What Does It Mean to Be an ‘Intellectual,’ Anyway?


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During the last few years I’ve often caught myself wasting – sorry, spending – precious moments of my life trying to think like a European intellectual.  Why?  Well, certainly not because I want to be like them.  No, it’s just that I’m possessed of a compulsion to figure out what makes them tick, because they exercise such outsized influence on the world I live in.

It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Alas, my effort has been largely in vain.  I do have my theories about these people, but even after all these years I can’t say that I fully understand what’s going in those heads.  I suppose it would be kind of scary if I did.

* * *

What am I talking about when I talk about intellectuals, European and otherwise?  I’m talking about men and women of the left.  Not “classical liberals”  – no, we’re talking hard left here – people whose philosophical pedigree leads straight back to Karl Marx.

Yes, there are non-leftists who are sometimes described, perhaps grudgingly, as intellectuals.  But when that label’s affixed to them, the people doing the affixing almost invariably feel a need to prefix “intellectual” with some word like “conservative” or “right-wing” – even if the person in question is somebody you or I might consider pretty middle-of-the-road.  Meanwhile a left-wing intellectual is typically prefix-free: a left-wing intellectual is just an intellectual, period.

To be sure, many people on the left dismiss the idea that anyone not on the left could be legitimately described as an intellectual. For them, intellectualism consists essentially of reiterating and fiercely defending their own lockstep ideology.  Google “right-wing intellectual” and the very first hit you’ll get is a snarky post at the Democratic Underground website asking “Is there such a thing as a right-wing intellectual?” Google “conservative intellectual” and the top hits include items about “conservative intellectual collapse” and “conservative intellectual bankruptcy.”

The difference between the U.S. and continental Europe (Britain leans more our way) is that America has a vibrant network of non-left intellectual institutions –  think tanks, magazines, websites like this one – and electronic media that are receptive to their ideas.  In Europe non-left intellectuals are more on their own.  And they are almost never, ever referred to by anybody as intellectuals.

And why is this?  Because being an “intellectual,” at least in the European sense, isn’t about being intelligent.  It’s about belonging to a class of high priests whose role is to preserve and pass on its own sacred dogma.  It’s not about contributing to a free exchange of ideas in the expectation that the best ideas will rise to the top, but about trying to demonize and intimidate opponents and stifle dissent.  It’s about “speaking truth to power” – and the “power” is always democratic capitalism, and the “truth” always comes in various shades of red.

* * *

American and European intellectuals have a curious relationship.  The former envy the latter for the influence they wield.  And the Europeans envy them right back, for being, as they see it, at the heart of things, while they’re very aware of being big fish in small ponds.

Whatever you may think about American intellectuals, the European ones are worse.  They’re far more insufferable than ours – mainly because they’re used to being taken so much more seriously.  Newspapers across Europe publish not just 600-word op-eds but essays in political philosophy that go on for pages and pages and are written by members of the intellectual elite.  One reflection of the difference between the status of the left-wing intellectual in the U.S. and Europe is that essays written by people like Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein and first published in the U.S. In some place like The New York Review of Books routinely crop up, in translation, in big-circulation Scandinavian tabloids, where they are proudly promoted on the front page and spread over the entirety of pages two and three.  It’s an American intellectual’s wet dream: being read on the subway by the proletariat.  Is it any wonder left-wing American intellectuals look to Europe with such longing?

* * *

There was a time when, for a very brief period, I was suckered in by the line that American anti-intellectualism is a bad thing.  I snapped out of that one fast enough once I saw what this was all really about.  What it’s about is this: the spoon-feeding of the masses with the idea that being intelligent means looking at reality not plain but through ideology-distorted lenses.

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  • mrbean

    Need a good laugh – watch Glen Becks spoof of Joe Kelin 0 a pseudo intellectual! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tJxxCvUNq4

    • Randy

      Great stuff.

  • Larry

    Do be a European "intellectual" one must be well versed in the inanities and cant of post-modernism, deconstructionism, moral relativism, etc., etc.

    These are all psuedo-intellectual constructs designed to mollify the European useful idiots for their moronic support of mass murdering socialists during the 20thC. They support the bolsheviks in Russia, partied with the nazis in Paris during WWII, flung their support behind Mao, Pol Pot, and Castro, and now behind the muslims attempting to refound the Caliphate at the expense of the Western liberal world and the lives of millions of Jews.

    If nothing that previously existed has any validity (post-modernism), if something means anything that you want it to mean (deconstructionism), and there is no right or wrong (moral relativism), then nothing you can do, say, or think can be bad.

    Therefore, you can be the biggest moron unhung and still feel good about yourself, and where you heart on your sleeve bleeding into your morning espresso with no consequences.

