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Intellectuals and Society

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Subject: Academic elitism, Thomas Sowell
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Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and Society is a 2010 book by Thomas Sowell. It examines the influence of intellectuals in society. Intellectuals are defined as "idea workers" that exercise profound influence on policy makers and public opinion, but too often are not accountable for results. Intellectuals and Society examines the actual track record of these idea workers and the conditions, methods and incentives that drive their visions- visions that have often spelt disaster for societies where intellectuals have been allowed undue influence.

According to Sowell:

"Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas — the intellectuals — have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.
The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, during the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers, or apologists among the leading intellectuals — not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted.
..intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public. Whether their ideas turn out to work — whether they make life better or worse for others — is another question entirely."[2]


Sowell argues that intellectuals, defined as people whose occupations deal primarily with ‘’ideas’’ (writers, historians, academics, etc) usually consider themselves as anointed, endowed by superior intellect or insight to guide power-brokers and the masses. Several features mark such intellectuals Sowell contends:[3]


An intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas, not practical application as in engineering or police work. These purveyors of ideas may be at all points of the political and ideological spectrum- from Marxists to eugenicists. However certain common patterns cut across specific political ideologies. Intellectuals for example show a marked preference for third party decision makers with supposedly superior wisdom controlling the resources and decision making of the masses. These preference sometimes makes supposedly competing ideologies more alike than different. For example both Nazi National Socialism and Marxist Stalinism implemented detailed control over the lives of their subjects; both implemented sweeping propaganda campaigns manipulating and distorting reality, and both presumed and demanded leadership by a special group anointed with a superior wisdom or knowledge.[4]

Lack of real accountability

The work of intellectuals is ultimately not subject to ‘‘external ‘’ real world verifiability’’ as compared to others such as civil engineers or Marine riflemen. An intellectual for example can leisurely condemn a military operation for “excessive force” and does not have to submit to any real world test, is not accountable for results, and does not have to pay any penalty if he or she is wrong. By contrast a military commander who fails to deploy sufficient force at the appropriate time can pay with his own life and that of his men. The popular acclaim and prestigious awards of intellectuals who have made wildly failing predictions is another example of the lack of ultimate accountability, Sowell maintains.[5]

Narrow and specialized knowledge

Intellectuals often have special knowledge in their narrow area of expertise whether it be in an academic subject, writing history, literature etc. Outside these fields however they are just as ignorant and uninformed as the next man. Too often, this does not stop them from making sweeping pronouncements and bold claims in areas where they are woefully ignorant. Sowell lists several examples ranging from sweeping condemnations of free markets, policemen having to make split second decisions on the street, to military operations where intellectuals without the slightest expertise brazenly presumed that their opinions or judgments were worth more than real world people with first-hand knowledge of the situation.[6]

Intellectual climate of distortion and misinformation

Intellectuals assume that their narrow band of specialized knowledge anoints them to guide others, and deserves special attention and recognition. Sowell argues that it is not necessary for intellectuals to control the actual levels of power. What is crucial is their ‘’influence’’ on that power, and the presumption of special capability often creates a climate that misinforms the public about crucial issues, distorts the reporting of information in the media, and hinders politicians from taking needed steps to solve problems. Before WWII for example, intellectuals helped create a media and political climate hostile to the building up of Britain's armed forces, causing the delay of crucial weapons systems, production and mobilization. The result was several painful defeats and thousands of dead. Unlike the dead of the armed forces however, or civilians killed in the Blitz, intellectuals paid no penalty, nor were they held accountable for final outcomes.[7]

Verbal virtuosity (rhetoric) versus evidence or logic

Intellectuals rely heavily on what Sowell calls “verbal virtuosity” – clever phrasing, vague euphemisms, witty quotes, deceptive labeling and name-calling and sneering asides- to substitute for, and avoid evidence, logic and analysis. Hence calls for unilateral disarmament in the face of Nazi or Soviet dictators were translated into calls for “peace”. Confiscatory government seizure of private property is passed off as “social justice.” Other tactics of “verbal virtuosity” include dismissing opposing ideas as “simplistic” arguments, portraying those making opposing arguments as morally unworthy, one day at a time rationalization, invoking created or claimed “rights” for which no basis is asked or given, invocations of the “need” for “change”, invocation of the abstract versus the concrete, and constant “filtering of reality” – omission or suppression of information via the media, academic venues and public utterances to distort a true or balanced picture of actual situations. Sowell marshals examples ranging from war policy to alleged “epidemics” of black churches being burned.[8]

Ego-involvement and personalization

The presumption of special wisdom and/or virtue heavily involves the ego of intellectuals, causing them to personalize numerous situations where contending ideas are at issue. The involvement of personal ego often means (a) the demonization of opponents, and (b) personal fulfillment goals serving as the basis of, and substitute for forthright debate and evidence. Hence, it is not simply enough to disagree with opponents of Affirmative Action- they must be transformed into evil “racists” or “Uncle Toms.” Debate on busing as the best way to educate black children becomes a clash between the forces of “bigotry” compared to the righteous legions of “social justice.” Anti-war debate becomes not simply a presentation on the merits or demerits, but a quest for personal self-esteem or redemption on the part of the intellectual - where opponents must also be portrayed as morally less virtuous. This ego-involvement is a crucial part of intellectual presumption as anointed by superior wisdom or capability.[9]


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