Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell
There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. When intellectuals who generate ideas are surrounded by a wide range of others who disseminate those ideas-- whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges-- the influence of intellectuals on the way a society evolves can be huge. Trying for years to understand the nature of that influence eventually led me to write the book "Intellectuals and Society," which has just been published.
Intellectuals generate ideas and ideas matter, whether those ideas are right or wrong, and they matter far beyond the small segment of society who are intellectuals. Ideas affect the fate of whole nations and civilizations. Nowhere is that more true than in our own times, when some people make suicidal attacks to kill strangers who have done nothing to them, as on 9/11, because the attackers are consumed with a set of ideas-- a vision-- and driven by the emotions generated by those ideas and that vision.
Whether in war or peace, and whether in economics or religion, something as intangible as ideas can dominate the most concrete things in our lives. What Karl Marx called "the blaze of ideas" has set whole nations on fire and consumed whole generations.
Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas-- the intellectuals-- have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.
The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals-- not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted to.
Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by particular wrong-headed notions. But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used.
The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals. Nor were those who conquered the scourge of polio and other diseases, or who created the electronic marvels that we now take for granted. All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public. Whether their ideas turn out to work-- whether they make life better or worse for others-- is another question entirely.
The ideas that Karl Marx created in the 19th century dominated the course of events over wide portions of the world in the 20th century. Whole generations suffered, and millions were killed, as a result of those ideas. This was not Marx's intention, nor the intentions of many supporters of Marxian ideas in countries around the world. But it is what happened.
Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave labor camps. Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps-- slated for extermination-- if he had succeeded.
The 1930s were by no means unique. In too many other eras-- including our own today-- intellectuals of unquestionable brilliance have advocated similarly childish and dangerous notions. How and why such patterns have existed among intellectuals is a challenging question, whose answer can determine the fate of millions of other people.
The Inherent Perils of the Charismatic Personality
I think that "charismatic personality" could with more accuracy be replaced below by "psychopathic personality". Psychopaths are often attractive personalities until you realize how hollow and destructive they really are. Obama's habit of saying one thing and doing something completely different is classic psychopathy
Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall Street Journal article about President Obama, quoting various people who have associated firsthand with him, reminds me of another strong, charismatic personality. A friend described him:
He is not a dramatic figure; nor is he physically imposing. His eyes, however, and the intensity and warmth of his gaze, set him apart. He is a commanding speaker both in the public arena and in private conversation. His personality is almost hypnotic; his intellect formidable. His animal magnetism seems to envelop others like a warm blanket. He is politically calculating, but only — at least it seems to me — in attempting to realize his lofty goals. There is no evidence of meanness or selfishness in the man that I can see, nor any unseemly pride or ego.
Time and experience, though, have revealed that he is not a good judge of character, and in certain critical instances his decision making is sometimes deeply flawed. His accomplishments, which are many, are marred by some very serious mistakes which have cost him and those that he was associated with very dearly.
Dear soul that he is, his failings make you want to weep. Even in his failures, some of which affected me, my affection, though weakened, has never entirely vanished. We often lament ‘‘if only he had listened to the right people.’’ He had many friends, myself included, who would have liked nothing more than to have helped him succeed. Trouble was, he often didn’t know who his real friends were.
We’ve all encountered such individuals at one point or another — leaders who dominate others by the sheer force of their personalities and the desire of lesser humans to be in contact and be considered an intimate with the exalted one. But there is a complication for the charismatic personality. Once you are no longer in his or her presence — when emotions recede and your rational facilities re-engage — the picture can change.
Sometimes you see that there was another side to the issue that you should have brought up, but didn’t because you were too focused on trying to impress him or her. Sometimes you recognize that the story told to such telling effect was not the seamless whole that it appeared to be at first glance; sometimes the picture — described so vividly — lacked details that change the matter significantly, and sometimes details are borrowed from some other situation entirely.
In retrospect, it is not entirely the fault of the charismatic leader that he or she disappoints. Strong charismatic personalities elicit such amazing feelings in those who interact with them that there is a fundamental imbalance in most of their relationships. They are so appealing that being associated with them gives those who interact with them an elevated sense of their own worth and accomplishment. Being in their inner circle of associates seems such a joy and privilege that it is easy to put aside anything that stands in the way of maintaining our connection to them. It is particularly difficult to critique them when in their company; unless driven by strong anger, we are unlikely to confront them over matters on which we disagree as we would others with whom we associate, assuming such disagreements even rise to the conscious level, given the emotional state their presence induces.
