Friday, March 28, 2008

Idiots and Insects

I didn't read this post on Intellectualism, Expertise and the Risk of Idiocy by James Poulos on the American Scene until today, but I'm glad I saved it. It's short, sweet, and right (hmm, I wish I wrote like that...)

I've always been a fan of intellectuals, probably in part because I've always aspired to be one. A point of distinction: there is a difference between someone who is (over)educated says they know best because of their expertise in another field, and someone who thinks critically about a broad range of subjects. On the former, I like commenter J Mann best:

One of the gripes about intellectuals is like that about celebrity activists, that they are arguing from an authority that they do not even really possess. The mere fact that you are a John Bates Clark-winning economist or came up with some novel theories about linguistic development does not necessarily mean you will be an interesting writer about politics, for instance. If I get the feeling that you aren’t performing in area 2, it will irritate me to hear people saying that I should listen to you because you are so accomplished in area 1.

This isn’t to say that you have to stay within your field — it’s just to say that your ideas outside your field need to stand just as firmly as they would be required to if you were some nobody with a blog. Crighton’s ideas on scientific consensus and global warming are well put and interesting, but nobody should believe them just because he’s a Harvard med student or a best-selling thriller writer.

To me, you can only claim to know best if you have direct expertise or experience in the matter. Otherwise, you're just a guy with an opinion, no matter how well educated, famous, wealthy, or good-looking you might be. Intellectuals aren't necessarily anything particularly special - there's no one school or subject matter that singles them out. They're just guys (and girls) with enough facts and logic and confidence to speak up and say, 'well, I'm no expert, but has anyone thought about this?'. Sometimes the answers will be hard, sometimes they'll be obvious, but someone has to ask them.

We've been so long stuck with the type of the effete intellectual, perpetuated in part by the paternalistic elite that have emerged. I don't need a public figure to tell me 'This is bad for you so I'm going to stop you from doing it because I know what's best for you.'

My ideal intellectual would be someone like this:

Paternalistic government/non-profit/celebrity/lawyer type (PGNPCLT): Any statement involving the word 'should', especially when based on the argument 'because we said so'.
Intellectual: Well that's a stupid idea.
PGNPCLT: Well too bad. You're going to have to do it our way anyway.
Intellectual: Screw you.

Really, I'd hope any intellectual could offer reasonable criticism and solutions, and do it all in the form of a debate, rather than a fisticuffs - they are intellectuals, after all, not boxers (although imagine another Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson) - but the basic sentiment stands.

This isn't quite what what Poulos meant when he hoped for someone who '[dares] to presume an entitlement to address the world whole', but the point is to produce 'meaningful conversations' and 'great thinkers'. I think that being an intellectual requires the embrace of the whole meaning of humanity and human society, not just small select snippet of it. It requires being a thinking person. That, of course, requires first being a person. Isolation within fields is not just the only problem, it is isolation from other people - ivory-tower elitism (a curse of both liberals and conservatives) - that weakens our national discourse as well.

I'm reminded of a Robert A. Heinlein quote

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects (emphasis mine).

Fortunately, I do think the trend is shifting with my generation. We're less likely to take any expert's advice at face value, we love scholars who talk back and stand their ground, and we're passionately interested in everything, even if we are easily distracted (because we are?). I'm sure my generation will have our George W. Bushs, our Tom Wolfes, and our Richard Posners. But we'll also have our Hannah Arendts and Susan Sontags, except they'll be Sam Powers (honorary) and Anya Kamenetz, to name a few.

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