Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Threats of Intellectuals and Perceived Thinkers and Other Potential Dangerous Types: Another Angle

For our purposes, from the time Arnold Toynbee wrote about this very-real "problem" for the State in his magisterial and multivolume A Study of History (12 vols written between 1934-61, a stupendous work), there have been warnings about unemployed intellectuals and other types of resentful thinker-types from other writers as well, ever since.

Well, come to think, there were a few warnings before Toynbee...(Actually, they go very far back, but I will stick with the Roaring 20th Century...)

Walter Kotschnig published Unemployment In The Learned Professions in 1937, arguing, among other things, that the rise of Nazism was due to the expansion of German university enrollment after what is commonly referred to as "World War I." The enrollment expansion - according to Kotschnig - was a short-term solution to post-war unemployment (sort of like the G.I. Bill in the U.S. after 1945). The problem? The Germans created a "mob" of well-educated volk with no jobs to turn to after matriculation, and what they did and said and wrote about the State when they were out of work led to a rapid fall of the Weimar Republic, and a vacuum was created for the guy with the funny little mustache. Things did not turn out well.

Daniel Bell, one of the New York intellectuals who rose to national prominence as a public thinker as the Cold War got up to speed, wrote about a similar problem for The New Republic in the U.S. in 1953 here, and he cites Kotschnig and Karl Mannheim in an interesting context.

Interestingly, the ox-dumb stupidity of the Republican party plays a similar cut-off-my-nose-to-spite-the-country's-face role as it did during the Reign of King Boy George W: under Dumya, if a translator of Arabic or Pashto was found to be homosexual, he got the boot, right at the moment the U.S. needed as many good translators as possible. In the early Eisenhower administration, just the fact you had the scarlet letter "D" (for Democrat) after your name and had studied the Russians meant you were going to be canned, despite your experience. And then they added on top of that the inquisition period led by an alcoholic jingo from Wisconsin named McCarthy. And J. Edgar Hoover and his boy-friend Roy Cohn... and OY VEY! how do so many mean, sick and outright psychopathic people perennially rise to power in the U.S? (No, seriously: gimme your take on this. I have my theories.)


1961: Harvard prof Robert Ulrich publishes a book with a snooze-worthy title, Philosophy of Education. To nudge us awake, though: "We are producing more and more people who will be dissatisfied because the artificially prolonged time of formal schooling arose in them hopes which society cannot fulfill...These men and women will form the avant-garde of the disgruntled. It is no exaggeration to say [people like these] were responsible for World War II." (Thanks here to the maverick writer on Education and one of my intellectual heroes, John Taylor Gatto, who points out that the idea of universal education would be always be a potential sword pointed at the State [or current Ruling Class/Families] existed from the time of the Tudors!)

Ahhhh...sooo....not only do Great Thinkers throughout history get the Platonic Complex (wanting to seize State power for themselves as Philosopher Kings), but the State seems in (rarely openly stated) perpetual fear of its own disaffected intellectuals, or people who earned their degrees and can only wait tables or drive cabs...

Noam Chomsky in particular has done yeoman work in revealing this under-employed and under-utilized Class as "enemy territory" in declassified State Department Baldspeak. Yes, its own citizens are thought of as "enemy territory." I would cite my sources, but would rather, as Ring Lardner said, "You could look it up."

One wonders, with the economy as bad as its been since The Depression and scads of stories like this, what is in store for the Americans who owe $40K in student loans and work at Best Buy or McDonald's now? Has the order of things - including our nervous systems by dazzling electronic gadgetry - changed enough to keep this educated rabble mollified with their couch surfing, involvement in The Spectacle, and drugs? We shall see...

This issue of "problem" intellectuals and other educated people has by no means been confined to the U.S. or the West. Let's revisit Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, mid-1970s, shall we? (I know, I know: must we? It'll only take a few seconds of your time, I promise!)

Pol Pot was educated at the Sorbonne (!), but, like other revolutionary leaders, he had a Platonic Complex: "communism" would only work, he believed, if you purged the other smarty-pants as a good start. They just cause problems, because they have been educated to question authority. And so, to quote a basic article on that time and place:

"The Khmer Rouge believed that their biggest threats were intellectuals because they had the intelligence to question authority and possibly overthrow the regime. Thus, teachers, doctors, lawyers and even members of the army were immediately killed. Even wearing glasses was enough reason for the Khmer Rouge to murder civilians. They took eliminating intellectuals so seriously that even extended families were killed; for example, the second cousin of a doctor could be killed for his relations." (entire short article here.) 

One further wonders how many lives would have been saved had the Cambodians had access to Lasik. Or even: contact lenses? (Gallows humor has its place, friends!)


In the early 1950s, the Chinese regime - steeped in at least a thousand years of cultural suspicion toward egg-heads - began a massive "registry" of intellectuals. The People's Republic of China in particular were suspicious of smart people (never mind that Mao was trained as a teacher!), and the "problem" was too many potential troublemakers concentrated in urban areas. There was going to be tension between the smart people and the new commisars of the PRC. 

So, on with the registration of shiye zhishifenzi, or "unemployed intellectuals." The problem: just about anyone who could read was a problem: former Kuomintang agents, state employees who had previously been fired, smart people who were seen as "non-specialists," housewives (!), "legally unqualified individuals," (whatever that means), and my favorite, "social deviants." This last group hits home for me...

The amazing thing, the take-away message: the Elite PRC had included all of these as "intellectuals" of the wrong sort, housewives and social deviants alike, as some class of competition (then-designated as "mental workers") that must be vanquished if the One True Best State were to be achieved! (For further insight into this broad historical problem, see Popper, Karl: The Open Society and Its Enemies

So anyway, I find these endless stories of people like the shiye zhishifenzi of morbid fascination. Don't mind me; maybe I'm just "weird" that way. 

But let no one mistake the clear message: "intellectuals" (however broadly you define them) are almost always seen as the "dangerous class" by those who have seized State power, and with very few exceptions, State power is run on the neural networks of intellectuals themselves. 

(A crucial exception to "intellectuals" as used the first time in the above paragraph, in the broad sense: the State actively courts technical intelligentsia: social "scientists" who know how to handle mob psychology, and the physicists/chemists/biologist "geeks" who stoke the technical imperatives of the Military-Industrial-Academic-Entertainment Complex. Must we have an increasingly hi-tech Bread and Circus world? I guess so...)

Anyway, what I guess I was trying to say is; go out and have some FUN this weekend! (Or what the hell: right now?)

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

Interesting post. I found it particularly interesting since I read it after visiting the Reagan Library for the first time two days ago on a field trip.

I can see myself as a member of "the avant-garde of the disgruntled".

I don't see myself having a lot of fun this weekend besides listening to Beethoven in the car, but who knows? Thanks for all your hard work over the years writing this blog.