Every society has its intelligentsia. By definition, these are the “intellectual elite of a society,” the ones who are — or think they are — better thinkers than the rest of us. What they really are, I think, are people with a better verbal facility than the rest of us. That is, no matter how brilliant a physicist someone is, we don’t call him a member of the intelligentsia. That accolade is reserved for people whose trade is words. And not just the use of words to achieve a specific end. Lawyers, for example, no matter how intelligent they may be or how many words they use, are not the intelligentsia. They are merely professionals who use words as one of the weapons in their arsenal.
No, the intelligentsia use words as an end in themselves, to convey abstract ideas. Their headquarters are the Universities, where the dominant ethos is the “publish or perish” mentality that emphasizes the transcendent importance of verbal facility to maintain the distinction between intellectuals within the hallowed halls and everyone else. Of course, since relatively few ordinary people read the scholarly publications emanating from the academics, the intellectuals have staked out other centers for disseminating their thinking.
The premier outlying operations take place at magazines, with a descending scale of intellectualism starting at the top end with such magazines as Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Republic and The New Yorker, through to the middle ground, occupied by the easy access news of Times and Newsweek, or the snooty trash in Vanity Fair, and working all the way down down to fashion magazines and standard supermarket check out fare, such as People, Us and Self (with an interesting hierarchy of self-involvement showing at the downscale end). The daily burden of purveying the intellectuals’ ideas is borne by the major American newspapers, with the undoubted leaders being the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Since it’s inception, poor TV has never been able to muster the intellectual credentials accorded its written cousins, but it tries, oh how it tries, by aping the ideas and ideology emanating from the Ivory Towers, and disseminated through the lesser (and more accessible) publications for “ordinary people” (as opposed to scholars). And then there is Hollywood, which knows itself to be nothing more than entertainment, but keeps trying to overcome its Rodney Dangerfield identity (“no respect”) by churning out fare that will garner approval from the intelligentsia of the print world.
The omnipresence of these outlets for the intellectuals means that most Americans, heck, most people around the world, are regularly able to observe how bright the writers are behind all these publications. And they are bright, if we measure brightness by verbal ability. New York Times articles are invariably well written — lucid, elegant and interesting. The same goes for the articles in the high end magazines. Actually, it’s probably even easier to write for the New Yorker than it is for Newsweek. The New Yorker assumes its readers will stick around for a page or two, giving the writer time to develop and explain a thesis. Newsweek readers have to be caught in the first paragraph, and if they don’t understand what’s going on by the second, no more reader. Writing for that forum demands high verbal ability and intellectual dexterity. The same goes for a good movie or television script. If your words aren’t instantly accessible and interesting, show over.
The problem with this kind of verbal intelligence is that people involved in the trade begin to think it is the only intelligence around. The most obvious result of that thinking, of course, is the ridicule these intellectuals heap on someone inarticulate.
Just think of the way in which Gore and Kerry are admired as intellectuals, while Bush is regarded as a buffoon. The people who value this stereotype hold to it despite the fact that Bush did better at school (quite an accomplishment for an admitted party boy, as compared to the other two, who were already pompous swots as youths); despite the fact that Bush successfully held down multiple jobs in the public and private sector; and despite the fact that Bush’s achievements are consistently equal to or better than theirs. Once Bush said “nuke-u-lar” and “misunderestimate,” it was all over — he was obviously an idiot.
Of course, if verbal facility is the sole measure of intelligence, Moses was also an idiot. After all, Moses refused the Lord’s charge in the first instance: “And Moses said unto the LORD, O my LORD, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” (Exodus 4:10.)
What the Lord recognized, of course, was that it wasn’t Moses’ verbal skills that mattered, but his leadership abilities and his values. That someone may not have words trip daintily from his tongue doesn’t mean he isn’t a clear-eyed leader, who understands what is important, who is brave, and who is able to make things happen — the right things. Sometimes, of course, the world is blessed with a leader who is a visionary, who is brave, who has the right moral stuff, and who is blindingly articulate. Churchill and Lincoln spring to mind, but these men were rare beings, and stand out by being exceptional, not normative.
