Crimes of the intellectuals

Nina Witoszek, a researcher at the University of Oslo who was born in Poland, has an interesting piece in Aftenposten, Faith and Terror - The Crimes of the Intellectuals, on the threat intellectuals often pose to democracy and freedom, drawing a connection between yesterday's defenders of Pol Pot and today's postmodernists and neopacifists. Witoszek is no fan of Bush, but she has no respect for the way European intellectuals argued against the war in Iraq.

Intellectuals are dangerous, despite all claims to the contrary. It should suffice to point to the French, Russian or Cambodian reovlutions to see that intellectuals have often played a central role in unleashing terror of the worst kind on the rest of the population. [..] In the light of this, do we not have the right to make a closer inspection of Norwegian intellectuals' support for, or undermining of, the humanist project? A project which, (in case we've forgotten), combines a Christian ideal on the absolute value of the individual with the socratic ideal of openness and critical self evaluation. [..]

Compared to the rest of the world, the intellectual history of Norway has been an excersise in moderation - interrupted by periodic dam bursts of religious awakening. Under such periods of religious enlightening (or darkening) of the mind, one does not think much. You are what you believe. [..]

From an Eastern European point of view, AKP was a grotesque spectacle. [..] Their crime was to preach solidarity while in reality violating it, because they had no compassion for other people's suffering, humiliation and death. Their worldview was anti-humanitarian, filled with boundless selfishness. [..]

The debate on the responsibilities of the intellectuals have been given new life by the war in Iraq - and revealed several weaknesses in the humanist project. Professor Odd-Bjørn Fure has questioned the intellectual reliability of former Eastern European dissidents such as Havel, Konrad and Michnik, because they supported the American intervention - without supporting Bush's goal, (the means justify the intention in this case.) [..]

In my attack on the corruption of the humanist project by radical intellectuals (Aftenposten, June 21), I wished nothing more than to do justice to those few individuals - both in the East and the West - who have had the courage to do something that is neither popular or profitable, that is to defend the best parts of the European heritage: The ability to look at oneself critically through the eyes of others, the ability to feel compassion, and the willingness to correct your own mistakes. These qualities, I claim, have been repressed, first through the Western intellectual romance with revolutionary ideologies, and then through the race to embrace the latest postmodern fashion. [..]

Professor Fure emphasises that he's not a postmodernist. But in his faith in rational social theories as a starting point for an evaluation of the Iraq case, he downplays the reality of evil in a way that comes close to the relativistic, hyperrational position that is the mark of postmodernism. He doubts whether experiences from the fight against totalitarian regimes in the East during the cold war are "transferable to the fight against a completely different totalitarian regime in another culture." [..]

There is no difference bewteen suffering under totalitarian dictators in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, in the same way that there is no such thing as "progressive" or "reactionary" torture and murder. [..] If AKP's problem was a religious faith in the marxist-leninist bible, then Fure's problem is his faith in rational social theory as a wondercure. Both positions illustrate a central intellectual shortcoming among many European intellectuals. The shortcoming lies in shutting out compassion and an empathy that requires a conditionless defense of the value of individual life and liberty. Without such a compassion you end up either in the role as an unscrupolous commissar or a rational social planner. [..]

Totalitarian regimes have always been nurtured by Western hesitance in regards to their own humanist identity and their lack of will to insist on its universality. Western intellectuals have done much to reduce both this identity and the willingness to defend it.

Right. There's no reason to see "intellectual" as something good in itself. Any tool can be used for good things or bad things, and the mind is no different. So you have a mind and you know stuff, big deal. How are you using it? In fantasy novels there are good wizards and evil wizards, it's taken for granted that magic doesn't make you good or bad, it only increases your ability to do good or bad. A similar approach should be taken with intellectuals. Of course, intellectuals usually don't have the power to change much about anything, but when they do, and they do it wrong, a lot of people suffer, and in ways that make fantasy evil pale in comparison. Many would protest that an idea that is well-intentioned can't actually be evil, and they have a point, but an idea that is put into practice immediately becomes good or evil, depending on the consequences, and if you put that idea into the world it's partly your fault if it goes wrong. Not in a criminal sense, but it's a fault related to a crime of negligence, like when you accidentally fire a weapon because you didn't handle it properly. The human mind can be the most powerful weapon in the world, and it must be handled with caution.

