Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Wordsmith Intellectuals"

This page is part of a larger essay penned in 1998, and many of you have no doubt read/heard of it before. I can imagine Limbaugh quoting from it; it's the kind of thing that is tailor-made for conservative talkers to quote from. It rings very true, and I have met many people who fit the description of a "wordsmith intellectual" like a glove. I would estimate that over 85% of them oppose or at least greatly distrust our free market system. He first introduces the "wordsmith intellectual" and demonstrates his intrinsic value in society:

Wordsmith intellectuals fare well in capitalist society; there they have great freedom to formulate, encounter, and propagate new ideas, to read and discuss them. Their occupational skills are in demand, their income much above average. Why then do they disproportionately oppose capitalism? Indeed, some data suggest that the more prosperous and successful the intellectual, the more likely he is to oppose capitalism. This opposition to capitalism is mainly "from the left" but not solely so. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound opposed market society from the right.

The opposition of wordsmith intellectuals to capitalism is a fact of social significance. They shape our ideas and images of society; they state the policy alternatives bureaucracies consider. From treatises to slogans, they give us the sentences to express ourselves. Their opposition matters, especially in a society that depends increasingly upon the explicit formulation and dissemination of information.

He then goes on to explain the primary cause of the superiority complexes that intellectuals develop: educational institutions or as they are commonly known by ignorant capitalists, schools:

What factor produced feelings of superior value on the part of intellectuals? I want to focus on one institution in particular: schools. As book knowledge became increasingly important, schooling — the education together in classes of young people in reading and book knowledge — spread. Schools became the major institution outside of the family to shape the attitudes of young people, and almost all those who later became intellectuals went through schools. There they were successful. They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher's favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better.

This leads to what Nozick calls a "plausible sociological generalization", which follows:

In a society where one extra-familial system or institution, the first young people enter, distributes rewards, those who do the very best therein will tend to internalize the norms of this institution and expect the wider society to operate in accordance with these norms; they will feel entitled to distributive shares in accordance with these norms or (at least) to a relative position equal to the one these norms would yield. Moreover, those constituting the upper class within the hierarchy of this first extra-familial institution who then experience (or foresee experiencing) movement to a lower relative position in the wider society will, because of their feeling of frustrated entitlement, tend to oppose the wider social system and feel animus toward its norms.

My thoughts.

The author points out that this stated sociological generalization is "intuitively compelling". I agree that there is much truth in this generalization and it shouldn't be dismissed even though other factors are involved. For example, I'm not altogether opposed to the idea that some academics might be able to see some problems in the wider world of commerce which those immersed in it are too close to said problems to discover.

But several of the folks I know who fit this description are almost driven insane by "the system" with it's many faults and shortcomings and their knowledge of what is wrong with it. I always think to myself that assuming these friends of mine, who are really good folks, are correct they will never be able to translate their theories into practice. This is because they are used to communicating to other intellectuals in academia and cannot speak the language of those in the wider world or those involved in commercial enterprises. For all intents and purposes, they might as well be a bunch of barbershop conspiracy addicts, supposing in their small world that they are the sole guardians of the secrets of the universe.

I would also suggest that those in the world of business and commerce are much more open to the suggestions of academics and other wordsmiths, placing them on boards of all kinds and buying their publications, than the typical intellectual is open to respecting an accomplishment in the world of business made by an entrepreneur, say, for example, a college dropout like Bill Gates who in many of their minds merely "got lucky". For this suggestion I have a very small amount of anecdotal evidence, so feel free to light me on fire for suggesting it. But keep in mind that the words and actions of a businessman are very often suspected of being born of ulterior motives while it seems that those of an academic rarely are.

Readers of this blog can all probably think of many people to apply this rule to, even in the blogosphere where the wordsmith skills often of many academics is tested and tried by the dreaded free market. There are countless articles and even whole books like this one) being written which decry the sad state of blogging as dominated by amateur smithies "outside the guild", so to speak. It's all very humorous to me of course; if they fear for their full-time jobs on account of some scrub bloggers it says a lot more about them than us amateurs and answers the question regarding who are the content-providers in the employ of an industrial complex.

But to be fair, I doubt most of them are motivated by fear when they criticize; more than likely it's the horror that they could be one degree -- a hyperlink, perhaps -- away from something with terrible grammar written by an uneducated hack. The library shelf is safe. The flattened plains of the blogosphere surely comprise a horrific realm to these giants whose ankles are ripe for the teeth of a thousand chihuahuas.

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