Anti-Intellectuals and Anti-Anti-Intellectuals

In the course of explaining why he is an “anti-intellectual,” Rick Hills invokes Martha Nussbaum, Immanuel Kant, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, George Orwell, Pierre Bourdieu, and Socrates—all in a short blog post!—which raises the old question of whether there are certain positions that cannot be refuted without self-contradiction. (In a subsequent post , Hills cites Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, Hannah More, William Godwin, Gouvernour Morris, Hegel, Heidegger, Searle, Quine, Derrida, Hamilton, Jefferson, Sartre, Kojeve, Putnam, Kripke, Davidson, Pirandello, Claudel, and Arendt.) Only an intellectual can understand the arguments of intellectuals, and so one cannot criticize intellectuals without destroying the basis of one’s own credibility—like the Cretan who says “all Cretans are liars.” Hills is really attacking a certain type of intellectual (the deliberate obscurantist) but confusing a subset of the class (to which he does not belong) with the class itself (to which he does belong). Then it becomes clear that Hills, an intellectual, is attacking a certain different type of intellectual: one who deliberately writes in an obscure way in order to conceal the weakness of one’s argument while intimidating potential critics. We need a term for his error: how about (for lack of any other) synecdochic literalism—mistaking the part for the whole.

This error is common. People resent lawyers, politicians, and doctors because some lawyers, politicians, and doctors act badly. But self-refutation occurs only when the speaker belongs to the class that he confuses with the subset. Consider Obama, Clinton, and McCain—all members of the elite—claiming to be anti-elitist, in much the same way that Hills claims to be an anti-intellectual. Indeed, intellectuals belong to the elite. These synecdochic literalists can’t be anti-elite without being anti-themselves. But they can oppose a type of elite, the type who uses financial, social, or (like the type of intellectual Hills criticizes) intellectual resources to shore up his position while claiming to speak for the masses that he secretly despises. So, why don’t they just say this rather than making themselves vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy?

It’s not so simple. In America, you can’t claim to be a member of the elite—even the “good,” public-spirited elite—without instantly losing all credibility, even though it is as plain as day that there is a tiny elite class that calls the shots within the very broad constraints imposed by the system of popular elections. (A zillion years ago this problem was debated by John Dewey and Walter Lippman.) Everyone wants to belong to that class, but no one wants to admit it, for it is a class that one can join only by denying that one belongs to it. It is this strange little fiction that keeps our democracy from falling apart. Rule by the people really means a kind of civility on the part of the elites.