The Stupidity of Intellectuals

I’m going to say a lot of bad things about intellectuals today so I might just as well take the trouble to identify myself as one right up front. I have had a lot of formal education and have spent more time teaching undergraduates than I have spent doing anything else since 1966. If I were going to have to make the case that I have contributed significantly to the academic consideration of some crucial issue or other, I would have to adopt a much higher standard. Also, I would fail to meet it. But the purpose of calling myself an “intellectual” today is just the share the blame implicit in the accusation I am going to make today.

So let’s start here. “Hi. My name is Dale. I’m an intellectual.”

This line of thought began innocently enough when Paul Krugman reported on Florida’s Senate Bill 148, which, as passed out by the committee, forbade the teaching of certain “divisive concepts.” Krugman added some examples, such as specifying the age of certain rocks as older than the best known biblical accounts would allow them to be.

My favorite “divisive concept” is the well-known conflict about whether Bud Lite ought to be drunk because it is less filling or because it tastes great. In the ads that featured this faux conflict, proponents prepare for, and in at least one one ad, engage in, physical conflict against “the other team.” The other team prefers the same beer, but for a different reason. Right.

Making “divisive concepts” illegal and the teaching of them a matter for prosecution is ridiculous. As an intellectual, I cite all the reasons why such an idea cannot really be taken seriously and then I retire, having done “the job.” That’s not stupid, but it is naive. Let me tell you why.

The Florida bill has nothing at all to do with “divisive concepts” like racial guilt or the legacy of exploitation of native peoples. The Florida bill is an attempt to change the subject from race or imperialism—as above—to how to prosecute unpopular ideas. We have apparently come a long was from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “freedom for the thought we hate” (1929). [1] A concept is used; some people take exception to it. It is (clearly) divisive. Now, in Florida, if this bill becomes law, the curriculum that contained such a concept may be changed and the professor who made use of it may be prosecuted.

The question that is answered by SB 148, therefore, is this: “How can we change the debate from the evidence available to support an idea like CRT, to the political penalties that may be assessed for using it in public?” It an idea put forth by some very savvy people that the conflict should be changed from one they will certainly lose to one they will certainly win.

Consider the possibilities

So Party A and Party B have a conflict. It must be resolved one way or another. What sort of mechanism should be used to resolve it?: Let’s imagine that it should be put up for a vote. That’s one way. It could be decided by a committee I control. That’s a second way. Or, as a third way, we could have a duel. Party A is better at pistols; Party B at swords. What kind of duel should be scheduled? Or, fourth and finally, they could consult the most knowledgeable people available, experts, and see if there is better support for A’s side or B’s.

In every one of these ways of “settling” the conflict, one party or another is advantaged. “The way the conflict is to be settled” and “who will win the conflict” are just two versions of the same question. And now we see why devices like SB 148 are so powerful. They pretend to be about an intellectual issue of some kind, but they are actually about changing the mode of resolution from one kind to another.

Here’s an example from Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, the best dystopian novel I know. Shevek is the name of the principal character.

A man named Shevet came up to Shevek one night after supper. He was a stocky, handsome follow of 30. “I’m tired of getting mixed up with you,” he said. “Call yourself something else.

The surly aggressiveness would have puzzled Shevek earlier. Now he simply responded in kind. “Change your own name if you don’t like it,” he said.

You’re one of those little profiteers [a socialist slur on capitalists] who go to school to keep his hands clear,” the man said. “I’ve always wanted to knock the shit out of one of you.”

“Don’t call me a profiteer,” Shevek said. But this wasn’t a verbal battle….When he woke up, he was lying on his back on the dark ground between two tents.”

Shevek’s instinct, like mine, was to dispute the accuracy of the derogatory term he had been called. Shevet was, in fact, mistaken about that. Shevek was no profiteer. He was an academic, however (clean hands) and that was what Shevet resented. An argument about what criteria should be used to determine “profiteer-status” and whether they truly applied to Shevek, is the kind of thing Shevek and I would have preferred.

Shevet, however, changed the kind of fight it was and beat Shevek senseless. They saw each other again from time to time, but the statement had been made and Shevet showed no further interest in Shevek at all. He had said what he wanted to say by beating the shit out of Shevek and Shevek had found no response to it at all. [2]

Nothing I have said so far establishes the intellectuals who participate in this charade as stupid. That’s the next step. I have as my model, the dog in the movie Up, who has one goal or another in mind but who can be instantly distracted by the word “Squirrel.” He doesn’t seem to be able to help himself. Possibly the dog is an intellectual.

Intellectuals ought to be able to do better. When an idea—the home field of intellectuals—is proposed, the intellectuals are attracted to it. We want to show that it is internally inconsistent or that it will be readily abused or that it can be shown to be untrue. And we will continue to make that case all the while the issue is being resolved in other ways in other settings. While one school board after another is taken over by candidates who oppose “divisive concepts,” we intellectuals continue to point out the inherent weakness of the idea. While on professor after another is fined or demoted or fired for using “divisive concepts” in class, we intellectuals continue to write journal articles for each other establishing the fundamental flaws in the concept itself.

That’s the part that is stupid.

I don’t think we ought to ignore stupid ideas. We ought to declare them to be wrong (in any of the hundreds of ways ideas can be wrong) and then change our focus to establishing how the conflict will be resolved. If it is going to be resolved by the courts, what will it take to win there? If at the polls, what will it take to win there? If by vigilante action against elected school boards, what will it take to win there? But we should not, under any circumstances, continue to argue the intellectual flaws of an idea that is winning by every other measure.

[1] In all fairness, that ringing phrase was lodged in a minority opinion in the United Sates v. Schwimmer. I didn’t mean to imply that it has ever been more than an aspiration of intellectuals.
[2] Shevek does find, as the character develops, a way to respond. It is not definitional and it is not physical, but it does drive the rest of the plot.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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