmare, the other, the defender of freedom."

Then take a look at this Christopher Hitchens anecdote about Chomsky's attitude toward Havel, written when the two old lefties had their famous post-Sept. 11 split:

"[T]he last time we corresponded, some months ago, I was appalled by the robotic element both of his prose and of his opinions. He sought earnestly to convince me that Vaclav Havel, by addressing a joint session of Congress in the fall of 1989 [sic], was complicit in the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador that had occurred not very long before he landed in Washington. In vain did I point out that the timing of Havel’s visit was determined by the November collapse of the Stalinist regime in Prague, and that on his first celebratory visit to the United States he need not necessarily take the opportunity to accuse his hosts of being war criminals. Nothing would do, for Chomsky, but a strict moral equivalence between Havel’s conduct and the mentality of the most depraved Stalinist."

Reaction to Vaclav Havel is a litmus test of the intellectual Left in the U.S., in my opinion. Usually, he's ignored. Those who would *single him out* for the kind of criticism that would make Bronski wilt, well, their actions speak for themselves.

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 22, 2002 08:17 PM

Really good thread here. I'd only add that when one reads the Left there is the unmistakable theme that the rest of us are neither smart enough nor worthy enough to live our own lives without the control of the Left "intellectuals" (right wing kooks and Republicans have no intellectual standing). Whether they know it or not they are still living the old "party line" from the 30's.

Add to that that they still believe that "religion is the opiate of the masses" and you have an intolerant group of eliteist athiests who have no clue in dealing with Islam and its billion plus people of faith, and no intention of respecting anyone who disagrees with them.

Posted by: Howard Veit at September 22, 2002 09:17 PM

Well, let's not get too ahead of ourselves, Howard. The portion of the populace that exists left of the political center is gigantic and hardly monochrome (it includes people like me, for instance, and on a global scale would certainly include NATO-loving, evil-confronting Vaclav Havel). On this site you'll find links to scores of left-of-center writers who don't necessarily fit your description (of course, few would probably describe themselves foremostly as "leftists," either) ....

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 22, 2002 09:24 PM

I have the opposite problem. I seem to have been labeled a "right-winger". This comes as a surprise to family and friends.

I read and re-read the article you linked to, and the one thought that kept coming back was, "His entire article is correct if you accept the assumption that intellectualism = gross stupidity."

If the intellectuals named in the article actually lived up to the term "intellectual" by forwarding rational, provocative thought instead of saying something patently ridiculous and thoughtless, then I think they would get some grudging respect. As it is, they're old and their ideas are old. I think it's time we younger folk put them out to pasture so they can babble amongst themselves and pretend it's still the 60's.

Posted by: Paul at September 22, 2002 09:36 PM

As an active Green and unrepentant Leftie, may I say that some of the posts here demonize the Left, just as they accuse us of demonizing the Right.

I agree with some of what Chomsky says, but certainly not all of it by any means. Nor do most my Green friends. Chomsky is not The Left, just a well known public figure, just as Pat Buchanan is not The Right.

Chomsky is humorless, and that bothers me. Give me a Michael Moore "runnning around in the chicken suit", ranting about "Stupid White Men", tweaking the noses of many, having fun, AND getting his message across. His book has been in the top 1-3 spots in L.A. for months now.

As for political dissent being a relic of the 60's, go listen to conscious hip hop, then come back and say that.

Posted by: Bob Morris at September 22, 2002 10:48 PM

"on the dwindling structures of intellectualism"

he admits that this was already happening before 9/11 -- hmmm, now why do you think that is...?

Posted by: dan truly at September 22, 2002 10:49 PM

What we're seeing is the continuing democratization of intellectual thought.

University educations are vastly more common today than ever before. There are virtually no barriers to disseminating one's opinions any more. It's not just that Chomsky/Vidal/Sontag are finding their opinions more closely scrutinized than before (and they are), it's that their opinions are a smaller and smaller portion of a vastly expanded intellectual universe.

As Matt Welch points out, some of the most impressive thinkers one finds on the web today come with unconventional (or at least non-elite) credentials. Who cares that Chomsky has a tenured chair at MIT? There's this guy at Fresno State (Victor Davis Hanson) who really seems to know about how classical history relates to current politics. What does it matter if Vidal comes from a storied Tennessee political family? There's a University of Tennessee law professor who pumps out fresh insights every ten minutes. Who cares about Sontag's New York literary scene when writers like Ken Layne, Matt Welch and a dozen others are in L.A. pumping out stuff that's more thought provoking. And that quality isn't limited to L.A. either.

