Our lumpen intelligentsia
WASHINGTON — A nation’s gravest problems are those it cannot discuss because it dare not state them. This nation’s principal problem, which makes other serious problems intractable, is that much of today’s intelligentsia is not intelligent.
One serious problem is that the political class is terrified of its constituents — their infantile refusal to will the means (revenues) for the ends (government benefits) they demand. Another serious problem is family disintegration, e.g., 40% of all first births, and 69% of all African American births, to unmarried women. Families are the primary transmitters of social capital: the habits, dispositions and mores necessary for flourishing. Yet the subject of disorganized families has been entirely absent from current discussions — actually, less discussions than virtue-signaling ventings — about poverty, race and related matters.
Today’s most serious problem, which annihilates thoughtfulness about all others, is that a significant portion of the intelligentsia — the lumpen intelligentsia — cannot think. Its torrent of talk is an ever-intensifying hurricane of hysteria about the endemic sickness of the nation since its founding in 1619 (don’t ask). And the iniquities of historic figures mistakenly admired.
An admirable intelligentsia, inoculated by education against fashions and fads, would make thoughtful distinctions arising from historically informed empathy. It would be society’s ballast against mob mentalities. Instead, much of America’s intelligentsia has become a mob.
Seeking to impose on others the conformity it enforces in its ranks, articulate only in a boilerplate of ritualized cant, today’s lumpen intelligentsia consists of persons for whom a little learning is delightful. They consider themselves educated because they are credentialed, stamped with the approval of institutions of higher education that gave them three things: a smattering of historical information just sufficient to make the past seem depraved; a vocabulary of indignation about the failure of all previous historic actors, from Washington to Lincoln to Churchill, to match the virtues of the lumpen intelligentsia; and the belief that America’s grossest injustice is the insufficient obeisance accorded to this intelligentsia.
Its expansion tracks the expansion of colleges and universities — most have, effectively, open admissions — that have become intellectually monochrome purveyors of groupthink. Faculty are outnumbered by administrators, many of whom exist to administer uniformity concerning “sustainability,” “diversity,” “toxic masculinity” and the threat free speech poses to favored groups’ entitlements to serenity.
Today’s cancel culture — erasing history, ending careers — is inflicted by people experiencing an orgy of positive feelings about themselves as they negate others. This culture is a steamy sauna of self-congratulation: “I, an adjunct professor of gender studies, am superior to U.S. Grant, so there.” Grant promptly freed the slave he received from his father-in-law, and went on to pulverize the slavocracy. Nevertheless….
The cancellers need just enough learning to know, vaguely, that there was a Lincoln who lived when Americans, sunk in primitivism, thought they were confronted with vexing constitutional constraints and moral ambiguities. The cancel culture depends on not having so much learning that it spoils the statue-toppling fun: Too much learning might immobilize the topplers with doubts about how they would have behaved in the contexts in which the statues’ subjects lived.
The cancellers are reverse Rumpelstiltskins, spinning problems that merit the gold of complex ideas and nuanced judgments into the straw of slogans. Someone anticipated something like this.
Today’s gruesome irony: A significant portion of the intelligentsia that is churned out by higher education does not acknowledge exacting standards of inquiry that could tug them toward tentativeness and constructive dissatisfaction with themselves. Rather, they come from campuses, cloaked in complacency. Instead of elevating, their education produces only expensively schooled versions of what Jose Ortega y Gasset called the “mass man.”
In “The Revolt of the Masses” (1932), the Spanish philosopher said this creature does not “appeal from his own to any authority outside him. He is satisfied with himself exactly as he is….he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes.” (Italics are Ortega’s.)
Much education now spreads the disease that education should cure, the disease of repudiating, without understanding, the national principles that could pull the nation toward its noble aspirations. The result is barbarism, as Ortega defined it, “the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.” A barbarian is someone whose ideas are “nothing more than appetites in words,” someone exercising “the right not to be reasonable,” who “does not want to give reasons” but simply “to impose his opinions.”
The barbarians are not at America’s gate. There is no gate.
©2020, Washington Post Writers Group