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The Last Contrarian
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The Value of Intellectuals

27 February 2014, 08:42

One of the greatest men alive and a true hero of mine, Thomas Sowell, described intellectuals as ‘oblivious of the fact that they are trapped on an island of knowledge surrounded by a vast sea of ignorance.’ I agree with his observation, but I have to further the discussion so that this elegant and wise phrase does not become part of the arsenal of the common fool who would wield this statement crudely and out of context in his battles with the common intellectual.

I refer the reader to the following video to hear Dr. Sowell present his case:

Perhaps obsessively, I have given Dr. Sowell’s admonition a considerable amount of thought, for I take the reprimand somewhat personally. I have concluded that Thomas Sowell made a minor, but crucial, error in judgment when he delivered that statement. As it stands, such a blunder would be embarrassing enough for any economist, let alone one who has demonstrated—throughout his entire career—a perfect understanding of the perspective-yielding properties rendered by a qualification Dr. Sowell himself has resorted to so many times: “Compared to what?”

The comparison, I would say, are the flimsy, makeshift life rafts to which the common man clings for life on what to him is an even bigger, not to mention undulating and life-threatening, ocean of ignorance. I don’t know about you, Dr. Sowell, but that island looks like a much safer and more comfortable place to be when a storm hits, than out in the swells on one of those rickety rafts constructed out of the rotting planks that constitute a Western public education. Occasionally some commoner decides to put in the extra effort to reinforce his raft with some newspaper headlines, tabloid gossip, and extracts from daytime talk shows—an honest but futile attempt.

But I digress.

It is, of course, true that most educated men are overly proud and protective of whatever ‘figurine of comprehension’ they have forged from the raw knowledge they spent many years gathering and refining for that exact purpose. It is also true that intellectuals often suspect and deem ‘false’ and/or ‘unworthy’ any such replicas made by other intellectuals. I blame the hostility intellectuals have towards their own kind on the dogfight world that is academia.

So who can really blame intellectuals for having a superiority complex when today’s intellectuals were told, over and over again, not just by their parents, teachers, schoolmates, and future employers, but later also by their lecturers, professors, and peers at college/university, that escaping from an academic establishment ‘scroll in hand,’ so to say, is the defining measure of their individual worth and future success?

But we both know that what any intellectual has to fear the most when he seeks out a pulpit or public platform from which to deliver his deductions, is becoming the target of another intellectual’s moral crusade. The pub squabbles and lunchtime political debates of the common man are, after all, a far cry from the truly brutal debates and battle tactics that intellectuals use to shell their opponent’s island. And then there are the lynch mobs hiding in the general populace, that try to ‘pitchfork’ and ‘barn lantern’ any public intellectual that utters statements that conflict with the intuitions of the mindless mob.

To be an intellectual, or to ever claim some relation to the noun (however informal or distant) will gather towards oneself a slew of enemies in much the same way that sustained celebrity draws death threats and stalkers.

Sure, nobody likes a smart ass (as the cliché goes), especially not one that is in love with his own rhetoric, but what is the alternative? Should intellectuals huddle together in clandestine hovels, while the common man is left to bleat away in misery caused by his own ignorance of the world he finds himself in and yet unable to comprehend the workings of? I would think the world has had enough of influential people gathering behind closed doors to decide, often in secret, what is best for the average person.

I confess, solipsism and pride are the hallmarks of many an intellectual, but whether this makes intellectuals ‘dangerous’ to the rest of society must again be contrasted against the alternative—the ‘compared to what?’ part.

For many an intellectual hermit, life contains none of the extravagant parties, the CNN interviews, the roaring public debates, and the runaway book sales. Many an intellectual simply reads by candlelight until the early hours of the morning, and then contemplate what he had learned, as he stares at the barely visible ceiling in his darkened room. Such minds can yield plenty of workable ideas and inventions for society, so society needs to engage such intellects, not stigmatise them. The alternative is to tune in to the static that is the opinion of the masses, who are ill-equipped (not necessarily their own fault) to evaluate and deal with the issues our modern world faces and produces.

And it is exactly because more and more people in the West are tuning in to this static, that Western society, yet again, seems to be aiming for the rocks. Public opinion is drifting from fact and reason towards ignorance and opinion. The common man almost seems allergic to knowledge and collapses in an intellectual wheeze when asked to think deeply about any particular subject.

I dare say, that it is the masses’ intellectual lethargy coupled with their sheer numbers that make them the most dangerous demographic in society. Intellectuals provide some much-needed refereeing of what would otherwise be a uniform, grasping mass tearing down society for momentary satisfaction—at which point civilization would retreat back into the caves, then leave the caves again and crawl back up the trees.

Some would say that the only reason Western society has not yet run ashore on what it would later find to be, not an island paradise, but an island filled with man-eating savages, is due to the persistence of intellectuals who seek out a public platform and then introduce the common/uneducated man to intellectually hefty subjects. Intellectuals then, through their persistent explanation and simplification, empower the ordinary man so that he can follow or even contribute to the high-level discussions held, on his behalf, by his leaders.

In that respect, intellectuals are a dangerous people, but they only represent a danger to the powerful oligarchies and social elite who would happily see the ordinary man stripped of his humanity and exploited like a common beast.

In closing I would like to affirm my agreement with Thomas Sowell’s apt description of most intellectuals, and I sincerely hope that my article has, at the very least, juxtaposed Dr. Sowell’s statement and given a potential clarification of the intellectual’s raison d'état.

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