The crisis of the intellectual

I was directed to an excellent post by Walter Russell Mead today. It is on the subject of the American social model and the coming era of tumultuous social unrest as the old welfare state model collapses. Europe is already seeing this collapse as nations like Greece face bankruptcy and England deals with the consequences of severe cutbacks in social spending to avoid it.

The US is facing similar economic consequences if the level of spending is not addressed soon. The 2010 elections show that the people recognize the crisis but the “political class” seems less concerned.

“It’s telling to note that while 65% of mainstream voters believe cutting spending is more important, 72% of the Political Class say the primary emphasis should be on deficit reduction,” Rasmussen said.

“Deficit reduction” is code for raising taxes. Spending is heavily embedded in the culture of the political class.

Mead is concerned that the intellectual demographic, those with advanced degrees and careers denominated by thinking rather than doing, is unable to cope with the new situation.

There’s a lot of work ahead to enable the United States to meet the coming challenges. I’m reasonably confident that we remain the best placed large society on earth to make the right moves. Our culture of enterprise and risk-taking is still strong; a critical mass of Americans still have the values and the characteristics that helped us overcome the challenges of the last two hundred years.

But when I look at the problems we face, I worry. It’s not just that some of our cultural strengths are eroding as both the financial and intellectual elites rush to shed many of the values that made the country great. And it’s not the deficit: we can and will deal with that if we get our policies and politics right. And it’s certainly not the international competition: our geopolitical advantages remain overwhelming and China, India and the EU all face challenges even more daunting than ours and they lack our long tradition of successful, radical but peaceful reform and renewal.

No, what worries me most today is the state of the people who should be the natural leaders of the next American transformation: our intellectuals and professionals. Not all of them, I hasten to say: the United States is still rich in great scholars and daring thinkers. A few of them even blog.

His concern is that the intellectuals seem caught in a mind set that goes back to the 19th century and the Progressive Era.

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators.

It’s interesting that one of the comments, a lengthy one, exactly restates this issue but supports this model and argues with Mead that it is still superior.

Second, there are the related questions of interest and class. Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions – lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists – are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members. The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds. Just as the industrial revolution broke up the manufacturing guilds, the information revolution today is breaking up the knowledge guilds.

He goes on to criticize medicine as a guild but I think he is unaware of the rapid changes going on in medicine today. The image of the family GP is quickly shifting to the multispecialty group with primary care provided by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Those who want a personal relationship with a primary care physician, or even a favored specialist, will increasingly be required to pay cash for the privilege as many doctors who want to continue this model of practice are dropping out of insurance and Medicare contracts because of the micromanagement and poor reimbursement.

In most of our learned professions and knowledge guilds today, promotion is linked to the needs and aspirations of the guild rather than to society at large. Promotion in the academy is almost universally linked to the production of ever more specialized, theory-rich (and, outside the natural sciences, too often application-poor) texts, pulling the discourse in one discipline after another into increasingly self-referential black holes. We suffer from ‘runaway guilds’: costs skyrocket in medicine, the civil service, education and the law in part because the imperatives of the guilds and the interests of their members too often triumph over the needs and interests of the wider society.

Almost everywhere one looks in American intellectual institutions there is a hypertrophy of the theoretical, galloping credentialism and a withering of the real. In literature, critics and theoreticians erect increasingly complex structures of interpretation and reflection – while the general audience for good literature diminishes from year to year. We are moving towards a society in which a tiny but very well credentialed minority obsessively produces arcane and self referential (but carefully peer reviewed) theory about texts that nobody reads.

Once again, costs in medicine are a subject by themselves but the solution does not lie in controlling doctors’ incomes. With respect to the academic institutions, I have personal experience here and will describe some of it. The Humanities have been hollowed out by a trend to both politicize and to leave the subject behind as “critical thinking” goes on to analysis that has little to do with it. The Sokol Hoax is but one example.

The Sokal affair (also known as Sokal’s hoax) was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the magazine’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to learn if such a journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”[1]

The hoax precipitated a furor but did not result in much improvement in such publications. My daughter had personal experience when her freshman courses in English Composition and American History Since 1877 both contained numerous examples of political and “social justice” alteration of the subject matter. For example, she was taught that the pioneers in the west survived by “learning to live like the Native Americans.” The fact is that the pioneers were mostly farmers and ranchers and the Native American tribes of the southwest were hunter gatherer societies who did not use agriculture or animal husbandry. She was also taught that the “Silent Majority” of the 1960s were white people who rejected the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus they were racists. Even Wikipedia, no conservative source, disagrees:

The term was popularized (though not first used) by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a November 3, 1969, speech in which he said, “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.”[1] In this usage it referred to those Americans who did not join in the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the time, who did not join in the counterculture, and who did not participate in public discourse. Nixon along with many others saw this group as being overshadowed in the media by the more vocal minority.

She has since transferred to another college.

The foundational assumptions of American intellectuals as a group are firmly based on the assumptions of the progressive state and the Blue Social Model. Those who run our government agencies, our universities, our foundations, our mainstream media outlets and other key institutions cannot at this point look the future in the face. The world is moving in ways so opposed to their most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it. They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response.

