E.M. Oblomov, in City Journal, discusses the rise, and historical parallels, to America’s current treasonous intellectual clerisy.
The most devastating critique of the Russian intelligentsia was mounted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a 1974 essay called Educationdom (Obrazovanshchina). Solzhenitsyn traced the sources of the Bolshevik revolution and its cataclysmic aftermath to the vices of the old intelligentsia, which included â€œa sectarian, artificial distancing from the national life,â€ unsuitability for practical work, an obsession with egalitarian social justice that â€œparalyzes the love of and interest in truth,â€ and a â€œtrance-like, inadequate sense of reality.â€ There were other, darker vices, too: â€œfanaticism, deaf to the voice of everyday lifeâ€; a hypnotic faith in its own ideology and intolerance for any other; and the adoption of â€œhatred as a passionate ethical impulse.â€ Worse still for Solzhenitsyn was the intelligentsiaâ€™s fervent rejection of Christianity, replaced by faith in scientific progress and a mankind-worshiping idolatry. This atheism was all-embracing and uncritical in its belief that science is competent to dispose of all religious questions, finally and comprehensively. In Solzhenitsynâ€™s view, the intelligentsia had yielded to the temptation of Dostoevskyâ€™s Grand Inquisitorâ€”may the truth rot, if people are the happier for it. …
If only America could be Communist China for just one day, lamented New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. If only we could be ruled by an all-powerful junta of Harvard professors. Or by a plenary committee of nine eminent jurists.
Of course, mutual antipathy between intellectuals and democracy dates back at least to classical antiquity, when the Athenian assembly put Socrates on trial for corrupting the youth. The Athenian intelligentsia fought back. When Plato produced his blueprint for the ideal Republic, it looked much more like authoritarian Sparta than democratic Athens.
The United States was bound to be at odds with its intellectual class. Unlike Tsarist Russia, with its rigid system of castes and ranks, the United States was from the beginning an egalitarian republic, with no native intelligentsia. In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville found that, â€œthere is no class . . . in America, in which the taste for intellectual pleasures is transmitted with hereditary fortune and leisure and by which the labors of the intellect are held in honor.â€ Tocqueville conceived of the intelligentsia in French terms and identified it with aristocracy. But Americans were doers, not navel-gazers. They lacked a â€œtaste for intellectual pleasuresâ€ but possessed a huge appetite for acquiring practical knowledge.
For more than a century after Tocqueville, intellectuals remained at the margins of American society. American elites were industrial and financial, and the nationâ€™s rude and boisterous culture reflected their tastes and preferences. But change was inevitable. New universitiesâ€”notably Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicagoâ€”were being founded along Germanic lines. These were not social clubs for the scions of railroad barons and banking magnates, but factories of pure knowledge. Then, in the 1930s and 1940s, the intelligentsia received a huge boost from an infusion of large numbers of refugees from Nazi Europe, including Viennese philologists with a taste for Proust and Mahler. But it was only after World War II that the American intelligentsia really came into its own. Economic changes were making possible increasingly large returns on investment in university education. The GI Bill exposed ever-larger numbers of Americans to the world of professional intellectuals. And, with the establishment of the Educational Testing Service, the academic elite created a highly efficient engine for sorting Americans according to intellectual ability and channeling them, by means of the university admission system, into different social strata.
More than 70 years of this social sorting have given us a distinctive, insular, and powerful intellectual elite, shaped by the prejudices, anxieties, and affectations of the faculty lounge; separated from the rest by ever-greater social, economic, and cultural distance; and hardening into a self-perpetuating caste. This ruling intelligentsiaâ€”or â€œeducationdom,â€ in Solzhenitsynâ€™s biting formulationâ€”more and more resembles the ruling aristocracy of Tocquevilleâ€™s day:
In an aristocratic people, among whom letters are cultivated, I suppose that intellectual occupations, as well as the affairs of government, are concentrated in a ruling class. The literary as well as the political career is almost entirely confined to this class, or to those nearest to it in rank. These premises suffice for a key to all the rest.
Read the whole thing.