For over a hundred years through initiatives like Land Grant Colleges and the G.I. Bill this country has explicitly tried to expand the country's intellectual horizons. And now, with the Internet, the country has a way of expressing this intellectualism. We are harvesting the fruit our ancestors planted.

Bronski's biggest mistake is mis-identifying this as anti-intellectualism. What it is, is the expression of an intellectually healthy and engaged citizenry -- of a vastly expanded intelligensia.

It may be that professional "public intellectual" is a dying breed (Chomsky and Vidal are both over 70, aren't they?). Pronouncements from on-high aren't what bright, educated people want. But we crave engaged, vigorous debate where challenging authority is expected and bruised egos aren't indulged.

Posted by: John Pearley Huffman at September 22, 2002 10:51 PM

I would consider myself a moderate conservative. Mr. Welch your comments on the left are well taken. Too often those of us on the right in the heat of arguement lump everyone on the left together. though you must also admit that frequently happens on the left as well. I'll say that leftists like Hitchens are a treasure, not because of his current views, I've watched him on C-SPAN for years. But because he challenges us, he shows us that not all the things we do are just and noble. A difficult lesson, but a neccessary one, if we ever aspire to be better than we are. Hitchens can teach us, because he is thoughtful, well reasoned and frankly, loves America. We know he wants us to be better nation. Something that most of us left and right, don't believe about Vidal and the others. That dosen't mean I agree with even half of what Mr. Hitchens has to say. But I listen when he speaks, and can respect his views.

Posted by: Mark Edwards at September 22, 2002 11:01 PM

Is so-and-so a leftist by most leftist's standare that within those self-chosen monikers there is much palpable continuity running from the past to today - with ideological conservatives able to claim at least to be attempting to preserve the ideas and habits of the past. But there was a time when 'leftist' referred to a person deeply engaged in bettering the prospects of workingclass people. Sontag, in her NYC penthouse (according to her profiler in the New Yorker) and Vidal at his Italian estate, aren't at all known for their work in this area - because THEY DON'T GIVE A SHIT. Chomsky remembers on occasion to say something like "working people", as when he claimed that working people were the largest group of persons killed in the 9-11 attacks - a patently untrue claim, showing well his frustration with and at fact. I can't bring myself to call him leftist without seeing scare quotes in my head, and same goes for Sontag and Vidal.
All three have been heartily embraced by the academic and publishing establishments. Life is good these days for such folk. Good thing conservatives claim that it doesn't matter how much money you spend on yourself, if you just manage to "sound" left, you are thus - conservatives need an enemy to shadow box, after all. Why would star commentators like Chomsky resist the temptation to self-designate as leftist when the bar for being "leftist" is set so spectacularly low, and when other commentators actually quote from their letters while they're still alive? 'Leftist' doesn't much refer to what you do any more - lots of icky nonleftist/nonrightist persons are involved in alleviating poverty, and I suspect a majority aren't religious anyway, though that's not what the elite like to admit.
In some circles it takes devotion to academic stars and other thinks-for-a-living to want to name yourself a 'leftist.' That sucks beyond reason. A country drifting rightwards like this one doesn't really believe in the extistence of a native political left - everyone seems happy to think it's a verbal thing, executed by people who have been forced to have more money than you, with reluctant ties to billion dollar institutions and foundations that wouldn't touch you with a 10 foot stick, and who routinely demean you by claiming you are stupid, a sheep, racist, filled with simultaneous loathing and indifference for the people of developing nations. If you don't wish to be called such things, just call yourself a leftist. Impoverished people don't care much what you call yourself, and care less every day.

Posted by: gregor at September 22, 2002 11:54 PM

Is Bronkski seriously suggesting that we should judge the value of a political argument solely on the basis of the seniority of the person presenting it?

What about whether the argument actually makes sense on the merits?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at September 23, 2002 12:13 AM

Gregor -- In fairness, I'm not sure that any of Chomsky, Vidal or Sontag would actually describe themselves as being a "leftist." Especially Chomsky, since he's a bit particular about the language & all.

Steven -- Well, read the thing and see what you think. *I* think, though I can't possibly know, that he's chuffed about what he perceives as a conservative takeover of debate, alarmed by the rhetorical pugilism of conservative commentators he disagrees with, and irritated whenever some know-nothing Internet gadfly hurls yet another cheap insult at one of the Progressive Left's warhorses ... all of which has been combined with whatever worries he'd had about native anti-intellectualism.

