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

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and the author of “While Europe Slept” and “Surrender.” His book "The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind" is just out from Broadside / Harper Collins.


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The fact that America has the world’s greatest universities, wins so many Nobel Prizes in science, sent men to the moon, and is responsible for most of the technological breakthroughs that have created the modern world is directly connected to the fact that we are, from a European intellectual’s perspective, an anti-intellectual people – which is to say that we’re not interested in endlessly parroting the utopian doctrines of failed and dangerous ideologies; instead, we prefer to live in the real world and to devote our energies to figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and using that practical knowledge to make life better.

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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.  Some days it seems as if every story reported on the evening news contains an on-camera exchange with some professor, usually from the University of Oslo, who is seen sitting in his or her office (a) testifying self-importantly, as if any kind of expertise were required, to the veracity of the most self-evident facts, and/or (b) providing an extra dose of ideological spin to whatever story needs that just that little bit more.

It would make a fine drinking game: each time the Norwegian evening news cuts to a close-up of a professor saying something blindingly obvious or patently ideological, throw back another shot of Jägermeister.  (This is an especially good idea for a game because watching the TV news in Norway on a regular basis is enough to drive any cogent individual to the liquor cabinet.)

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For an example of exactly what is required – and not required – of a European intellectual, take a certain professor who is considered Norway’s top “America expert.” This gentleman appears routinely on NRK (Norway’s answer to the BBC), where he’s treated as a sage.  A few years back this sage wrote a book about America.  It proved to be an astonishing, indeed hilarious, display of colossal ignorance.  For instance, he declared with pontifical authority that although Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, Americans never celebrate it on Thursday – they always celebrate it on the weekend.  This piece of misinformation was offered, with the usual condescending sneer, as an example of Americans’ indifference to the real meaning of the holiday, which in turn was meant as yet another illustration of their general lack of intellectual seriousness.

And that’s what makes this fellow a prized America “expert” and a prime example of the European intellectual.  He may have his facts wrong, but he’s got the ideology down cold.

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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.