The Vanity of the Intellectual

 

Intellectuals have a tendency to become whores. They are not especially well paid, and they resent the fact. But modest compensation is not the thing that bothers them the most. What they really crave is recognition, and in its pursuit they are apt to become slaves to fashion. But pursuing the latest intellectual fad is not the greatest of the sins that they are inclined to commit – for they are even more apt to adopt a servile and submissive posture when in the presence of political power. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all had an intellectual claque in the West. Fidel Castro still does. Even Kim Jong-il and Muamar Gaddafi have had such admirers.

As it happens, I am acquainted with the most prominent of those who cozied up to Gaddafi. I came across his name this morning in this connection when I googled Gadaffi, and on the website of my acquaintance, I read the following announcement – which was posted last Tuesday:

Dr. Benjamin R. Barber, the internationally renowned political theorist and Distinguished Fellow at the policy center Demos, released the following statement announcing his resignation from the governing board of the Qadaffi Foundation.

This gave me pause. For I had lost touch with Ben. I had no notion that he had gotten himself involved with Gaddafi, and, though I had always thought him imprudent, I would never have imagined him capable of folly on such a scale.

We first met thirty years ago at a meeting of the Conference for the Study of Political Thought. I was a neophyte making my debut by delivering the keynote address at that particular gathering, which took place at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Ben was the first to ask a question after the talk. It was a revealing moment – for, instead of simply posing a question, he first gave a five-to-ten minute talk that had everyone in the room rolling his eyes and then asked whether I agreed with him. I do not remember the substance of his mini-lecture, but I do remember my answer which was as brief as his “question” was long. “No!” I said, “Next question!” And the audience roared with laughter.

Most professors are prone to vanity. None of us are immune. But some are off the charts, and Ben was among these. When I encountered him in later years, I always found him genial. But, if truth be told, though I profited from one or two of the articles that he had written as a young scholar, I never found his books of any interest at all. I remember being amused when I read that he had become an advisor to Bill Clinton and was going to DC every week to conduct a tutorial for the President. That was his dream.

I missed the beginning of Ben’s love affair with Gadaffi. It appears to have begun in 2006 – about a year before Cécilia Sarkozy, then married to the French President, negotiated the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been condemned to death in Libya for purportedly spreading HIV among children in a hospital there.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post in the wake of this event, to which he gave the title Gaddafi’s Libya: An Ally for America? Ben argued, plausibly, that Gaddafi was “the real architect of the release.” Then he went on to say:

Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.

“I say this from experience,” he added, citing “several one-on-one conversations” that he had had in the previous year with Gaddafi, who had told Ben “that in the Libya that comes after him there would be no new Gaddafi but self-governance,” and who had purportedly held comparable meetings with Robert Putnam of Harvard and other political scientists, including Francis Fukuyama and Joseph N. Nye. In his op-ed, Ben dismissed the notion that Gaddafi’s comments were “mere bluster,” explaining,

Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Gaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system. Once fearful of outside media, he has permitted satellite dishes throughout his country, and he himself surfs the Internet.

Libya under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.

Such a thought may seem absurd to Western observers who remember only Gaddafi’s insurgent past and the heinous terrorist act over Lockerbie. Yet Gaddafi also wrote a direct democratic manifesto (“The Green Book”) in the 1970s and convened hundreds of “People’s Conferences” where women and men have met regularly for the past 30 years. Have they wielded much actual power? No. Could they be built upon? Yes.

Completely off the radar, without spending a dollar or posting a single soldier, the United States has a potential partner in what could become an emerging Arab democracy smack in the middle of Africa’s north coast. This partner possesses vital sulfur-free gas and oil resources, a pristine Mediterranean shoreline, a non-Islamist Muslim population, and intelligence capacities crucial to the war on terrorism. Gaddafi, for example, ardently opposes the al-Qaeda brand of Wahhabist fundamentalism that Saudi Arabia sponsors.

Cynics will disregard all this; but after America’s “realist” experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, this may actually turn out to be a recipe for peace and partnership in the unlikeliest of places.

These comments earned Ben more than one rebuke. On the Harper’s website, Ken Silverstein compared him Leni Riefenstahl, and on Abu Aardvark, Marc Lynch wrote Ben an open letter:

You presented some very interesting ideas about Libya in your Washington Post op-ed.  I found particularly interesting your ideas about Col. Qaddafi’s experiments with direct democracy and efficient government. I know just the person you should talk to about these ideas – a brave journalist exposing official corruption in Libya by the name of Dhayf al-Gazzal. Be careful shaking his hand, though, because about a year and a half ago he had his fingers cut off before his body was riddled with bullets and abandoned in the desert. Hey, wasn’t that right around the time you were having such pleasant chats about direct democracy and the Green Book with the flexible and adaptive Colonel? How embarrassing! Anyway, since he’s dead, he might not be as vivacious a conversationalist as Col Qaddafi. But I’m sure he’d be fascinated by your notions of Qaddafi’s enlightened rule and might even have some notes.