There is an undercurrent of "yeah, they may sound crazy NOW, but dissenting intellectuals OFTEN sound crazy at the moment, only to be vindicated later." So, maybe we just can't *see* the merits just yet. I actually give that argument some credence; personally, I'm always reminding myself to be open to wacky-sounding ideas coming from wacky-sounding people.

But yeah, there's a lot of "merits, schmerits" out there.

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 23, 2002 12:48 AM

This is one of the most intelligent comments discussions I've ever read.

I recommend the NY Times Magazine story on the lefty lawyer who's on trial for passing on her (first WTC bomber) client's orders to his terrorist followers back in Egypt. Andrew Sullivan has a link. The woman, Lynnette Stewart, is a willing dupe (is that the phrase?) of the Islamists. Very willing. But some of the lefty NY Jewish lawyers who've defended terrorists in the past are now refusing to do so. They've realized that the terrorists want to kill them and their families. Some lefties can learn from events.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs at September 23, 2002 03:20 AM

A must read which treats of this topic of "intellectuals" and their odious ways is Mark Blitz's review of Lilla's _The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics" and of Wolin's _Heidegger's Children_. It can be read at http://www.claremont.org/writings/crb/fall2002/blitzintel.html

Below are two VERY salient passages.

Blitz, for the record, is probably the most dedicated, formidable scholar -- and scintillating lecturer -- I've yet encountered. [Mickey Kaus informed me of when he taught at Harvard -- that school with a little history of denying tenure to Straussians -- students flocked to his classes -- something which didn't surprise me; but that was in the early 70s, and students aren't quite as interested in political philosophy as they used to be it seems which is a pity.]

And for a real understanding for why intellectuals frequently turn out to be consummate assholes, read Raymond Aron's indespensable _The Opium of the Intellectuals_, particularly the Apendix essay, where he discusses the distinction, via Leo Strauss, between practical and theoretical knowledge, and how intellectuals confuse and distort the two. Revealing and most edifying book.

Moreover, Blitz's essay is worth reading for it's lucid account of Heidegger and both his greatness and his intellectual depradations. Heidegger after all is, when you get down to it, (along with Nietzsche), the fire from which so much Leftist smoke fills the minds of people like Sontag and co. Whether they are readers of him or not (and Sontag is a devotee), ideas as potent as Heidegger's insinuate themselves into conventional thinking -- he is afterall the "hard center" of existentialism, compared to the flabby periphery occupied by Sartre, Camus, and almost any other avante-garde artist you care to name.)

Best,
Robert


"The first -- and in a sense the final -- responsibility of intellectuals, qua intellectuals, is to secure and improve as best they can in their own circumstances the conditions that make their enterprise possible. Self-interest fully and properly grasped will lead them to a fundamental moderation, from which, occasionally, an appropriate radical action might follow. Ultimately, this requires that intellectuals need to consider two things, their own enterprise at its peak or in its best light; and the effects on each other of intellectual effort, on the one hand, and a reasonably *free* and *virtuous* political life, on the other. The difficulty with all or almost all the thinkers that Wolin and Lilla discuss is their failure properly to consider these two issues.

The first consideration requires that the full meaning, significance, and, consequently, the full radicalism of philosophical inquiry come clearly enough into view that one can judge honestly the justification and intention of one's own lesser efforts [i.e. putting theory into practice, toward some political cause]. If this does not occur, the characteristic distortions of philosophic inquiry, the characteristic sophistries that Plato explores in his Sophist and Republic, will take root. The difference between intellectualism, however impressive, and philosophy, which seeks nothing except the truth about what is, will be passed over or denied. Sophistries will not be seen for what they are or will be mistaken for the real thing. The radicalism of unbridled inquiry will congeal into the half-true assertion that categories, distinctions, indeed all important articulations are conventional [i.e. not based on nature (physis) -- i.e. no objective criteria exist if everything created by man is by convention (nomos)]. The search for what truly is highest will exhaust itself and rest content with bogus theology."