  • Alvaro

    "Nowhere in Europe do “intellectuals” have such a high profile as in Norway, where I live. The airwaves are awash in credentialed mediocrities who mouth the same tattered socialist orthodoxies over and over again as if they were saying something new and brilliant."

    Spot on! :)

  • Eat the Left

    Superb article, Mr Bawer. Puts me in mind of Orwell: "some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them."

    But take heart. The disconnect between these synecured succubi and the real people is vast. For example, 80% of Brits admit to holding "overwhelmingly negative opinions" about the Elois' primary protected pachyderm – the islam. This is despite, or perhaps partly because of, the lies and absurdities of the quisling quangocracy. True, the socialism is Europe is more endemic, but since the social and economic situation on the Continent is also much worse, it seems likely that fascism's final defeat will simply be more spectacular within the Eurozone.

  • Eat the Left

    George Orwell: "some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them."

    • afdasd

      George Orwell was a socialist

    • StephenD

      LOL Perfect!

      I picture these dolts sitting in their high back button tufted leather chairs smoking a pipe looking over the top of their eye glasses to lecture us on how critical it is to breath or to tell us that if it wasn't for the them (intellectuals) running our lives and we had real liberties we would be as low a species as those Ghastly Americans.

  • Spider

    My Dad had the perfect name for them "Educated Idiots"

  • T_Trent

    A few years ago, someone pointed out to me that the essence of marxist/liberalism is focusing on the belief that your glass is half-full. All else flows from that: the resentful sense of privilege (never really equity) denied; the rage at those who are satisfied, hard-working, well-adjusted, and hopeful; the acceptance of humanity, loss, frailty, and fate over fascistic social engineering and utopianism, and now the darker strains of apocalypse and nihilism spreading through the reinvigoration of anarchist politics. Little of this has to do with being intellectual: it is a grungy simulacrum of intellectualism.

    And having waded through the sloughs of academia, I have to say the half-glass measure conforms with everything I've seen there. I know stone-cold athiests who express more faith than your average pontificating fabian Episcopalian slapping open his New Yorker while imagining the sound he is hearing is the practice of class consciousness.

  • PhilipSmeeton1

    Anyone that can understand an idea or concept without it having to be explained to them in detail is an intellectual. Those that do not seek truth based on facts and instead propogate belief are not intellectual. A true intellectual has no beliefs, all he wants to know is if that which has been said is true. Intellect is then the ability to understand; it is not reiterating dogma.

  • Ben

    Famous matematician B.Russel was socialist and atheist so he didn`t like Jews(as all leftists do). the example of his leftist thinking from his "History of Western philosophy":
    Judaism could not be perceived in the world just because of the circumcision and food limitations ( free translation ) – left intellectual forgot about the Muslims !
    This is left itellectualism`s seing the reality.

  • http://www.jesterbear.com/Aradia/LittleBird.html M.W.

    I agree with the definition by PhilipSmeeton1
    "Anyone that can understand an idea or concept without it having to be explained to them in detail is an intellectual. Those that do not seek truth based on facts and instead propogate belief are not intellectual."

  • pagegl

    Intellectuals have the luxury of not having to take responsibility for their pontifications.

  • geoplaten

    Today being an intellectual means believing your own superiority over others in the face of all evidence. You are always right, simply by definition. It's the ultimate synergy of the self-esteem movement and moral relativism.

  • Danny

    I'm sorry but I don't get it. Bawer is an American who lives in a foreign country and continent that he apparently despises and believes to be headed toward absolute ruin. Why does he stay?

  • mrbean

    Liberal intellectuals (almost a redundancy, that) hate a competent intellectual like Ayn Rand. They don't just dislike her, they hate her with a passion. The reason? Because she has single-handedly come up with a logical and reasonable philosophy that strips them bare and reveals all their scams and schemes so that people who know her philosophy can automatically spot one of their scams from a long ways away. THEY CAN'T TELL YOU WHY THEY HATE HER ASK ONE SOMETIME: They don't subject her to the usual mild criticism or "shunning" to which they subject liberals who say something "slightly different" from "the norm." Their treatment of Rand and her works is visceral and vicious. There are many who merely dismiss her philosophy with the wave of a hand. But they cannot explain why they feel the way they do. If asked for a reason for their opposition to Objectivism, they can't answer and launch into a personal attack on her that amounts to a "fact-free opinion."

    • johnnywoods

      Sounds sort of like "Palin Derangement Syndrome".

  • daninkansas

    Bruce,
    Luv ya' man, but I found this piece a bit of a disappointment. Give us the scoop. I'm sure you have more tales to tell. Flesh it out. Has potential as a Kafkaesque trip.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    Et alia, who needs smarties………………………………….William

  • Ellman

    European Intellectual: wind him up and watch him spin.