The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Friday, August 6, 2010

Smart people, evil regimes
Tom Smith

A good question and worth keeping in mind at all times.  Also one that consistently gets my goat.  Some points:

  • Unfortunately, we humans are almost unbelievably selfish and do a remarkable job discounting the costs others must endure because of our actions.  We find the pain of others easy to endure.  So why do intellectuals so often endorse evil regimes?  Partly because the cost to them if they are wrong is so low.  Does anybody hold the fall of Vietnam, the boat people, the reeducation camps, the killing fields against not just opponents of the Vietnam War but the many in the anti-war movement who supported the NLF?  Not that I am aware.  I am old enough to remember when defense and apology for the Soviet Union, if not quite Stalin, was absolutely the standard academic position.  Now we know that the USSR was pretty much an unmitigated horror of dreadfulness.  Any regrets from former apologists?  Nope.  And why should they?  There's no price to be paid.  If intellectuals had to put say a few thousand dollars of their own money on whether some regime was murderous or not, or had to forfeit a similar amount if say (on an option contract) more than 100,000 innocent people were slaughtered, they would be as discrete as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in their opinions.  Of course, such a contract would be almost impossible to structure and enforce; my point is the moral one.
  • It's exciting, dramatic, literary and all that stuff to be an intellectual praising big political changes.  That's more important to many intellectuals than being right or doing any good.
  • It is almost impossible to overstate the egotism and narcissism implicit in many of these kinds of people, who burn down houses in order to cast pretty shadows on the clouds.
  • Intellectuals may be smart, but they are not smart enough to understand the complex dynamics involved in chaotic political change.  Many of them are great puff-upped toads of pseudo-science, such as Marx and for my money, the likes of Paul Krugman.  Beats the Hell outta me doesn't get you headlines.  Better to claim gnosis of world historical currents and occult forces.
  • The Webbs and other Bloomsbury sorts were just a special breed of obnoxious.  It is probably wrong to imagine everybody remotely connected with Bloomsbury being deported to Bikini Atoll shortly before a big test.
  • Another way to get intellectuals to be more considered in their opinions would be to deprive them of alcohol and drugs in the event they were spectacularly wrong about something of great moment.  Ideas have consequences.
  • Should the neo-cons be included in the group of intellectuals who have caused great harm?  I guess we will have to await the results of the next war in the Middle East to know for sure.
  • Global warming hysteria is a new wrinkle -- something so sophisticated and complex that it's hard to claim it's pseudo-science (though I bet it is or at least incorrect science), that also involves massive bets of other people's money, prospects and lives.  And of course, if it turns out all to have been bunk, it's not as if anybody who supported it will lose much, except all those idiots investing in green tech, though a lot of that is just to grab subsidies.
  • Stupidity, greed, narcissism, ambition, pride and chaos explain a lot.

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Tom Smith
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Comments

I think that sentence regarding "Bloomsbury types" needs some editing. To this reader
it makes little sense.

Posted by: Kieth | Aug 6, 2010 10:43:01 AM

"The Webbs and other Bloomsbury sorts": I sometimes refer to them as The Bloomsbuggers. I find that it stimulates a lively response amongst Academics of a Certain Sort.

Posted by: dearieme | Aug 6, 2010 11:39:49 AM

I don't think it's very complicated, really. Intellectuals are, by definition, elitists--they believe that their pursuits and interests entitle them to an elevated status in society, regardless of their birth, wealth, nationality or ethnicity. This view places them fundamentally at odds with democracy, since the latter acknowledges no such special status for intellectuals. Intellectuals are thus inevitably drawn towards authoritarian rulers, who can offer them their hoped-for elevated role as a courtier class. And needless to say, authoritarian rulers tend not to be very nice to their non-courtier subjects.

Note that by "intellectual", I don't mean "intelligent", but rather, "interested in a particular set of pastimes and vocations". Plenty of self-defined intellectuals aren't really very bright, and plenty of very smart people aren't the least bit intellectual. Note also that ideology has little to do with this pattern--the Nazis had their intellectual courtiers, as do today's radical Muslims. What matters, always, is the opportunity for self-elevation via courtier status.

Posted by: Dan Simon | Aug 6, 2010 11:58:00 AM

It is far more simple than that. We never heard a bad word about Fidel from the intellectualoids, not one in fifty years. He represents absolute power. No one can disagree with him. Even better, everyone must agree with him, and enthusiastically. What's not to like about that? Our shit don't stink, everyone applauds standing up, and no one volunteers to be the first to sit down.

We badly underestimate the personal and collective motives of the left.

Posted by: james wilson | Aug 7, 2010 10:25:45 AM