This criticism had no apparent effect. And on 1 February 2011, after the collapse of the regime in Tunisia and the uprising in Egypt, Ben wrote an even more embarrassing piece for The Huffington Post, arguing that “neither Libya nor Syria are likely to follow Egypt into a chaotic uprising, and neither Qadaffi nor Bashar Assad are likely to be forced into exile any time soon.”

Take Libya: Libya has a small population of around five million, ample supplies of natural gas and oil, a history of being anything but a proxy of the West; it also has a tradition of participatory local governance (if in non-essential matters) because of Muammar Qadaffi’s long interest in participatory democracy and peoples’ committees (see his Green Book from the 1970s!). Moreover, Qadaffi himself is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear. His son Saif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world , has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn’t subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there.

Syria is governed by old Baathists as Iraq formerly was, but its ruling family has now passed into the hands of the former ophthalmologist Bashar Assad and his British-educated, banking career wife Asma, both of whom are relatively popular among Syrians with whom they mix regularly at restaurants and in the Sukh, where they wear blue jeans (not exactly Mubarak!). They are not passionate Baathists, but members of the Alawite minority and Syrian patriots who have experimented (ever so cautiously) with opening society, engaging young people, developing a pluralistic cultural legacy (through a new program with the Louvre). Bashar spoke this week in a Wall Street Journal interview about the need for change. But like Qadaffi, Assad is not lumbered with a reputation for being an American stooge – a key element in the popular indictment of Mubarak and the Shah of Iran before him.

I do hope that recent events in Libya have caused the author of these observations to have second thoughts about Bashar Assad, who runs one of the world’s most efficient police states. But my aim is not to score points against poor Ben, who is as amiable as he is silly. The main point that I want to make is that vanity, the vice that besets the intellectual, can make a man into a moron. Flattery from on high is apt to corrupt almost anyone who desperately hankers after recognition.

UPDATE: In linking to this post, Glenn Reynolds at www.instapundit.com drew attention to a report on the Monitor Group, which fronted for Gaddafi in this country and arranged his trysts with would-be public intellectuals. There is also a piece on the Huffington post.

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  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PaulARahe
    Dave Molinari: Of all the emotions that could possibly pop up when looking at that picture, the one that seemed to rise to the top was simply pity. Here is a man that has traveled down the wrong path his whole life and only has humiliation to show for it.. if he even has the emotional capability to sense it. Normally, I would be angry and disgusted, but this time, I truly feel sorry for such a misguided person. · Feb 28 at 8:49pm

    So do I. But the amazing thing is that he is still at it, suggesting that if Gaddafi falls democracy has no chance in Libya and that if he survives it has some chance. He does not yet realize that he has been taken for a ride.

    • #1
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    @TheMugwump

    Far worse than intellectualism is moral exhibitionism. The tendency comes almost entirely from the left. I think part of the explanation resides in the self-esteem movement in our schools. Exhibit A: Barack Obama. There is nothing so dangerous as a man of little accomplishment who thinks the world of himself.

    • #2
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    @JohnLamoreaux

    Re same, did you happen to notice the following detail in R. Putnam’s account of his quickie with the Leader?

    “My hosts were willing to pay my standard consulting fee, and to be honest, I was curious. Col. Gadhafi fancied himself an intellectual….”

    (Not saying Putnam’s a whore or anything…)

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703408604576164363053350664.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Vanity, yes. But also money, money, money..

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PaulARahe
    John Lamoreaux: Re same, did you happen to notice the following detail in R. Putnam’s account of his quickie with the Leader?

    “My hosts were willing to pay my standard consulting fee, and to be honest, I was curious. Col. Gadhafi fancied himself an intellectual….”

    (Not saying Putnam’s a whore or anything…)

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703408604576164363053350664.html?mod=googlenews_wsj · Feb 28 at 5:14pm

    Edited on Feb 28 at 05:19 pm

    Putnam had the good sense not to put any faith in what Gaddafi said.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PaulARahe
    Kenneth: Vanity, yes. But also money, money, money.. · Feb 28 at 5:20pm

    No doubt.

    • #6
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    @StuartCreque

    A lot of intellectuals — I won’t say most, because that would be entirely subjective — start with a sexy, attention-grabbing conclusion, and then construct an intellectual edifice under that conclusion to prove that they all along had followed the path of logic and intellectual rigor in reaching their conclusion.

    It’s difficult and sometimes dangerous to point out to them the fallacy of their method, because that’s tantamount to breaking their rice bowl. It takes reality smacking them hard upside the head — as, for example, massacres of thousands in the streets can do — for them to give up their delusions and concede to reality. And as we’ve seen with Stalinists and Maoists, even massacres of millions in the streets, villages and gulags sometimes won’t do the job.