"The second consideration requires not just that the highest aspiration of the intellectual life be understood but that the elements of good politics be grasped. The connection between the two must then be fully thought through. When this does not happen, the characteristic distortions of political understanding and of the intellectuals' view of their political place occur that Plato explores in his Statesman and Republic. Thinkers come to believe that their radical schemes for perfection actually can take place in the flesh **because they do not face the inevitable limits of political life**, a life based not only on the wish to be just but also on opinion, fraud, and force. Or, having discovered politics to be imperfect, they come to believe it to be nothing but force and deceit. At the same time, they tend at least today to assume that the prestige of science and of intellectual life mean that these will go on safely forever. For these reasons, the differences between what intellectuals think and what they should do politically, and the dangers of their extremism to themselves and others often are ignored, just as the difference between how they use their minds and the true goal that justifies the radical intellect is set aside. Ultimately it is only a proper understanding of the true meaning of free thought and its conditions that can enable thinkers to avoid these distortions and to remain both radical in their own domain and appropriately moderate politically." [Let's hope so Blitz.]

Posted by: Robert Light at September 23, 2002 04:18 AM

Matt,

> So, maybe we just can't *see* the merits just yet. I
> actually give that argument some credence; personally,
> I'm always reminding myself to be open to wacky-sounding
> ideas coming from wacky-sounding people.

The wacky-sounding people usually put together rational arguments. At the time (before the wacky idea is validated) we may place a different level priority or merit to various aspects of the wacko ideas, but fundamentally the wacky idea hangs together in a logical manner. You see, these wacky folks (who's ideas are validated) don't usually bolster their arguments by distorting the historical record by; oh say like ignoring how the Cold War shaped US foreign policy.

Yes, some wacky-sounding ideas turn out to be correct, but more often than not they don't. But isn't it interesting that, lately, most of those validated whackos are coming from the right?

For the most part, I find the Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, et al crowd repugnant because they don't represent debate or discussion, but rather grenade chucking. All of what I've read from these individuals has not been of the "here are the problems as I see them, and here are my solutions" variety, but a disingenuous picking apart of anyone's solutions that they are in fundamental disagreement with. Anyone can point out a problem; real intellectuals propose solutions as well.

Posted by: Alex at September 23, 2002 05:05 AM


Just thought I'd mention that Susan Sontag was recently interviewed by Gazeta Wyborcza, the leading Polish daily. The interview was originally presented in Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels) a "womens" Saturday supplement.
Now available on-line at
http://www2.gazeta.pl/obcasy/1,25368,1015913.html

I found what she says in the interview about 90% reasonable (at least).

Someone might want to run it thru babblefish (does it handle Polish?)

I could translate some of the highlights if there's interest (time permitting).

Posted by: michael farris at September 23, 2002 05:34 AM


I forgot to mention:
The Polish Sontag interview is (the paper claims) on of the very few (maybe only?) interview she's given since her notorious post 9/11 column.

It also provoked a toxic response ("Glupota Susan Sontag" - "The stupidity of Susan Sontag") by writer Jerzy Pilch in Polityka (I presume that needs no translation). It's on-line too, but I don't have the url handy.

Posted by: michael farris at September 23, 2002 05:46 AM

This the best thread I've read in years. I think there may be an intellectual or two involved. The real ones, not the public ones.

Posted by: Howard Veit at September 23, 2002 05:55 AM

My experience from having wa-a-a-ay too many scholarly conferences over the years is that way too many "names" did one good piece and are content to rest on whatever laurels they are allowed. Most of what they present is derivative, off-hand, unsubstantiated, over-blown, etc. The best stuff comes from a few "working" names who are constantly on the intellectual prowl. A great deal of the best stuff comes from (relatively) unknowns.

One good way to tell the difference between "names" is whether or not they not only talk with "no-names" but whether they listen! It is possible that I am currently in academia due to one of the real "names" in my area. At a conference once, many years ago, he had met me briefly, and upon seeing me alone at lunch asked if I wished to join him on the patio. I, of course, accepted. In the next hour he probed me about my research, my hopes, my experience, and my thoughts -- all while managing to give me a large exposition of his own!!
He encouraged me no end.

Other "names" are notorious for their unwillingness to even be seen with "no-names". Most have retinues (usually grad students needing grades). Most are all but totally disconnected from the real world (tenured, endowed chairs evidently can be intellectually debilatiting).

Evidently Gore, Sontag, and Chomsky would fall into the fakes, for the most part.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at September 23, 2002 07:07 AM

Joe Gillis: You're Noam Chomsky. You used to be in intellectual debate. You used to be big.

Noam Chomsky: I *am* big. It's my *ideas* that got small.

Posted by: Ken at September 23, 2002 08:17 AM

Michael -- Thanks for the Polack stuff, chlap!