What this boils down to is that no matter how many close associates the charismatic person has, he or she is quite often without the mutual dependency, without the give and take, that helps to support and stabilize “ordinary” people. Thus the charismatic person’s success depends upon not just how good and wise they are — because none of us is good enough or wise enough to navigate single-handedly all the challenges and temptations life has to offer — but upon how “well centered” they are and how willing they are to be accountable to others.
Growing up with too much positive feedback can, and often does, result in a failure to learn the difference between the “success” of getting others to go along with your desires and getting your desires rightly aligned with what is, as the philosophers put it, the good, the true, and the beautiful. Saying “yes” too many times in life and not saying “no” enough can result in a stunted, warped, underdeveloped moral core that allows a person to see life only in terms of their own desires. Without adequate internal moral boundaries and an empathic sense of the importance of the needs of others, an ambitious, charismatic person all too frequently becomes a ruthless and manipulative demon lurking inside an otherwise normal, even appealing, facade. Some are only revealed in death, as when the tell-all book of some celebrity’s “friend” pulls aside the curtain. Others are unmasked while still alive; the likes of Charles Manson and Jim Jones quickly come to mind.
What are we to make of the admiring accounts of Obama published by Noonan? His challenges are complex and immense, his policies are controverial, and his critics are legion. Doubtless some of the praise and some of the criticisms are valid, some are not. This is always the case of those in the political spotlight. Though it can be difficult to sort out the realites that lie beneath the conflicting accounts of his supporters and critics, his actions over time will reveal the true inner core of the man and whose counsel he has been willing to accept.
War on Terror? What War?
Can you imagine an administration so arrogant that it will not reconsider its decision to return Yemeni terrorists now being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility back to Yemen, much less its decision to close Gitmo in the first place?
President Barack Obama is obviously a man who won't permit any facts to penetrate his airtight ideological force field, from deficit spending to health care to global warming to his non-prosecution of the war on terror -- I mean "overseas contingency operations."
Last week, Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Joe Lieberman sent a letter to President Obama telling him his decision to transfer six Yemeni nationals back home is "highly unwise and ill-considered," especially in light of the attempted terrorist bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The senators pointed out that the terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, revealed to interrogators that he had traveled to Yemen for training and to gather explosives for the mission.
Even Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, weighed in, saying "detainees should not be released to Yemen at this time. It is too unstable." But the White House is undeterred, and even the closing of the U.S. Embassy in terrorist-rich Yemen is not causing the smug Obama to reconsider.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace the administration absolutely intends to continue sending Yemeni prisoners back to Yemen. "We've had close dialogue with the Yemeni government about the expectations that we have as far as what they're supposed to do when these detainees go back," said Brennan.
With this bunch, you have to wonder what those expectations are. Three squares a day, perhaps? Sensitivity training for the guards? Releases conditional on the terrorists' commitment to testify at the trials of former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the International Criminal Court?
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Brennan volunteered that the administration is still bound and determined to close Gitmo -- come hell, high water or the risk of increasing the terrorist threat against this country as a result.
"We will decide and determine when we should send additional people back," said Brennan. "But we're going to do it in the right way, because Guantanamo should be closed. It was used as a propaganda tool by al-Qaida, and the president is still committed to it."
I wonder how Obama knows the terrorists use Gitmo as a recruiting tool? Have Gallup's people been matriculating in madrassas taking the jihadists' pulse? If terrorists do think negatively about Gitmo, is it because of the fabled mistreatment they've received there or the fact that we're demonstrating our weakness by administering five-star luxury treatment to homicide bombers?
The answer is Obama is a liberal and he has deliberately surrounded himself with like-minded, weak-willed leftists who are congenitally incapable of grasping the presence of evil in the world. They are blind to the reality that the terrorists hate us because of their ideology and theology and not because of any alleged misconduct at a detention facility. Do you really think it's plausible that people who engage in the brutal tactics these people engage in would bother recruiting on the absurd bases that Obama claims?
It was bad enough when these liberal Democrats were making such arguments for the cynical partisan motive of undermining President Bush and enhancing their own political positions. That was inexcusable. But now it's even worse. These arguments are just painfully reckless and, sorry, stupid. Oh, how I long for a return of the adults to Washington.
