Thursday, April 29, 2010

Platonic relationships ...

I was reading recently about conservative writer Thomas Sowell's latest book, Intellectuals and Society, where he rails against the role supposed "intellectuals" played in the more terrible and tragic events of the twentieth century and it got me thinking. If you aren't familiar with Sowel, you can read his bio at Stanford's Hoover Institution website.

First two caveats: I'm not an intellectual historian, so some of my comments may be way off the mark. Second, I haven't read Sowell's book, only his two recent columns written to sell his latest effort, whose argument is relatively compact: liberal intellectuals are a) generally wrong about what happens in the real world, and b) generally responsible for philosophically justifying the worst excesses of twentieth-century authoritarian government. In other words, ideas matter, but when those ideas are the arrogant paternalistic, utopian fantasies of dreamy liberals, the law of unintended consequences seems always to apply.

His central question itself is clunky and simplistic: "Whether [intellectuals'] role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times." First of all, is this one of the "key questions of our times"? Who's asking this question? Populist-baiting conservative pundits, certainly, but few others. Maybe among "intellectuals" like Sowell it's a "key question." But really, is it the historian's job to be so judgmental of the past? I would answer, again, no. Our job is to take the past on its own terms, to assess causality and contingency, to figure out how societies have been put together, and why they changed over time. But even if we are here to judge, where are the quantitative metrics? Better? Worse? Sowell's critique collapses in on itself for "better" and "worse" are themselves idealist measuring sticks, platonic forms floating somewhere far outside of the material world that he wants us to live in.

So, just when are we supposed to be idealist and when are we supposed to me materialist? My head hurts. His argument seems to be a contradictory an attack on idealist philosophy more than anything else. Contradictory because some ideas, he likes, and some he doesn't. And that opinionated preference seems to be the foundation of his argument.

What guides his choices? We can ignore the role of intellectuals, at least Sowell does, when their ideas yielded obvious material benefits, or in his words, "progress." He uses airplanes and the Wright brothers as an example: "The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals." OK, I suppose. However, 1) let's ignore their DaVinci-like drawings made over the course of their career as aviation inventors; 2) let's ignore the fact that they literally wrote the book, all intellectual-like, on military aviation strategy; and -- following number 2 -- 3) in Sowell's flacid better/worse dichotomy, we also have to ignore, I suppose, the human misery that airplanes have wrought: air wars, bombing, and death; atomic destruction; economy-class seating (I know, I know, that's snarky, but the point here is to show the pointlessness of Sowell's critique: what is better? What is worse?)

Ultimately, Sowell's terminology -- "better" and "progress" and "advances" -- are all just material advances. I would actually prefer the term innovations. But even these material innovations are just the material consequence of the ideas of "intellectuals." A fact he freely admits but fails to comprehend the consequences of! Take his Wright brothers example again. The Wright brothers "fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying." I put this definition of the term dream squarely in the category of the intellectual. When we scratch the surface and begin to understand what his ideas hinge upon, the Wright brothers story is theoretically the same as his critique of the roll supposed intellectuals supposedly played in the Holocaust: "Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals." The Wright brothers are to flying, what Hitler was to genocide. Why are the only intellectuals that matter the ones who are tied to the tragic material consequences of history?

Maybe this is the problem of using History as a judgmental lens: Sowell, like so many who use the past solely to comment on the present, cherry-picks his history; his judgments are a la carte. Why? Because we all know that history is too complex to "judge." It is not susceptible to econometric cost-benefit analyses. The rest of us don't practice history-as-judgment because it offends our sensibility as historians, a general discomfort with the excesses of presentism. In Jill Lepore's words "seeing the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry to shabby self-justification." In other words, history isn't supposed to make us feel self-satisfied, it is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. Sowell's words, to me, ring of self-satisfaction.

Finally, beyond his argument ni specific, I wonder if my real problem with Sowell is actually a problem with intellectual history. Who are these "Intellectuals"? Sowell's list in the Jewish World Review column, "journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges," seems haphazard; and his definition -- those who "create ideas" -- also seems like a fairly flimsy straw man. I thought that cultural history has taught us that "intellectuals" don't have a monopoly on either creating or disseminating ideas. Those who lack either the access or desire to formally codify their ideas in places that we have defined as the purview of intellectuals still create ideas. Those ideas have currency in society. They move people as much as the ideas of intellectuals. In other words, the class of folks that we traditionally call intellectuals -- those who produce texts and art specifically geared to the explication of ideas -- simply don't operate in a vacuum. I recognize the distinction between intellectuals and others, but in place of the wall that some traditional intellectual history places between them, I would substitute a road.

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