Sontag has *not* been shy about giving interviews, after Sept. 11 or ever, as far as I can tell. Just glancing through the archives on my site, I've written about her being interviewed by Salon’s David Talbot, Vanity Fair’s Leslie Bennetts, the L.A. Times and NPR. Not that I'm obsessed, mind you.

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 23, 2002 11:14 AM

>> So, maybe we just can't *see* the merits just yet.

Or as Monty Python put it: "They called Crippen mad."

"Well, Crippen WAS mad."

"Wull, that's my point, innit?"

Vidal is a good example of this. In the abstract there's lots to agree with in his principles. When he warns of American imperialism it's with knowledge of The Mexican-American war, Brook Adams, Smedley Butler, and on and on. When he talks about Daniel Shays' rebellion it's a reminder that liberty is never permanent.

And when he turns those into a pro-McVeigh, anti-retailiation for 9-11 screed, he's nuts. The only thing those two points of view have in common is feeling that America and the "national security state" are worse than the blowing up of kids in day care and the Taliban, and/or that they deprive us of any moral standing to act even in our own defense. That's nuts, whatever the legitimacy of some of his complaints about America today.

Surely the least intellectual thing on display in this whole argument would be an assumption that there is a straight party line for either leftists or rightists, and that if we feel that somebody like Vidal, from the comforts of his estate, has now driven into an intellectual ditch, that we owe it to "our" side to fight for his position anyway. Sorry, I may agree with certain things on that side but I refuse to take orders from any party. There are leftist intellectuals I am perfectly happy to respect-- Hitchens, Walzer, etc. That they knew that the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda was a war of humane values against barbarism that HAD to be conducted is one of the reasons they get that respect. Sorry, I have yet to find an antiwar position for that war that does seem respectable, or much less than idiotic, to me.

Posted by: Mike Gebert at September 23, 2002 11:47 AM

Excellent post and excellent comments. It brings to mind an old saying about rock critics and Elvis costello. I'm not sure why the writer seems upset about the GP not embracing Chomsky, Vidal, Sontag et al. because in those circles the rest of us are generally regarded as half witted sheeple who can't wait for the next Monster Truck rally at halftime of the Super Bowl anyhow. For people who are supposed to be so smart they apparently weren't real aware of how well their anti-American posing would go over outside of faculty rooms and lecture halls. They can say whatever they want but the greatest thing about America is that they're free to dissent and there's a place for them here. It's really a wonder they don't seem to appreciate that.

Posted by: Jack Tanner at September 23, 2002 11:54 AM

Jack, et al -- Half-nteresting note about Chomsky: In his 9/11 book, and elsewhere, he *does* mention how his views have solid & even surprising access to the U.S. media. From the closing of 9/11 (which would be from a transcript of an interview last fall):

"The opportunities are surely there. The shock of the horrendous crimes has already opened elite sectors to reflection of a kind that would have been hard to imagine not long ago, and among the general public that is even more true. Just to speak about personal experience, aside from near-constant interviews with national radio-TV press in Europe and elsewhere, I have had considerably more access even to mainstream media in the U.S. than ever before, and others report the same experience."

And then, in the very next sentence, he's off again:

"Of course, there will be those who demand silent obedience. We expect that from the ultra-right, and anyone with a little familiarity with history will expect if from some left intellectuals as well, perhaps in an even more virulent form."

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 23, 2002 12:32 PM

The issue I have with both the referenced article and this discussion is an emphasis on personality, rather than the substance of the argument. So often I see "debates" which boil down to personal attacks.

Bush is an idiot and Gore is boring. Those against war with Iraq are bleeding-heart liberals and those in favor of war are bloodthirsty hawks. None of that has anything to do with the real issues, and yet it passes for debate because it seems more exciting (and is infinitely easier) than an articulate, respectful discussion of relevant facts.

I'm not suggesting that any of the comments here are rude or less than valid. Only that there seems to be a general tone to Internet debate which reminds me of an elementary school playground. The moment an argument deteriorates into name-calling, I stop listening. Unfortunately, many "discussions" start off that way.

Posted by: wKen at September 23, 2002 02:58 PM

wKen -- What are you, a Communist?

Just kidding. There's some Rule I remember from Metafilter or somewhere about how discussion threads all end up with someone calling somebody else a Fascist....