Because well-intentioned intellectuals often show a remarkable ability to believe really stupid things, and to think that it's perfectly reasonable of them to do so, I think it's vital to always keep in mind the ideals that Witoszek list here: The value of individual life and liberty, of openness and critical self-evaluation, of basic compassion and empathy with all human life, and of the universality of these ideas. Not because Witoszek thought these things up in her head, but because we know from experience that whenever they're not followed, really bad things happen.

Neopacifist Western intellectuals violated several of these in the way they opposed the war in Iraq, and even they can't deny that if they had had their way, very evil things would still be happening in Iraq, things that are no longer happening. By a standard of basic human compassion, then, neopacifism, the belief that war may sometimes be justifiable, but only wars that have already been fought and been fully justified by history, is evil to the extent that it is put into practice.

(More by/about Nina Witoszek: March 29, June 21, July 5.)


Speaking of intentions, Mark Twain said it best:

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions"

I like particularly what Ms. Witoszek says about the importance of being willing to correct one's mistakes. Having myself once been a fan of China's Cultural Revolution, the Irish Republican Army, and other follies, I know that it is difficult to discard a world view that had at one time seemed so useful — that had seemed so neatly to explain so much of what one saw happening around him.

One has got to be willing to review and revise one's opinions as new information becomes available. As Socrates tells us, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Bjørn, you indirectly pointed the other day to another article that argues against allowing prejudice to influence our thinking. A British academic with leftist credentials defends the war in Iraq and criticizes leftists and liberals for allowing a bias against the US or Bush to confuse their thinking about events in Iraq.

Here's a link to the article:

- Gill

Here's a comment that's off-topic, but I want others to hear me congratulate you, Bjørn on a wonderful effort in Mediekritikk. Mediekritikk is a Norwegian forum where you have lately attempted to educate folks in Norway who are unaware of American thinking about the war in Iraq. Norwegians are familiar, I gather, with Fox and CNN, but seem to believe, for the most part, that Fox and CNN are all we have over here. I have always felt that we tend to export the worst in our culture, while the best that we have remains well hidden at home. Folks who don't know Norway can't realize how difficult it is to do what you are doing. Yours is a minority opinion in Norway, and a very unpopular opinion at that. Somehow, you manage to keep your cool and argue rationally with fanatics who heap abuse on you, while regurgitating worn-out stereotypes about America and its people. I admire your courage and tenacity, Bjørn.

I agree with you when you say that the N.Y. Times opposed the war in Iraq. My usual sources of info are the N.Y. Times, the Washington Post, New Yorker Magazine, Foreign Affairs, NPR, PBS, and the BBC. The Times, the New Yorker, and the BBC clearly opposed the war. PBS and NPR took no position for or against, so far as I could tell. Foreign Affairs, I think, featured more articles that favored than opposed intervention.

I am probably a pretty typical American liberal. Fairly well-traveled, well educated, financially comfortable. In addition, I live in what is regarded as one of the more liberal regions of the country — the San Francisco Bay Area. Norwegians may not realize that most Americans in my demographic actually opposed the war in Iraq. Your debate opponent "Uregistrert" insists that American opponents of the war have been "massacred" by their troglodyte neighbors in America. On the contrary, in my neck of the woods, at least, voicing support for the war has proved a riskier proposition. These are nuances of the American scene that go unappreciated in Norway, where it is generally believed that Americans still gather in their caves each night to watch CNN or Fox TV.

- Gill

"Neopacifist Western intellectuals violated several of these in the way they opposed the war in Iraq, and even they can't deny that if they had had their way, very evil things would still be happening in Iraq, things that are no longer happening."

Some go further: a prominent "left" theme here seems to be that we should have appointed a dictator in Iraq back in mid-May and immediately withdrawn all our troops and other support. It is we on the "right" who are wrong for wanting to help the Iraqis come to some accomodation with each other that does not involve killing each other off.

As we say, "Go figure."

With respect to intellectuals, George Orwell said it all. "It takes an intellectual to believe that. The ordinary person would not be so stupid"

Let these intellectuals go to war themselves if they are so for it, (and let them go help the insurgents if they are against it). Regardless fo ones views on communism, it is hard not to respect those middle class intellectuals from Europe and elsewhere who went to fight in the Spanish civil war because of their intellectual views. That sort of realism brings the post modern dialect into sharp focus, and you don't see it these days. Why? Too many phonies.

But then of course Orwell was an intellectual himself.


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