Sound and Fury from the Pseudo-Intellectual Left

The front page of Sunday’s Points section in the Dallas Morning News resounds with a pitiable “I’m relevant” from the pseudo-intellectual left. I could sit here, phoneless (don”t ask, I’ll find it), and spend an hour dissecting two opinion pieces that deserve little but ridicule, but I have an Easter egg hunt to get to, so I’ll be brief and merciless. Both essays I refer to rest of the premise that the left holds some sort of monopoly on intellectualism. It’s a dangerous, petty conceit as shallow as an Ann Coulter column, and old, tired, and full of it as a John Kenneth Galbraith essay.

The first comes from Lee Siegel. Here it is. The long and short of it is he decries the lack of intellectualism in public debate these days. What he’s really saying is any idea that doesn’t emanate from his limited worldview is anti-intellectual. A few tidbits:

Indeed, when The New York Times Magazine describes Newt Gingrich as “a prospector in bold and counterintuitive thinking – floating ideas throughout his career,” you know the word “idea” has wandered, as if in a drunken stupor, from its original connotation.

Look, I’m no fan of Gingrich’s post 1990s conversion to neo-conservatism, but anyone who says Gingrich is not a man of broad and deep ideas is just being a partisan hack. Whatever Gingrich’s personal or political flaws, the man is an intellectual. I’d no more dismiss his ability to generate and propagate big ideas than I would dismiss Christopher Hitchens, despite his socialist politics. Limbaugh may be no William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater, but he’s also no knuckle-dragger.

Siegel also lumps people like Jim Cramer and Rush Limbaugh in with lightweight bomb-throwers like Ann Coulter. Say what you will of Limbaugh’s bluster or Cramer’s market rants, both ground their more incendiary rants in real scholarship and knowledge. Lumping those three together is like lumping Bertrand Russell with Bill Maher.

Siegel’s lack of economic education shows, along with his own personal, skewed Weltanschauung by making not one but two references to Hegel — tells that show just how out of the mainstream of economic thought Siegel stands.

Arguments about small vs. big government used to entail reflections on the nature of man and society, the question of balancing the highest good against the greatest number of people who might benefit from that good, the meaning of power and of authority. Not anymore.

This much is true. Both sides are guilty of this — small-minded conservatives and liberal pinheads. I’ll give him a pass on this.

Occasionally, things grow more specialized, and just as intellectual disputes over class conflict once spilled over into philosophical differences over “dialectical” change, the issues of taxes and spending branch out into the exciting topic of “earmarks.” Sometimes things get fancy: You might hear the term “moral hazard.

But just when the intellectual wheels start to turn – Aristotle’s Ethics! William James’ pragmatism! Sartre’s existentialism! – you realize that you’ve eavesdropped on a conversation between an insurance broker and a management consultant about the proper way to structure a transaction.

More Marxist tells — Siegel’s use of dialetical as though it were common in Western intellectual thought, and his disdain that mere business people have the gall to discuss weighty issues of the day. Surely business people have no place speaking about economic issues.

This little gem is telling, too.

When Archimedes said, “Give me a lever that is long enough, and I will move the world,” he was talking about how you can think your way into a new actuality.

No, Archimedes was speaking of the fundamentals of engineering. Not literally, but metaphorically.

An old joke went that only two people in history understood Hegel, and even they misunderstood him.

Yeah. See, when Hegel is your touchstone of old jokes and intellectual heights, you’re showing your true colors. This doesn’t disqualify you from the debate, but it shows exactly where you’re coming from.

I have seen award-winning poets and novelists nearly reduced to tears trying to comprehend the relationship between mortgage-backed securities and recession.

Does anyone really care what poets think of market realities, and who can’t grasp the basics of the relationship between mortgage-backed securities and the recession we’re in now?

Ideas drove the various responses to the economic calamities of the 1920s – the result was totalitarian ideologies on the left and the right and the annihilation of tens of millions of people, all in the name of one idea or another.

That’s an argument against the pseudo-intellectuals of both sides if I ever saw one, and yet Siegel uses it in just the opposite way.

In fact, America has a labor history that is more violent than any European country’s, and if class resentment in this country has not been made explicit by a class system, it has simmered all the more furiously because of that. The Civil War, McCarthyism, the turbulent ’60s and just about every presidential election in modern times have all been fueled to a consequential degree by class resentment.

Not only factually, objectively false, but while I’m not defending one side against the other, the use of class envy and class warfare has emanated from one side in recent presidential elections. “Soak the rich” anyone?

For months, while the economy was slipping backward, the phrase du jour, used by people throughout business and media, has been “moving forward.” As in: Dear Employees, Moving forward, we are laying off several thousand of you. And the dishonest, weasel-ish phrase keeps advancing, with no one to stop it.

Sorry, but job destruction is as important to economic growth as job creation. That’s how the market works. Sorry you can’t grasp this, Mr. Siegel.

I could go on, but the truth is, Mr. Siegel isn’t worth the time. He’s just an intellectual lightweight who wraps himself in the robes of intellectualism, but comes across looking like a five-year-old wearing his father’s Sunday suit. How much of a lightweight? Well, he’s the kind who creates Internet sock puppets to praise his own work and attack critics. See it here.

