Back in 1988, historian Paul Johnson wrote a book entitled “Intellectuals”, which he described as “an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” In nearly all cases – there are 12 intellectual/moral biographies in the book, and brief treatments of numerous others – the intellectuals were tried and found wanting. Which is to say, their personal lives, which were typically chaotic and characterized by impulsiveness, moral turpitude, neglect of children, and disloyalty to, and maltreatment of, friends and associates, gave the lie to any claim they might have had to moral superiority or being qualified to give advice to others, define the terms of intellectual dialogue, or make recommendations to governments and other agents of change as to the improvement of the human condition. It might be said that their heads were in the clouds but they had feet of clay. And yet – Johnson ruefully points out – they have all have a profound impact on not only intellectual history but on society – particular its moral tone. We live, in effect, in a world created by intellectuals – for better or worse, and it's usually worse.
The book could, in fact, just as well have been called “Liberals”, since most of the people dealt with were to the left of center, and some far to the left. And that immediately raises a question – often asked, and answered in short order, by the intellectuals of our time -- namely whether the notion of a “conservative intellectual” is not a contradiction in terms. Part of the problem is that the very term “intellectual” seems to conjure up the image of a person who spends a lot of time thinking, talking, and writing, but not much time getting to know “real”, average people – like, you know, the ones whose “rights” he is constantly standing up for. So there is a definite air of superiority, remoteness, and leftish snobbishness about the concept of “intellectual” -- not to mention the central-casting accoutrements like the tweed jacket, the Earth Shoes (or whatever the current equivalent is), the bad grooming, the Saab or Volvo, the pipe (when tobacco was still OK), the fashionable pets, the avant-garde tastes in music and art, and so on. Say the word “intellectual” in any “non-intellectual” crowd and I can guarantee everyone present will instantly have roughly the same picture in their head – and that picture will bear an eerie resemblance to so many of the fusty characters who have acted as “advisors” to every Democratic president since FDR... and to _none_ of the Republican presidents. Maybe it's possible that conservatives don't _need_ intellectuals because conservatism is much more natural and common-sensical than liberalism... i.e., it doesn't need constant, 24-7 rationalization or excuse-making or denial. I think a very strong argument can be made that this is the case, and one has to wonder why conservatism, which is easy to understand, is not more popular than liberalism, which _appears_ easy to understand because it's full of slogans and buzzwords, but which – when you probe into it, and into its moral and philosophical foundations – is extremely chaotic and loaded with contradictions. But that's the answer – most people don't “probe” -- they don't look for logic or consistency, just a few simple, if irrational, “ideas” that they can grab onto as a way of explaining – to themselves and others – why their lives aren't all that they should be, and how nice it would be if the government would only step in and make their world a better place (and send someone else the bill).
Having said that, however, I would be remiss in not pointing out that there have, in fact, been many first-rate intellects among the conservatives, the most prominent of course being William F. Buckley Jr., who, more or less single-handedly, made conservatism intellectually respectable at a time when you could either be a thinking leftist or an unthinking, smug, complacent Republican. But Buckley was preceded, and followed, by many others... and I would put Thomas Sowell, Joseph Sobran, and Sam Francis at the top of a very long list.
So the bottom line on “intellectuals” -- as I read Johnson's book – is that, although they can be interesting, exotic, and entertaining (and also tiresome and irritating), they typically leave the world a worse place than it was when they arrived on the scene. And their legacy is surprisingly robust, given the destructiveness of their ideas and the amounts of human misery those can cause. This can be explained, at least in part, by the eternal hope on the part of a large proportion of humankind that someone – or something – will come along and relieve them of responsibility (moral, economic, social, etc.)... take care of them when times are tough (which, for a liberal, means all the time)... and (as a bonus) punish people who dare to think, or act, differently. And this hope, far from being dashed by each new failure of liberalism/collectivism, is reborn with each new generation. Of liberals it can truly be said that they have a keen sense of envy, grievance, injustice, and “payback”, but virtually no sense of history. Plus, they are absolutely clueless as to the nature of man – the real nature, that is, not the “ideal” nature they spend so much time trying to force down everyone's throat. And is this syndrome something that is hard-wired in a certain percentage of individuals, or is it a product of society? (If the latter, and given that present-day society is, by and large, a product of liberalism, we have an interesting bit of circularity here.) I have often thought that what I call the “totalitarian impulse”, which is at one end of the liberal continuum, is, more often than not, the result of poor upbringing. That is, it doesn't spring up full-blown the first time a college student encounters a Marxist professor; it's more like an intellectual accident waiting to happen. If you want to get Freudian about it, I would say that too-early weaning is to liberals what bad toilet training is to certain conservatives – neither necessary nor sufficient, but etiologically reliable. But there's clearly much more to it than that.
