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American ‘Intelligents’

Prof. Ibram X. Kendi, an influential American 'intelligent' (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most influential public intellectual of the moment is Ibram X. Kendi, whose book How To Be An Antiracist has become a massive bestseller, and is being forced on employees by employers. Kendi’s ideas have been worked over by intellectuals like John McWhorter, who didn’t have a lot of use for Kendi’s “blacks good, whites bad” book:

Kendi’s is, in the end, a simple book. One senses little interest in engaging questions. The text works in basic colors, not shades; splashes, not brushstrokes — perhaps because he thinks the roots of all black problems in white perfidy are too clear to require complexity.

This Kendi tweet from this morning shows the way he thinks:

It’s about at the “four legs good, two legs bad” level. The only thing I find interesting about Kendi is why he has suddenly become the go-to intellectual of 2020. To understand what’s happening here, take a look at the essay that Gary Saul Morson, the scholar of Russian literature, has in First Things about the role of the Russian intelligentsia in the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s called “Suicide of the Liberals” for a good reason.

In late Imperial Russia, liberals refused to criticize radicals on their left, even though those violent radicals were clearly intending to destroy what liberals ostensibly valued. (I write about this a bit in Live Not By Lies, which will be available next week.) Morson writes:

Not just lawyers, teachers, doctors, and engineers, but even industrialists and bank directors raised money for the terrorists. Doing so signaled advanced opinion and good manners. A quote attributed to Lenin—“When we are ready to kill the capitalists, they will sell us the rope”—would have been more accurately rendered as: “They will buy us the rope and hire us to use it on them.” True to their word, when the Bolsheviks gained control, their organ of terror, the Cheka, “liquidated” members of all opposing parties, beginning with the Kadets. Why didn’t the liberals and businessmen see it coming?

Indeed, why is it today that some enlightened liberals regard rioters and looters as sympathetic figures? Morson’s remarks about the Russians shed light on the question. He explains that the word “intelligentsia,” which came from Russian, means something different in that language:

To be an intelligent it was by no means sufficient (or even necessary) to be well-educated. And if by “­intellectual” one means a curious person thinking for himself or herself, then intelligent was close to its opposite.

An intelligent is defined by three characteristics, says Morson. First, they primarily identify as an intelligent . Second, they are devoted to particular styles and manners (e.g., deliberately poor hygiene, sexual debauchery as an ideological statement). And third:

Most important, and of greatest concern, was how intelligents thought. An intelligent signed on to a set of beliefs regarded as totally certain, scientifically proven, and absolutely obligatory for any moral person. A strict intelligent had to subscribe to some ideology—whether populist, Marxist, or anarchist—that was committed to the total destruction of the existing order and its replacement by a utopia that would, at a stroke, eliminate every human ill. This aspiration was often described as chiliastic (or apocalyptic), and, as has been observed, it is no accident that many of the most influential intelligents, from Chernyshevsky to Stalin, came from clerical families or had studied in seminaries. For Struve, the mentality of the intelligentsia constituted a cruel parody of religion, preserving “the external features of religiosity without its content.”

An intelligent could not be a believer, which is another reason no one would have considered Tolstoy (let alone that conservative Dostoevsky) an intelligent. They accepted atheism on faith, were spiritually devoted to materialism, and proselytized determinism. They based these commitments on “science,” a word they used to mean not a disinterested process of discovery based on experiment and evidence, but—and here the reason became perfectly circular —a metaphysics of materialism and determinism.

They also believed that all questions must be politicized, and answered according to political criteria.

Our own Social Justice Warriors seem to me to be American intelligentsia, in the Russian sense. Morson, discussing  Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia, a 1909 volume attempting to call out liberals before it was too late, writes:

This tragedy almost guaranteed the intelligentsia’s eventual seizure of power and the terrible reign that followed. For the Landmarks contributors, liberals’ attachment to illiberal movements derived from a psychological complex favoring conformism.

Though some liberals recognized their differences from the radicals, most acted like intelligentsia wannabes who were unwilling to acknowledge, even to themselves, that their values were essentially different. Socialized to regard anything conservative as reprehensible—and still worse, as a social faux pas—they contrived ways to justify radical intolerance and violence as forced, understandable, and noble. They had to, since the fundamental emotional premise of liberalism—hostility to those ignorant, bigoted, morally depraved people on the right—almost always proved more compelling than professed intellectual ­commitments.

Casting “unworthy, furtive glances at who liked what,” Berdyaev observed, these liberals illustrated how “moral cowardice develops, while love of truth and intellectual daring are extinguished.” Captivated by public opinion, they signed petitions they did not agree with and excused heinous acts, always observing the rule: Better to side with people a mile to one’s left than be associated with anyone an inch to one’s right. Educated society knew that one could not just abolish the police, as the anarchists demanded, and that socialism would not instantly cure all ills, but they assured themselves that progressive opinion must be right:

Could its validity be doubted, when it was accepted by all progressive minds? . . . Only people with an exceptionally strong spirit could resist the hypnosis of a common faith. . . . Tolstoy resisted, and so did Dostoevsky, but the average person, even if he did not believe, dared not admit it.

Summing up the prophetic message of the Landmarks authors, Morson says

to the extent that a society’s educated class comes to resemble an intelligentsia in the Russian sense, it is headed for what we now call totalitarianism—unless others muster the strength to resist it.

Read it all. 