Anyone with the slightest sense knows that the atmosphere has changed in our capital. Obama has unilaterally ended our participation in the war on terror. It is no longer a two-sided war; it's their warriors against our prosecutors and public relations apologists.
The administration is focused on its own image more than it is on our national security, as witnessed by its scramble -- following the foiled attack on Flight 253 -- to prove that a worse incident had occurred during the Bush administration.
Even Politico's Ben Smith and Carol Lee recognize the ineptness of this administration's reaction to the incident. The White House's response, they wrote, "could rank as one of the low points of the new president's first year. ... The episode was a baffling, unforced error in presidential symbolism."
The president's error is worse than symbolic, I'm afraid. And his errors aren't the issue; they are symptoms of a relativistic worldview that doesn't recognize the world as it really is or our enemies for who they really are. If you are not alarmed by his obscene expansion of the national debt, maybe his surrender in the war will get your attention. These are horrifying times.
A380 in trouble yet again: "A QANTAS A380 has been grounded in Melbourne, stranding 443 passengers who were stuck on the tarmac for more than four hours. The Airbus super jumbo, in service for just days, was due to take off from Melbourne bound for Los Angeles at midday (AEDT) on Monday. Passengers now face a 23-hour delay, with a mechanical fault forcing the aircraft's departure to be rescheduled for 11am today. Flight QF93 was initially delayed one-and-a-half hours because of a fuel gauge fault. It was taxiing when the problem recurred, forcing take-off to be aborted. Passengers remained on board while maintenance crews examined the problem. They were not allowed to disembark because of heightened security procedures for US-bound flights that made re-screening passengers impractical. At 5.15pm (AEDT) Qantas cancelled the flight altogether when it became apparent the crew would exceed their on-duty time limits. "It's over-nighting tonight due to a fuel indication defect,'' Qantas spokesman Simon Rushton said. "Ultimately, we weren't able to rectify the issue before the pilot and cabin crew exceeded their operating hours.'' Mr Rushton said passengers were given refreshments and were able to use the in-flight entertainment system during the on-board delay. They would be accommodated in hotels tonight or receive free transport home and back to the airport. Mr Rushton said the plane involved was the newest in the Qantas fleet, having only arrived at the end of December."
Outrage over New York City 'heroin for dummies' fliers: "Here's the latest smack on taxpayers. New York City spent $US32,000 on 70,000 fliers that tell you how to shoot heroin, complete with detailed tips on prepping the dope and injecting it into your arm. The health department handout has outraged New York's top drug prosecutors and abuse experts. "It's basically step-by-step instruction on how to inject a poison," said John Gilbride, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office. The 16-page pamphlet features seven comic-like illustrations and offers dope fiends such useful advice as "Warm your body (jump up and down) to show your veins," and "Find the vein before you try to inject." The brochure sends the wrong message about the dangers of the drug, experts say. Peter Vallone Jr, who chairs the city council's public safety committee, vowed to shut down the distribution of the pamphlet. "This is a tremendous misuse of city funds, and I'm going to see what I can do to stop it. It sends a message to our youth: give it a try," he said. The health department defended its brochure, saying it was helpful, necessary and distributed only to addicts or those at risk of becoming abusers."
Banks consider flight from London over tax burden: "After the bonus tax, some people in the banking sector will be on the move from London, accountants are warning. City bankers are returning to work this week to grapple seriously with the question of whether parts of their business could be relocated to friendlier jurisdictions, tax experts said yesterday. With Goldman Sachs emerging as the latest bank to investigate whether some of its London operations could be exported in the wake of the banker bonus tax, accountants said that the serious cost-benefit analysis was now just beginning. Alex Henderson, a tax partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers, warned that the threats to move from London were not just sabre-rattling. “We had all the emotion before Christmas,” he said. “Now people are coming back and in the cold light of the new year looking at the hard numbers.” Mr Henderson said that banks’ finance directors and chief operating officers would be re-examining the case for relocation in the light of the bonus tax, under which banks are liable for a new 50 per cent levy on any bonus in excess of £25,000 paid before April 6. The anger was not just over the new tax, Mr Henderson said, but also over a series of reforms to income tax, national insurance and pension rules, which have left highly paid bankers and their employers significantly worse off over the past 18 months. [Britain's Leftist government is doing its best to destroy Britain's most successful industry]
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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)