Our Serious Intellectuals

There are intellectuals, and there are Intellectuals. There’s no real consensus over who qualifies for the former category, but a capital-I Intellectual is way easier to spot. These are people situated roughly within the mid-to-upper brow of mainstream American culture who expound on the important matters of the day and are often referred to in public as intellectuals.

David Brooks is such an Intellectual. In fact, he’s an extraordinarily accomplished Intellectual. And if PZ Meyers’ scorching review is any indication, then Brooks’ new book — called The Social Animal — might be his greatest accomplishment yet. Consider this passage from the review:

The plot is deadly dull: Erica, for instance, ascends smoothly from private school to business management to business leader to significant government functionary to the inner circles of Davos to a blissful retirement spent wallowing in high culture, with only brief stutters — losing a tennis match, a failed business, a brief marital infidelity — which she powers through with the discipline of her will, pausing only long enough for David Brooks to lecture the reader on how the mind overcomes adversity. What story there is here is pure mainlined bourgeois wish fulfillment, a kind of yuppie Mary Sue for the whole of the trust-fund set. There aren’t even any losers to contrast with Erica’s unending winningness, because everyone around them seems to be rising on the same cheerful bubble of privilege.

Nothing changes. In the introduction, Brooks even mentions this, that the story “takes place perpetually in the current moment, the early twenty-first century,” so the characters are born in this decade, grow up in this decade, work in this decade, die in this decade. Brooks has created a world where history doesn’t matter and there are no troubling external intrusions on the blithe reality of Harold and Erica. If ever you are in the market for the antithesis of the Great Russian Novel, here it is, the petty provincial string of anecdotes about only two characters who never experience a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.

That’s as good an encapsulation as you’ll find of the Intellectual master narrative: affluent yuppies succeed in their endeavors and feel generally good about themselves, forever. If Meyers’ review is to be believed, then Brooks tells a particularly naked, archetypal version of that narrative in The Social Animal. But just as the salvation narrative reveals itself in so much Christian philosophy, the foundational myth of Harold and Erica provides a conceptual skeleton for nearly every work in the Intellectual canon.

Take another example from the work of David Brooks, a recent New York Times column called “Make Everybody Hurt.” In the limited column space given him, Brooks (1) reaffirms soothing truisms his audience will recognize; (2) presents a not-particularly-dire problem which won’t alarm the audience (thereby making them shrill) but will concern them (thereby making them serious); and (3) offers up a solution that costs the audience nothing but will make them feel brave and clear-eyed for demanding sacrifices from others. In other words, Erica and Harold will have once again saved the world without breaking a sweat.

And then there’s a less obvious example of Intellectual dogma, courtesy of Simon Critchley and, yes, The New York Times (which seems to be a central organ of modern Intellectual thought). In “What Is a Philosopher?” Critchley dazzles the audience with some clever parables from ancient times and a couple of self-deprecating remarks about his profession, but never gets to anywhere substantial or challenging. That’s because the point of his essay has absolutely nothing to do with explaining philosophy and everything to do with flattering the intelligence of his readers. Erica and Harold are intended to walk away from “What Is a Philosopher?” having learned just enough to feel educated witty, but not enough to feel troubled or challenged.

And here we begin to see that the project of the Intellectual is in many ways antithetical to anything approaching a genuine intellectual endeavor. Though few of their kind remain anywhere near the cultural mainstream, many of the intellectuals of yore were pugnacious radicals, rightly reviled by the Ericas and Harolds of their time. Their politics and philosophies were often extreme, their writing sometimes offensive. But their work bled, which was the important part. It sunk its burrs into your spine and clung to you long after you thought you had walked away.

David Brooks is the quintessential Intellectual in that he promises you, in PZ Meyers’ words, a whole life without “a moment of self-doubt or inner turmoil.” But those moments of self-doubt and inner turmoil are where the real intellectual work begins. The intellectuals we need — always, but I suspect now more than ever — are the ones who stir up that turmoil and then kick their readers in the ass just hard enough to make them pull themselves out of it. To those people, the Intellectuals are the enemy.

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3 Responses

  1. What you say is also true of the artist in our current American culture.

  2. Fake thinkers like Brooks seem to recognise that real intellectuals and real radicals are unpopular with the establishment. Which maybe is why Brooks and his ilk claim to be victims of a mythical ‘Liberal Elite’.

  3. Wow! Great article. Really burned Brooks. The only op-eds that are ever good in the Times are from random contributers on present issues. I read them all the time, but I can’t remember the last time Brooks said anything interesting. And Krugman… well, ugh.

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