What Does It Mean to Be an 'Intellectual,' Anyway?

What I've learned from trying to think like a European intellectual.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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.)

* * *

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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