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  8. Profile Photo Member
    @

    “It was a revealing moment – for, instead of simply posing a question, he first gave a five-to-ten minute talk that had everyone in the room rolling his eyes and then asked whether I agreed with him.”

    Lord, how many times I’ve witnessed this at public forums. I’ve enjoyed all my National Review cruises, but, being a man given to impulsive acts of physical violence, I’ve often had to restrain myself when some blowhard from the audience prances about for five minutes, rather than asking a simple, pithy question.

    • #8
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    @JohnLamoreaux
    Paul A. Rahe

    John Lamoreaux: Re same, did you happen to notice the following detail in R. Putnam’s account of his quickie with the Leader?

    Putnam had the good sense not to put any faith in what Gaddafi said. · Feb 28 at 5:20pm

    Indeed. And good on him. Nor did Bernard Lewis shill for the beast.

    I wonder how much Stephen Walt charged for his 36 hours in Libya — one of the nicest police states he’d ever visited. To be fair, he did concede that Gaddafi’s record on human rights was “disturbing at best”. Does he know what that adjective means?

    http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/01/18/the_shores_of_tripoli

    • #9
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    @PaulARahe
    ~Paules: Far worse than intellectualism is moral exhibitionism. The tendency comes almost entirely from the left. I think part of the explanation resides in the self-esteem movement in our schools. Exhibit A: Barack Obama. There is nothing so dangerous as a man of little accomplishment who thinks the world of himself. · Mar 1 at 4:42am

    Indeed.

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    @flownover

    And the same positions at the NYTimes pay so much better ! …but the portions are so small……

    • #11
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    @JosephEagar

    In my opinion, all social research should take place in the field, where ideas can be tested in practice; not in the minds of ivory tower professors. This is my biggest bone with modern social scientists. All theory and no real effort.

    • #12
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    @RobertBarraudTaylor

    There is also the overwhelming temptation, for all teachers, to believe that even the most troublesome student is corrigible…if they can but be his teacher.

    • #13
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    @StickerShock

    I happened to see Barber on the news this morning & walked away from the TV shaking my head, wondering where they found such a loon.

    • #14
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    @Kervinlee

    Thomas Sowell wrote his latest book on this topic, Intellectuals and Society, and Dr. Sowell comes right out of the gate and states in the first sentence: “Intellect is not wisdom.”

    The intellectual has the luxury of being able to simply cast out any idea, with no test in reality, and no penalty to be paid for being wrong. Very nice little racket.

    Is Dr. Barber humble enough to admit he may have been mistaken about that good old once-ardent socialist but still-ardent murderous thug Qadaffi?

    • #15
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    @RobertPromm

    Two books on intellectuals that are most helpful:

    Paul Johnson: Intellectuals

    Thomas Sowell: Intellectuals and Society

    Both are excellent reads!

    • #16
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    @dogsbody

    One need only look at this picture (from the man’s own vanity website) to see how pleased he is with himself. It’s sad–there’s nothing quite as ludicrous as an academic who thinks he’s hot stuff.

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    @AmishDude
    Stuart Creque: A lot of intellectuals — I won’t say most, because that would be entirely subjective — start with a sexy, attention-grabbing conclusion, and then construct an intellectual edifice under that conclusion to prove that they all along had followed the path of logic and intellectual rigor in reaching their conclusion.· Feb 28 at 5:26pm

    I call this the Social Scientific Method.

    Develop a hypothesis.

    Collect data to help support the hypothesis.

    Test the data against the hypothesis.

    If the data contradicts the hypothesis, reject the data.

    • #18
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    @jameslileks

    Behold the neutron-star density of this biography page, and weep. You’re surprised to find there’s not a section like this:

    CIVIC ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Dr. Barber has crossed the street several times at such international intersections as 42nd street, the Champs Elysee, and several European byways including the road that runs past the Kremlin; he has relieved himself in airports around the world, including Charles De Gaulle and Beijing International, including a four-minute hand-washing session with hot water and suds; he whistled the main theme from the opera “Wozzeck” in a cab in Lagos while looking out a window made of glass; he is the recipient of mail, brought to his home by the United States Postal Service; he speaks frequently around the house, often to the dog, which piddled in a shoe he purchased years ago from Land’s End, with whom he maintains a commercial relationship

    And so on. Methinks he doth profess too much.

    • #19
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    @PaulARahe
    Robert Barraud Taylor: There is also the overwhelming temptation, for all teachers, to believe that even the most troublesome student is corrigible…if they can but be his teacher. · Mar 1 at 6:22am

    All of those of us who teach fall prey to this temptation at one time or another.