What got me thinking about all this was the recent unfortunate death of the actress Natasha Richardson as the result of a skiing accident. An obituary provided certain background facts about Richardson's family, and it was pointed out that there is an alleged “family curse” among the Redgraves and Richardsons -- intellectuals and "artistes" all -- which is manifested in numerous divorces, scandals, illnesses, relationship “issues”, and sexual “issues”. The families were also prone to political fancies as well; Richardson's mother's (Vanessa Redgrave's) house was “always full of Workers' Revolutionary Party members”, and she “remains a committed Marxist”. Here is a passage worth quoting:
“Vanessa recalled how Natasha used to beg her to stay at home and spend more time with her. 'I tried to explain that our political struggle was for her future, and that of all the children of her generation. “But I need you now,” said Natasha, “I won't need you so much then”.'” Later it is stated, “Natasha was... much perturbed by the constant comings and goings of lodgers and revolutionaries.” (Which I freely translate to "parasites, who make a habit of exploiting 'useful idiots' like Redgrave".)
Well, there you have it – liberal child-rearing in a nutshell. No time to actually stay home and take responsibility for the children – there are barricades that have to be manned, marches and demonstrations to attend, tracts to write! Plus, children can raise themselves, more or less, since they are innately good (as Rousseau contended, and as liberals still all – without exception – believe). And what strikes me is that this moral/psychological ailment is often multi-generational – like welfare – because the neglect of their children by liberals leads to various neuroses and dysfunctions, which in turn lead – I would expect – to more liberalism, if only in order to “identify with the aggressor”, or try and please the absent parent.
Now, I don't know anything about Natasha Richardson's political views, but I can guarantee that, more often than not, liberal parents will wind up with liberal grown offspring – unlike conservative parents, where the next generation can seem a bit more diverse. This could, of course, be taken as a sign that liberals “bring their kids up right”, and show them the proper example of “caring” (for the world, not for anyone in particular). Personally, I prefer the “chain of neurosis” model that Paul Johnson provides such a firm and convincing basis for, and that we see so often in liberal friends, associates, and celebrities. And on the conservative side, I'll grant that those families are not perfect either, and that the natural tendency of youth to rebel, or at least explore alternatives, can lead to a divergence of political views from that taught in front of the hearth. But I will also argue that societies that survive, and thrive, are ones in which, regardless of the official party line of the state, people – and particularly families – generally live in a “conservative” way, i.e. manifesting what are called (contemptuously, by the American media) “family values”. And even when radical social experiments sweep away all that is known and familiar – think of the Soviet collective farms or the Chinese Cultural Revolution – it's striking how readily, once a modicum of sanity returns to the society, people go back to the core family model, as if they know it's the best way to insure the survival of future generations. It's also striking how universally incompetent governments are when it comes to raising (and, I would say, also educating) children, despite all the utopian idealism the social planners can conjure up. Societies – like organisms – have survival instincts; at least the ones that survive do (by definition). And paramount among these is the notion that the family unit is essential for the welfare and health of both the individual and the group. Now, whether family disruption leads directly to societal decay – or whether it's usually the other way around – is difficult to establish, since they are so closely correlated. What I suspect is that there is a symbiosis, by which one is the beneficiary (or the victim) of the other. Clearly, the war being waged on families by the dominant culture, the media and entertainment elite, and by our own government, is a symptom of the moral sickness that has seeped into the legal system and our leadership as well as society in general. But that moral sickness had to originate somewhere, and I nominate, as the first place to look, dysfunctional families, perhaps combined with the loss of a spiritual anchor. Call it "social concupiscence" -- flawed individuals attract others of their kind and, if not stopped, enter into relationships and establish flawed family units, which produce more flawed individuals, ad infinitum. (And, by the way, “ethics” doesn't ever seem to quite compensate for the lack of a moral foundation. People will claim that it does – or can, but, ultimately, all “ethics” is culturally conditioned, relative, and arbitrary. As evidence for this I offer societies like Nazi Germany, where people were willing to act in full accord with the “ethics”, or ideals, of the state, even if those blatantly contradicted Natural Law.)
Liberals all dream of suppressing religion, and churches, because those represent competition in the world of ideas – a challenge to the liberal world view. When Mao said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, he wasn't including religion of any sort – or morality in the strict sense. Liberalism is all about ideas – but they have to conform to certain standards, like not having a monotheistic or “moralistic” religious base... not exalting the family above any other “social contract”, either voluntary or imposed... and, needless to say, not having the taint of “sexism” (i.e. believing that men and women really are different, and that it's for a reason), “racism” (the downside of “diversity”, when you get right down to it), or “homophobia” (believing that homosexuality is an unnatural state – non-Darwinian, even!). And of course any political philosophy that contends that “there are no absolutes – except that there are no absolutes” is setting itself up, from the start, as a source of chaos, contradiction, and endless rumination in campus coffee shops. When a topic, or issue, is discussed endlessly, by generation after generation of intellectuals, is it because the answer is so elusive and complex? What's more likely is that it's because the answer is obvious, but no one wants to admit it. Whenever you think society has “moved on” from all the debates of the 60s, just head for the nearest college or university campus and you'll find that nothing has changed, nothing has progressed, and nothing has improved – it's just the same old nonsense being mulled over in the same old way – and by many of the same people, even. Why, it's enough to make one wonder about the whole notion of “progress”!
So when it comes to "intellectuals", in the interest of diversity I'll say keep them around, don't harass them unduly, but for goodness' sake don't listen to them! And don't let them get anywhere near the centers of power. And be prepared to put your hands over the ears of small children if an intellectual starts speaking in their presence.