Next comes Judith Warner’s piece. It’s a paint-by-numbers lament of the fact that, horrors, some people consider the masters of Wall Street to be among the “best and brightest.” No one, even the most rapacious capitalist, would defend the minority of business mavens who cheated the system to be among the best and brightest. But her dismissive, condescending attitude towards anyone who chooses to make his bones in business is a bigotry of pitiful proportions.

But the second time, I was able to pause in note taking long enough to grouse, “I never had the impression that the best and brightest people went to Wall Street.”

Really? Because working in business is automatically a calling for lunkheads?

Look, a fat wallet is no guarantee a man or woman has vast oceans of intelligence rolling in the cranium. But, the cheaters aside, it takes great intellectual facilities to prosper in a free market, and the competition is fierce, ensuring that good enough is never really good enough.

Prosperity is no guarantor the holder is a man of great reason, but neither is poverty and a devotion to poetry.

The ability to make big bucks wasn’t the chief characteristic of the “best and brightest,” “each new man more brilliant than the last,” whom David Halberstam described in the 1972 book that brought the phrase into our common parlance. His “best and brightest” were ultimately no better than ours; their “arrogance and hubris” led us into the debacle of Vietnam. But they did at least embody a different order of aspiration. They “wrote books and won prizes (even the president had won a Pulitzer), climbed mountains to clear their minds. Many of them read poetry, and some were said to be able to quote it.”

And this image of best and brightness – however ironic, however laced with foreshadowing of deserved downfall – was the sense that endured behind the phrase for decades, says Susan Jacoby, the author, most recently, of The Age of American Unreason, a best-selling account of contemporary anti-intellectualism. At least, it was until this last boom cycle – that irrational bubble-world of the late 1990s and beyond – stamped its values on every aspect of our world, right down to the language we use to talk about it.

“The best and the brightest meant the people who were supposed to be the smartest, not who made the most money,” she said. “This application in the last few years of the phrase to anyone who’s made a pile of money on Wall Street shows a real degradation of the culture. It’s part of the dumbing down of language as well as culture. It shows a real dumbing down of everything.”

One ideal of intellectual greatness — the minority of hucksters aside — leads to prosperity, economic growth, and a general rise in everyone’s standard of living through the development of better and cheaper goods and services. Ms. Warner’s ideal — all good intentions — leads to things like the Vietnam War. I know which I’ll risk. (And by the way, JFK’s book was ghost-written, his Harvard papers show he was an intellectual lightweight, and his Pulitzer Prize was about as much an honest achievement as The New York Times‘ for its 1930s hagiographical series on Joe Stalin, or Al Gore’s joke of a Nobel Prize. Epic Fail.)

And maybe – if things work out for our book-writing president and his coterie of brilliant advisers – people might even start to see intellectuals as good, and bright, without irony.

If her idea of an intellectual pinnacle is the mediocre mind of Barack Obama and his toadies, this lady is in for one serious letdown.

More sound and fury from the pseudo-intellectual left, signifying nothing.


  1. Glen says:

    Trey, I saw you use the word “dialectical” when you said “More Marxist tells — Siegel’s use of dialetical as though it were common in Western intellectual thought,” and I never have understood what that’s all about.

    What does that word “dialectical” mean? If you don’t know either, that’s okay.

  2. Frank R says:

    Warner’s final comment regarding the intellectual might of the current administration said it all for me. That statement made clear her inability to peak behind the facade and find the mere politician who inhabits Mr. Obama’s suit.

    The article I found most irritating was Pell’s piece on the decline of the influence of American culture. Like the others it purported to bring intellectual rigor to an argument then fell far short of a insightful analysis. His piece seems bereft of any historical context for either America’s dominance in culture, such as it was, and the rise of more colloquial cultures, which most certainly bear heavy American influence. Bollywood movies may be the rage in Mumbai, but they certainly draw heavily from American musical from Busby Berkley to Grease.

  3. Lost your phone?

    How convenient. :bergman:

  4. American culture is the culture of the individual. Difficult to wrap an ideology around. We are allowed our own culture and each one demands the criticism of each other one. But we all share the same right to ignore that criticism and to barge forward into our lives of success, failure, fame or obscurity. Not only that…we get to define what constitutes success, failure, fame or obscurity.

    Don’t be so quick to suggest Ann Coulter is a lightweight intellectual. We are all people of substance or people without substance from someone else’s point of view. How smart is it to write 7 or 8 best sellers and get rich in a market driven semi-capitalist environment?

  5. Bear says:

    I’m assuming Trey is referring to Siegel’s tendency to comment on how people say things rather than what they’re saying. “Dialectical” in this case would then have to do with those who comment on how people say things, rather than the content of what they’re saying. For example, those who ridicule the pronunciation “nucular” rather than discuss the implications of a nuclear Iran.

  6. Frank R says:

    A discussion which is dialectical places its emphasis on change. Events are viewed from the standpoint of how they will change. There is also an emphasis on a conflict that brings about a change. My take on it is that Siegel is dissing the overheard discussion as being vapid because it does not rise to the dialectical level. And, of course, in his opinion an insurance man and a stock broker would be incapable of such an erudite discussion in any case.