I think this is the source of the “media bias” so prominently referred to by the Right and by many who are not politically focused. This is why talk radio and Fox News have been such huge successes to the consternation of the political class and their supporters. Charles Krauthammer famously said, “Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox News) found a niche market that contained 50% of the population.”

The Tea Parties are another manifestation of the frustration of the general population with the political class but also with the intellectual class that seems to be wedded to the first. The university community is, at least in the non-science segment of it, increasingly isolated from the concerns of the society that supports them. CalTech has for many years had a Humanities program to expose science and engineering students to culture. Unfortunately, a student in a large university will find much less culture and much more politics in Humanities departments these days.

A couple of other blog posts are worth reading on this subject. One is here and the other is here. They are both worth reading in full.

14 thoughts on “The crisis of the intellectual”

  1. I feel more smarter just reading this stuff.

    Most people who work for a living can see the “emperor has no clothes” and are wondering why the media, politicians and intellectuals insist he is so finely attired. We see the charade and straight faced delivery of such obvious inaccuracies/fallacies/spin/lies and just shake our collective heads and go back to work. Most of those who lead our society today would have done just as well in the performance arts if they had just had the looks for it.(sigh).

  2. See also my post the dictatorship of theory. In the following passage, C S Lewis describes the protagonist of his novel That Hideous Strength, a sociologist named Mark:

    “..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

  3. The problem is not that pointy headed intellectuals dominate the universities and schools — they always have.

    The problem is that the federal government has expanded so much that it now has the same power as the government of the USSR under Stalin or; of Germany under Hitler; or of China under Mao.

    Today pointy headed intellectuals are building the most powerful government in history. Tomorrow, some one will enjoy that power and everyone else will suffer.

    The solution is to minimize the government because the supply of tyrants cannot be exhausted. But first we must fix Medicare and Social Security.

    The solution lies in realizing that Medicare and Social Security are insurance policies. Our monthly payments are NOT PAYROLL TAXES, they are monthly premiums.

    These 2 insurance programs have lost all their assets. These assets have been stolen by the very people who run these programs. The time has come to arrest every man or woman who is responsible, sieze everything they have, and rebuild the Medicare and Social Security reserves.

    Fortunately, the members of the US congress are the wealthiest families in the world and their combined wealth may be enough to rebuild these reserves.

    To do this we will need a tyrant. Fortunately, we have an all powerful government he can use to root out evil. Our own Pinochet or Fujimori because sometimes democracy gets perverted.

  4. “a sociologist named Mark”

    Yes, but Mark Studdock is the “good guy” in that book inasmuch that the bad guys attempt to use his academic/intellectual perspective as a tool to seduce him to joining with “That Hideous Strength”, but his sense of humanity prevails and he resists.

  5. Rasmussen: “65% of mainstream voters believe cutting spending is more important, 72% of the Political Class say deficit reduction.”  Those voters have an intuitive feel for reality.

    The Real Tax Burden

    The amount that a government spends is the true tax that it imposes. The timing and amount of tax collections or imposed inflation is only how it distributes the burden of that spending.

    If the government cuts tax rates or gives rebates, but also increases the size and spending of government, then real taxes are higher. Government is taking a bigger share of current, real resources, leaving less for private use or investment. Production is immediately lower, and future collections of production (taxes) will have to be higher. A double whammy. Whatever government is providing had better be worth the large cost.

    Respected economist Milton Friedman pointed out that the burden on the private sector (the reduced production useful to the populace) is bigger when the government grows as a percentage of the economy. We must focus on government spending whether it’s out of current taxes or future taxes.

    Consider as an extreme case what our lives would be like if government spent 80% of national production (GDP). Would it matter what portions were collected in taxes, borrowed, or created by the Federal Reserve? Taxes would explicitly demonstrate the burden. Borrowing would somewhat hide and delay the burden. Creating money would apply the burden as a decrease in the value of all dollars, effectively and silently levying a tax on anyone saving dollars.

    State and Federal spending totalled $6,412 Billion from a GDP of $14,623 Billion in the year ending September 30, 2010 (fiscal year 2010). That is 44% of all production in the US. You have a right to feel squeezed by this massive transfer of wealth to the activities of the government.

  6. PaulM…Mark is an interesting character. His ego and vanity draw him to the organization called the NICE; his rescue (and, Lewis would doubtless say, the salvation of his soul) is due partly, as you suggest, to his own inherent decency, but also partly due to the influence of his wife and the Christ-figure (Mr Fisher-King) with whom she has become associated—also, perhaps, to Hingest, a chemist and an atheist who represents true science in the book.

    A very interesting book.

  7. “any real ditcher”

    I think Robert Frost may have written a poem about “ditching the meadow.” Certainly his writing was about real people. I can remember what a great accomplishment it was when my grandfather finally had a wet field “tiled.” Tiles to farmers are the porous pipes of concrete that carry away excess water to the creek. Now, I guess, we use PVC pipe with holes in them but I remember well the tiles and setting them in the ditch and being careful to maintain some slope to carry the water to the creek.