At best, I think, some weblogs have been particularly *good* at discussing the merits; and in fact, if you compare the three authors in question with Steven Den Beste, for example (a guy who I do *not* generally agree with about several things); I think you'll see Den Beste's substance-to-namecalling ratio on his weblog is far, far more impressive. That said, I think many web-writers became weary of the post-Sept. 11 festival of nonpartisan logic contests, and have largely retreated back into comical name-calling. Which I abhor, naturally ... except when it's funny.

And I don't frankly expect much of anything from discussion threads, though this one in particular has been pretty good, no?

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 23, 2002 03:14 PM

At the end of that last comment, I meant to say "And I don't frankly expect much of anything *of deep political substance* from discussion threads." I *do* expect a lot *else* from discussion threads, most notably Treacher-generated Content (TGC).

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 23, 2002 03:17 PM

I have been reading Sontag, Vidal, Mailer etc for forty years. I now regard these cretins with such revulsion and contempt that I would never condescend to read any of them again.

Posted by: Richard at September 23, 2002 04:29 PM

>The issue I have with both the referenced >article and this discussion is an emphasis on >personality, rather than the substance of the >argument.

This is my reaction exactly-- the various comments like "I see we have some REAL intellectuals on this thread!" seem a little ironic. The basically-all-in-agreement posts on this thread do not constitute an exercise of the intellect. I'm not saying they're "stupid," just that there hasn't been much discussion of actual ideas. Disagreeing with Chomsky's ideas on Pinochet, for example, is not the same as disagreeing with Chomsky's ideas on the Bush doctrine's potential usefulness to terrorist recruiters.

I think all discussion threads necessarily end with a discussion on the nature of discussion threads.

Posted by: Paz at September 23, 2002 07:31 PM

Dear Mr. Welch, When the Boston Phoenix columnist said "public intellectuals" he meant "celebrities." The three people he mentioned were picked because they are well known names. The fields in which they have distinguished themselves, belles-lettres and linguistic theory, don't qualify them as experts on foreign policy and their pronouncements on that subject, even before 9/11, have never been taken seriously by foreign-policy intellectuals. Chomsky was generally thought a ranting crackpot, Vidal a shallow poseur, and since 9/11 they have become parodies of themselves. The real intellectual heavyweights, who may not appear on talk shows much but who know what they're talking about when they discuss global politics, are to be found on the other side: the military historian Victor Hanson, the moral philosopher Michael Walzer, the political essayists Hitchens and Sullivan, the Islamic scholars Pipes and Kramer. That a hack journalist can dismiss all these as spokesmen for "anti-intellectualism" is the most startling testimony I have seen yet to the bankruptcy and self-delusion of the antiwar left. Yours, Doyne Dawson, Professor of International Affairs, Sejong University, Seoul.

Posted by: Doyne Dawson at September 23, 2002 07:48 PM

What exactly is Treacher Generated Content?

Posted by: Robert Light at September 23, 2002 08:05 PM

I agree with Mr. Dawson about the celebrity status of the subjects of the article and their levels and fields of intellectualism. That could also be said of the Boston Pheonix which is now a fringe newsbox freebee supported by escort service ads and personals. I disagree wits.cgi" name="comments_form" onsubmit="if (this.bakecookie[0].checked) rememberMe(this)">










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eir radio station and the owner/publisher Stephen Mindich was either being investigated on or was indicted on obstruction charges involving his wife. All in all Kennedy's comments regarding the publics lack of support parallel the publics unwillingness to pay for the Pheonix.

Posted by: Jack Tanner at September 24, 2002 12:47 PM

Jack -- Kennedy didn't write this article, of course....

Posted by: Matt Welch at September 24, 2002 01:17 PM

Now you're really confusing me....

Posted by: Jack Tanner at September 24, 2002 01:32 PM

Outstanding use of quotes. Chomsky disciples all sound the same after a while. Violence is the ultimate evil, unless it's being used to overthrow a Capitalist government.

Posted by: Michael Duff at September 24, 2002 01:42 PM

Speaking of quotes, this discussion reminded me of this one:

"There are certain things one has to be an intellectual to believe, since no ordinary man could be so stupid." -George Orwell

Posted by: Ernie Gudath at September 28, 2002 10:44 AM

To lump all leftists together in a heap and label them as close-minded America-hating Sixties fossils is just plain lazy. It is a insult to our traditions of fair play, open mindedness, and free speech.

But lord, it sure does save time.

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector at October 13, 2002 11:10 AM


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Cultivated people foster what is good in others, not what is bad. Petty people do the opposite.

Posted by: Enriquez Brandon at October 1, 2004 12:58 AM
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