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    @Pseudodionysius
    Paul A. Rahe

    Robert Barraud Taylor: There is also the overwhelming temptation, for all teachers, to believe that even the most troublesome student is corrigible…if they can but be his teacher. · Mar 1 at 6:22am

    All of those of us who teach fall prey to this temptation at one time or another. · Mar 1 at 7:36am

    Barber is not Aristotle and Gaddafi is not Alexander the Great.

    • #21
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    @Kervinlee
    James Lileks: Behold the neutron-star density of this biography page, and weep. You’re surprised to find there’s not a section like this:

    CIVIC ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Dr. Barber has crossed the street several times at such international intersections as 42nd street, the Champs Elysee, and several European byways including the road that runs past the Kremlin; he has relieved himself in airports around the world, including Charles De Gaulle and Beijing International, including a four-minute hand-washing session with hot water and suds; he whistled the main theme from the opera “Wozzeck” in a cab in Lagos while looking out a window made of glass; he is the recipient of mail, brought to his home by the United States Postal Service; he speaks frequently around the house, often to the dog, which piddled in a shoe he purchased years ago from Land’s End, with whom he maintains a commercial relationship

    And so on. Methinks he doth profess too much. · Feb 28 at 7:36pm

    You’re kidding.

    • #22
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    @dogsbody
    AmishDude

    I call this the Social Scientific Method.

    Develop a hypothesis.

    Collect data to help support the hypothesis.

    Test the data against the hypothesis.

    If the data contradicts the hypothesis, reject the data. · Feb 28 at 7:10pm

    Oh come now–that’s far too much work. Just invent the data. It worked for Bellesiles (Arming America). And he would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those darned kids.

    • #23
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    @RJMoeller

    Dr. Rahe-

    I simply wanted to thank you for one of the most interesting posts I’ve ever read on Ricochet. I appreciate your candor in terms of your feelings about this intellectual (and intellectuals in general), and it is clear that you appreciate the trap that lays in wait for anyone who has been exposed to fame/fortune. We tend to think of professors and teachers as purely noble and incapable of ulterior motives or the desire for personal gain. This is silly, but I admit I fall prey to it as well. Partly because I want it to be true that those instructing me (and America’s youth) are purely noble, and partly because I’ve had so many great educators in my life.

    Anyway, great post. God bless.

    • #24
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    @user_90781
    Kervinlee:

    The intellectual has the luxury of being able to simply cast out any idea, with no test in reality, and no penalty to be paid for being wrong. Very nice little racket.

    Not only is there no penalty, it seems that being consistently wrong and deliberately dishonest is a career enhancer for intellectuals. The more often they are wrong, the more they are feted by top media. Witness people like Nader and Erlich.

    • #25
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    @UndergroundConservative

    Of all the emotions that could possibly pop up when looking at that picture, the one that seemed to rise to the top was simply pity. Here is a man that has traveled down the wrong path his whole life and only has humiliation to show for it.. if he even has the emotional capability to sense it. Normally, I would be angry and disgusted, but this time, I truly feel sorry for such a misguided person.

    • #26
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    @Aodhan

    Intellectuals have a tendency to become whores. They are not especially well paid, and they resent the fact.”

    — That gets my vote for apothegem of the week!

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RobertBarraudTaylor
    Pseudodionysius

    Paul A. Rahe

    Robert Barraud Taylor: There is also the overwhelming temptation, for all teachers, to believe that even the most troublesome student is corrigible…if they can but be his teacher. · Mar 1 at 6:22am

    All of those of us who teach fall prey to this temptation at one time or another. · Mar 1 at 7:36am
    Barber is not Aristotle and Gaddafi is not Alexander the Great. · Mar 1 at 7:53am

    Well, Pseudo, if history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, and second time as farce, the first time its Plato and Dionysius of Syracuse, the second time its Aristotle and Alexander, and then the 45,678th time it’s Barber and Gaddafi.

    Alexander the Great never struck me as a great classroom success story. Not at the Alcibiades or Judas nadir, true; but a nasty little proto-totalitarian thug nonetheless. But with great style sense!

    • #28
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    @RoqueNuevo

    Although “moral exhibitionism” and the self-esteem movement (if that’s the right word) are relevant in the explanarion of “the vanity of the intellectual,” the most comprehensive explanarion I’ve seen is by a Harvard philosopher whose name escapes me right now and who died in recent years. Rorty? He had a rep for libertarianism I think. Anyhow his idea was that intellectuals are people who do well in school classrooms but not in school hallways or playgrounds. Success in the latter venues is achieved by something like market mechanisms, not by a central authority, like the teacher. So intellectuals spend their lives trying to make the rest of us feel bad because Roger Clemmons earns more money than Harvard philosophers do. Which is also why intellectuals are usually leftists: they want the whole society to compete for teacher’s (ie, the leader-of-the-moment) approval. Would this stuff apply here, to explain your friends sell-out to Gadaffi?

    • #29

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