In “Why don’t we love our intellectuals?,” John Naughton (The Observer, 8 May 2011) exemplarily misses a critical distinction:
While France celebrates its intelligentsia, you have to go back to Orwell and Huxley to find British intellectuals at the heart of national public debate. Why did we stop caring about ideas? When did ‘braininess’ become a laughing matter?
Perhaps it happened about the time many people were well-informed enough to assess the results of listening to people who live by and for fashionable ideas.
Here, in his perception of modern Britain, the confusion becomes evident:
It’s a society in which creative engineers are labelled “boffins” and kids with a talent for mathematics or computer programming are “nerds”. As far as the Brits are concerned, intellectuals begin at Calais and gravitate to Paris, where the fact that they are lionised in its cafes and salons is seen as proof that the French, despite their cheese- and wine-making skills, are fundamentally unsound. Given this nasty linguistic undercurrent, a Martian anthropologist would be forgiven for thinking that Britain was a nation of knuckle-dragging troglodytes rather than a cockpit of vibrant cultural life and home to some of the world’s best universities, most creative artists, liveliest publications and greatest theatres and museums.
Very well then, what does Naughton take the problem to be? That everyone doesn’t appreciate intellectuals? Regimes where everyone is forced to listen to the ruling party’s intellectuals (Marxism, Nazism, etc) always perform much worse because honesty – central to course correction – is the first casualty. Actually, he diagnoses his own problem correctly, without seeming to realize it:
… if the list [of public intellectuals] is anything to go by, then the dominant professions from which contemporary British public intellectuals are drawn are journalists (20%), writers (19%), historians (14%) and critics (13%).A big surprise is the relatively poor showing of thinkers whom one would expect to be making a significant impact on public discourse – philosophers (4%), scientists (4%), economists (3%) and politicians (2%).
It’s no big surprise: Most people understand the difference between intelligent and intellectual. And most people think character – a department in which intellectuals have, on the whole, underperformed the average – well and truly matters.
Of course, letting people who are more intelligent and of better character decide matters provides no assurance of success either. We must be content with the fact that over time they likely outperform walking big idea shops and stupid villains.
Discovering this fact requires independent analysis: When success is measured in terms of avoiding of riots, defeats in war, starvation, etc., it’s seldom big news, whereas the glorious failures of the intellectuals usually are. Naughton’s essay is worth a read because he so well expresses so many fundamental misunderstandings.
Is this off topic? Certainly not. The public intellectual tide, now at full, roars, “Darwin was right! Darwinism is central to science! Darwin’s was the greatest idea … Criticism is treason … ” In this atmosphere, one must get real information through the system: Darwinism doesn’t work, irrespective of the prestige of those backing it, or the severity of their methods.
(Note: In the recent election, my own country chose an economist who had dropped out of university (at first) and worked in a mail room rather than a public intellectual, whom we sent back to Harvard. Let’s see how that works out in five years. It’s a good test because many sources consider the country to be in good financial shape just now.)