Our educated class is falling in behind Kendi and other Russian-style intelligentsia. Academia is being conquered by them. You have to read Conor Friedersdorf’s Atlantic piece about the insanity at the University of Southern California’s business school, in which a white professor was suspended because he explained to his class that the Mandarin word “nega,” which sounds like “n*gger,” is a filler word, the Chinese equivalent or “um” or “er”.  Some black students in the class felt triggered simply by their professor explaining a Mandarin word, complained to the university, and got their professor suspended. Friedersdorf writes:

The dean’s actions triggered an avalanche of criticism. A Change.org petition to reinstate Patton accumulated more than 20,000 signatures. CNN reported reactions of disbelief and ridicule in the Chinese-language media, diminishing USC’s image as a Pacific Rim university that values academic freedom. Ninety-four recent graduates of the MBA program, purporting to represent “more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities,” wrote that “a few of us, but many of our parents, lived through mainland China’s Cultural Revolution. This current incident, and Marshall’s response so far, seem disturbingly similar to prevalent behavior in China at that time—spurious accusations against innocent people, which escalated into institutional insanity.”

Scores of USC business faculty felt undermined by their dean––and many would only express their concern anonymously for fear of retaliation from students or administrators. “This situation has rocked the business school,” one faculty member told me. “Patton was thrown to the wolves, his reputation damaged, and his livelihood threatened. The dean’s letter … caused immeasurable damage.”

Still, USC has not backed down. Friedersdorf reports that business faculty are scared to death. More:

As one professor put it, the treatment of Patton is “farcical,” but part of a larger trend: “Fundamental values––freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, equality––have largely fallen out of fashion in most elite universities, including USC. This has created a climate of terror among faculty.” Anyone invested in higher education would profit from studying exactly what went wrong.

It’s fascinating — truly — to read Friedersdorf’s breakdown of what happened at USC. It is by no means clear that the fanatical administration is operating on its own, against the will of most students. The effect, though, is exactly what you would imagine. More:

But is honest, open dialogue at USC possible? Last Monday, the faculty council at the business school discussed the results of an anonymous survey on the Patton incident that 105 faculty members answered. According to a transcript I obtained, a member of the council described “an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, worry, insecurity, fear and anxiety” among faculty who worry that they could be “cancelled” anytime due to a misunderstanding. The faculty feel “anger, disappointment, betrayal, and outrage” at Patton’s treatment. They support “efforts to bring greater diversity and inclusion into our classrooms,” but “a large proportion” of faculty members mentioned that “given the atmosphere of fear and perceived lack of support, they think it is too risky for them to continue discussing certain topics with students. This includes topics related to diversity and inclusion, but it also includes such topics as politics and international relations.”

Read it all. 

I have mentioned in this space that a European friend who was finishing graduate course work at Harvard told me the thing that struck him the most about his time there was how psychologically fragile American grad students are, and how eager American professors are to accommodate them by declining to discuss certain topics in class.

I have also mentioned in this space in the past a contretemps I had a while back ago in the newsroom where I was then working, in which a minority colleague accused me of something about as ridiculous as in the USC case, and I backed down because I knew that if he took it to the woke HR department, I could lose my job, even though the allegation was preposterous. It was weird and stressful to work after that in a newsroom environment where you had to police every word you spoke with the thought in mind that some fragile colleague could misconstrue something totally innocent, and cost you your job. Today, as we know, that is far more common in newsrooms. I could not imagine working in such an environment today, and would not return to a newsroom for any amount of money. Journalists cannot do what journalists are supposed to do if they have be terrified of getting on the wrong side of heresy hunters. Neither can professors.

This is where the intelligentsia — in the Russian sense — have taken this country. Academics, business executives, editors, and so forth — they’re opening the door to tyranny. Maybe this hasn’t hit your place of business yet. Just you wait. As I write in Live Not By Lies:

A Soviet-born US physician told me—after I agreed not to use his name—that he never posts anything remotely controversial on social media, because he knows that the human resources department at his hospital monitors employee accounts for evidence of disloyalty to the progressive “diversity and inclusion” creed.

That same doctor disclosed that social justice ideology is forcing physicians like him to ignore their medical training and judgment when it comes to transgender health. He said it is not permissible within his institution to advise gender dysphoric patients against treatments they desire, even when a physician believes it is not in that particular patient’s health interest.

This is because the intelligentsia who run the hospital have decided that all medical questions, when they intersect with LGBT and other “diversity” causes, are really political questions. The doctor told me that you cannot find anything online in which he expresses any remotely controversial opinion — and that’s by design. Why not just not do social media? I asked him. He explained that not having a social media account would also raise a flag. So he lives by ketman. More from Live Not By Lies:

In his writing about communism’s insidiousness, Miłosz referenced a 1932 novel, Insatiability. In it, Polish writer Stanisław Witkiewicz wrote of a near-future dystopia in which the people were culturally exhausted and had fallen into decadence. A Mongol army from the East threatened to overrun them.

As part of the plan to take over the nation, people began turning up in the streets selling “the pill of Murti-Bing,” named after a Mongolian philosopher who found a way to embody his “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy in a tablet. Those who took the Pill of Murti-Bing quit worrying about life, even though things were falling apart around them. When the Eastern army arrived, it surrendered happily, its soldiers relieved to have found deliverance from their internal tension and struggles.

Only the peace didn’t last. “But since they could not rid themselves completely of their former personalities,”writes Miłosz, “they became schizophrenics.”

What do you do when the Pill of Murti-Bing stops working and you find yourself living under a dictatorship of official lies in which anyone who contradicts the party line goes to jail?

You become an actor, says Miłosz. You learn the practice of ketman. This is the Persian word for the practice of maintaining an outward appearance of Islamic orthodoxy while inwardly dissenting. Ketman was the strategy everyone who wasn’t a true believer in communism had to adopt to stay out of trouble. It is a form of mental self defense.

As Gary Saul Morson points out in his First Things essay, “Whatever meets no resistance does not stop.” The American intelligents are driving this country to totalitarianism — and we are letting them.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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