Sunday, July 10, 2011

Intellectuals and Society

Thomas Sowell’s recent book, “Intellectuals and Society”, is a solid indictment of intellectuals and their enablers throughout history. In an earlier book, “A Conflict of Visions”, Sowell defined two contrasting visions of human nature (1) “the tragic vision” (humans are morally and intellectually imperfect) which is typically held by the political right, and; (2) the Utopian vision or “vision of the anointed” (man is perfectible and wiser social policies are the solution) held primarily by the political left. “Intellectuals and Society” focuses on those who promote the latter vision.

Sowell defines “intellectual” as “an occupational category.” Intellectuals are “people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas - writers, academics and the like....An intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas.” This is in contrast with others whose occupations involve working with highly complex ideas but whose end results are measureable products and services. Medical doctors and engineers, for example, are not thought of as intellectuals. Two additional distinctions between intellectuals and other professions are: (1) intellectuals’ ideas are rarely verifiable. Intellectuals get their only validation from the approval of their peers; and (2) intellectuals are completely unaccountable for the effects of their ideas. If their ideas are wrong they pay no price (in fact they rarely, if ever, no matter how damning the evidence, even admit to error) - unlike doctors and engineers who are liable for and can and do pay a heavy price for their errors.

He also defines the intelligentsia which includes both intellectuals and “a penumbra of those whose role is the use and dissemination of ideas” produced by intellectuals. This “penumbra” includes “... those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges’ clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals.”

After spending eight chapters building a compelling case against the leftist intelligentsia, Sowell's concluding chapter provides a summary of some of the more prominent adverse effects of their efforts:
... 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.
... have largely ignored or downplayed the things in which Americans lead the world - ... - and treated the errors, flaws and shortcomings that Americans share with human beings around the world as special defects of “our society.”
... encourage people who are contributing nothing to the world to complain, and even organize protests, because others are not doing enough for them.
... 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.
... 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.
... changed the role of education from equipping students with 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.
... 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” ...
... treated the conclusions of their vision as axioms to be followed, rather than hypotheses to be tested.
... some ... 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.
... give people who have the handicap of poverty the further handicap of a sense of victimhood.
... 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.
... 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 or experience...
... encouraged the poor to to believe their poverty is caused by the rich ...
... 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 be permitted.
... 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.
It’s a must read, especially for those who hold “the vision of the anointed”.


Alain said...

I am a big fan and admirer of Sowell and as usual he is spot on.

Cytotoxic said...

Is Sowell not an intellectual? What a bizarro argument.

Alain said...

No, not by the definition Cytotox, but he is a whole lot smarter than any of them.

JR said...

The intellectuals Sowell criticizes are those who argue from ignorance, make what he calls "arguments without an argument" (including ad hominem attacks on those with whom they disagree), ignore evidence that runs counter to their vision of how the world works, etc. Intellectuals of this type (with the "vision of the anointed") demonstrate they lack judgement (Sowell's equation: "intellect = intelligence - judgement") and more importantly they lack wisdom which entails learning from history, culture and experience. Many if not most Lib/leftist intellectuals fit this description. It's why they've endorsed just about every evil, mad plan and tyrant on the planet.

I suggest you read Sowell's book before criticizing it. Otherwise you just bolster his case by arguing from ignorance.