The distinction between intelligence, on the one hand, and values and abilities, on the other hand, is an important one. A friend of mine told me that she dislikes everything Bush stands for because he’s stupid, and the thinkers at the New York Times must be correct in all their conclusions because they’re smart. She was stunned to have pointed out to her that there was another way to view that intellectual ability, and it’s not such a complimentary approach: smart, verbal people have the unfortunate ability to use those skills to reason themselves into believing something they know is wrong. One who is less clever, and has to sit down and think things through carefully, may well be able to arrive at a correct conclusion, regardless of his personal or emotional desires. Or not.
The important thing is that any public discourse has to be infused, not just with intellect, but with a belief system. And the fact that someone is smart does not mean that he’s chosen the correct belief system. Nazi Germany, of course, would be the ultimate example of this obvious point, since Germany was renowned for the quality of her intellectualism — so much so that a generation was able to convince itself that it was the master race, and that it deserved to take over the world and enslave all other races (with the exception of the Jews, of course, a group that needed to be exterminated entirely).
So, let us by all means acknowledge how smart the people at the Times and the Post and Harvard University and Newsweek and Vanity Fair and the New Yorker are. They write well and they think well. But do we share their values? And if their values are the starting point for everything they write, do we really want to accept unconditionally the conclusions they reach? You, my readers, and I have already decided we don’t. But next time you talk to a friend who still clings to the liberal media, try a thought experiment with your friend. See if she can separate her values from the media’s conclusions, conclusions your friend probably parrots unthinkingly. She might be surprised at how often she doesn’t believe in the premises that underlie the media’s elegantly reasoned conclusions — and, if nothing else, might approach the media in future with a slightly more jaundiced and objective eye.
UPDATE: Entirely unaware of the post I did today, Mr. Bookworm rather gloatingly sent me a link today to this article, which he claims shows that liberals are smarter Here’s how the article starts, and it seems to support my theory that brighter does not mean more moral or more correct:
Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.
That may be entirely true, but some situations don’t call for tolerating ambiguity. They call for clarity — moral or practical clarity. Outside of the halls of academe, intelligence may not lie in being able to parse a situation in a thousand different ways. It may lie, instead, in being able to recognize a core issue and then to work with that issue. This may explain why, since 9/11, conservatives keep saying “Islamic fundamentalism,” which is involved in 90% of the world’s hot spots, while liberals keep fumphering around with “poverty,” “alienation,” “imperialism,” “bad white men,” “America,” “Jews,” “Israel,” etc. — none of which are a satisfactory answer to most of the Muslim violence directed at just about everyone around the world.
UPDATE II: In a comment, JJ noted that the Times writing can be appallingly bad, and that is certainly true, especially when it’s trying to make a political point that even Times-niks, in their hearts of hearts, must know to be completely invalid. Otherwise, how can one account for this turgid, all-but-unintelligible sentence:
When Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, suggested the war was not integral to the anti-terror effort since members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, sometimes called Al Qaeda in Iraq, the homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led, is not part of the Qaeda network behind the Sept. 11 attacks, the general offered a quick retort.
Here’s James Taranto’s take on that verbal mess:
The news department of the Times has made a policy of requiring its reporters, every time they mention al Qaeda in Iraq, to editorialize that al Qaeda, which has nothing to do with Iraq, has nothing to do with Iraq, which has nothing to do with al Qaeda. But this sentence is so awkwardly constructed that it stands out even in the New York Times. Could it be that reporter Carl Hulse wishes he were allowed to give us the news straight, and wrote this monstrosity of a sentence as a protest? Whatever the case, Rupert Murdoch has to be smiling.
For the most part, though, the Times does have high quality writing, even if that writing is strangled by low quality virtue and morality.