    We used to go pheasant hunting there every fall since I was 9. I wasn’t allowed to carry a loaded gun until I was 12. That farm was about 2 miles from Campus, Illinois. My grandparents were married in the church there. My grandfather’s brother married my grandmother’s sister.

    I feel sorry for the intellectuals, like cocaine addict and writer Aaron Sorkin, who went ballistic at Sarah Palin for shooting a caribou on her Alaska TV series. When you drive through Alaska, you see signs indicating which game management area you are in. The first time I was there, I asked about the signs. I was told that each game management area has a “road kill list” and people who live in the area can sign up. When a game animal is killed on the road, the next name on the list is called and given 30 minutes to get there to take the carcass. Many of the subsistence settlers can feed a family all winter on a road kill moose.

    I’m sure Aaron Sorkin knows nothing about that. I’m glad I do.

  8. It is interesting how often I have been running into references to Lewis lately. They are especially apt in this instance because the basis of much of the conflict between the elites and the common citizen is a variation of the old gnostic heresy.

    The 19th century was replete with theories which claimed to explain everything. The progressive assertion was a part of this tradition, coopting the idea of science but replacing empiricism with an almost mystic belief that some few could achieve a “higher consciousness” which would allow them to interpret and understand societal problems and solutions hidden from the average man in the street.

    Whether expressed as socialism or some other form of collectivism, there has always been a powerful religious component to the modern variation of the ancient divine right of kings, now expressed as the duty of the elites to lead the less fortunate to the promised land.

    I frequently hear anti-collectivists wondering about the ability of the committed collectivist to endlessly explain away its repeated and continuous failures. It becomes much easier to comprehend when one grasps the essential role that mystical, religious beliefs plays in the progressive mindset.

    They jettison god, but keep the devotion to their own version of “secret knowledge” which no amount of disaster and death can shake. If they would only follow the noble example of the Hale-Bopp comet cult, the world would be so much better off.

  9. VR….”coopting the idea of science but replacing empiricism with an almost mystic belief that some few could achieve a “higher consciousness” which would allow them to interpret and understand societal problems and solutions hidden from the average man in the street”…I think this trend got a major boost sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Science then had very high prestige owing to the breakthroughs in nuclear energy, radar, antibiotics, computers, etc. The political scientists, sociologists, et al effectively “borrowed” the prestige which had been actuallyearned by their colleagues at the other end of the campus and claimed that they were rapidly developing equivalent magical abilities for the understanding and improvement of society.

    The traditional humanities, by their very nature, could make no such claim—but if they couldn’t latch onto the grants being given to the social scientists, they *could* at least get some attention, by being maximally “transgressive.”

  10. 1) The Sokol hoax makes visible the false syllogism that is at the root or postmodern theory: Physicists and biologists write articles that are hard to understand and important. If I write something that is hard to understand, it will be important too.

    2) Q: What is the difference between a postmodern philosopher and an engineer?

    A: An engineer solves problems, and a postmodern philosopher problematizes solutions.

  11. I think we are dealing with a variation of the “bohemian artist” syndrome. The people who wanted to be thought of as artists, and who identified themselves with art, began to dress and act as they thought artists did, copying the Paris scene. Eventually, we reached the point where anyone could declare their artistry not by mastery of the subject or some artistic technique, but by their dress and lifestyle.

    The form had replaced the substance.

    This is what has happened in many intellectual pursuits as well. Acting and sounding like an intellectual, writing dense, complex works on obscure topics, advancing all inclusive theories which claim to explain everything, and which no one can understand, all this is used to confirm one’s status as an important intellectual. It doesn’t matter if the writing makes any sense, or if the theory actually holds together. All that matters is the form, the perception.

    You don’t have to have any cattle as long as you have a big hat—presto, you’re a cowboy.

  12. VR…the “all hat, no cowboy” explanation has much truth in it…people who face no market test or reality test of any kind can endlessly build castles in the air. Yet there are many people who *do* face a market test or reality test…actors, successful writers, etc…who pretty much share the belief system of the most extreme academic theoreticians.

    There seems to be something about working exclusively with words or visual symbols that leads to such views, even when the words/symbols do face a market test.

  13. Many actors and maybe even successful writers feel that they have been the beneficiaries of extreme luck and may tend to conclude that others who are wealthy are also lucky more than the product of work and innovation. Artists used to credit God for their talent but that is outmoded thinking.

  14. David, I think Shannon’s analysis of the mythology of the articulate intellectual, as explicated in several posts over the last few years, is a very cogent diagnosis of the various mental and emotional elements which combine to make modern collectivist intellectuals believe that they know what is best for everyone.

    As to actors et al, they have a tremendous need to be accepted as something more than just performers, so they buy into the prevailing intellectual style, and then get to pretend they’re all the good, desireable things that concerned, caring people are.

    It is a function of our superficial, celebrity obsessed culture that spoiled, rich children whose only claim to distinction is that they appeared in some movies or TV shows can be called to testify at Congressional hearings or become roving ambassadors for this or that cause.

    Indeed, it is one of the more bizarre aspects of our social conventions that a disease or natural clamity or some such becomes somehow more important just because an airhead with a pretty face shows up to have some photos taken at the scene of the crisis.

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