article

03.25.09

The Intellectual Crash of 2009

A national crisis used to inspire the best in our country’s cultural elite. Why, then, has the financial meltdown left our intellectuals speechless?

Of all the types of work affected by the recession, we haven’t heard anything about an industry that has been entirely wiped out by recent events. The economic crisis has forced a massive layoff of the intellectuals.

Indeed, when the New York Times Magazine describes Newt Gingrich as "a prospector in bold and counterintuitive thinking — floating ideas throughout his career," you know the word "idea" has wandered, as if in a drunken stupor, from its original connotation. (CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger struggled to adapt to the new meaning, whatever it is: "The problem with Gingrich is that he has fabulous ideas.")

We are surrounded by the Limbaughs, and the Coulters, and the Jim Cramers, the buffoon-priests who preside over the ongoing national game of issue ping-pong.

It used to be that when intellectuals heard the word “derivative,” they thought about what Marx took from Hegel. Now they clutch their heads in confusion and despair. Arguments about small versus big government used to entail reflections on the nature of man and society, the question of balancing the highest good against the greatest number of people who might benefit from that good, the meaning of power and of authority. Not anymore.

Now just about every political debate comes down to one phrase: economic policy. Occasionally, things grow more specialized, and just as intellectual disputes over class conflict once spilled over into philosophical differences over “dialectical” change, the issues of taxes and spending branch out into the exciting topic of “earmarks.” Sometimes things get fancy: You might hear the term “moral hazard.” But just when the intellectual wheels start to turn—Aristotle’s Ethics! William James’ pragmatism! Sartre’s existentialism!—you realize that you’ve eavesdropped on a conversation between an insurance broker and a management consultant about the proper way to structure a transaction.

What we never hear about in the popular media—where intellectual discussion once took place—is debate over fundamental meanings, or essential definitions, or connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Those are the elements of an idea, which is the challenge consciousness makes to concrete reality. When Archimedes said, “Give me a lever that is long enough, and I will move the world,” he was talking about how you can think your way into a new actuality.

Instead of ideas, we have “issues,” which are the way the world tricks consciousness into believing that things never really change. Because an issue has two sides to it, both sides will still be there whichever one prevails. The “issue”—consider abortion—never goes away. But an idea—e.g. the issue of abortion is more fundamentally about the social limits of sexual pleasure, not merely about reproductive rights—leaps beyond the two sides of an issue into the essential condition from which they spring. It makes you stop to think, instead of provoking you to start to argue. An issue is the place where ideas run out of steam.

As a result of our yapping, endlessly banal, issue-dominated culture, the intellectuals, who work with ideas the way a Realtor works with property, are out of work. No wonder we are surrounded by the Limbaughs, and the Coulters, and the Jim Cramers, the buffoon-priests who preside over the ongoing national game of issue ping-pong. Lacking ideas to grab our attention and make us focus, the intellectuals have given way to ranters, abusers, and screamers, who have the effect of both grabbing our attention and freeing us from having to pay attention.

Of course, no one should blame the intellectuals for not being able to grasp our fathomless economic mess. An old joke went that only two people in history understood Hegel, and even they misunderstood him. Well, the only people who understand the present crisis are economists and tax lawyers, and even they misunderstand it. I have seen award-winning poets and novelists nearly reduced to tears trying to comprehend the relationship between mortgage-backed securities and recession.

Still, the question remains whether we are really the worse off because of the superannuation of ideas and of the people who have them. Not necessarily.

Ideas drove the various responses to the economic calamities of the 1920s—the result was totalitarian ideologies on the left and the right and the annihilation of tens of millions of people, all in the name of one idea or another. The Cold War provoked an incredible intellectual ferment, not just in political rumination, but in every area of culture, from the postwar novel to abstract expressionism, yet that conceptually heated atmosphere also created paranoia across the political spectrum, as well as an endless cycle of payback and score-settling. And the rifts produced by the idea-besotted '60s continue to bedevil us.

Yeats might have been right when he wrote that “an intellectual hatred is the worst.” We, on the other hand, are not in the grip of inflexible principles and unwavering obsessions; we are not motivated by unexamined emotional wounds that have disguised themselves as ideas. We (extremists not included) apply ourselves to the facts as they arise, with a (relative) minimum of conceptual bias. That does not seem to have made our public life less polarized, but at least it is keeping it peaceful and (relatively speaking) civil.

There are dangers, though, that accompany our idea-impoverished condition. Ideas don’t just make sense of reality; they keep our perception of it clear. With the intellectuals off the job, gross distortions of our condition and its broader context may well multiply the way crime would increase if all the cops were let go.

Recently, for instance, David Brooks ventured this historical observation in a column: “The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment.” In fact, America has a labor history that is more violent than any European country, and if class resentment in this country has not been made explicit by a class system, it has simmered all the more furiously because of that. The Civil War, McCarthyism, the turbulent '60s, and just about every presidential election in modern times have all been fueled to a consequential degree by class resentment. But there was no one around to correct Brooks. (And so I’ve taken it upon myself to make the cultural equivalent of a citizen’s arrest.)

Then, too, as Socrates (overstatingly) said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” With the intellectuals on the unemployment line along with everyone else, too much of what used to be known as false consciousness is going to slip into people’s unsuspecting minds, like pollutants into reservoirs. For months, while the economy was slipping backward, the phrase du jour, used by people throughout business and media, has been “moving forward.” As in: Dear Employees, Moving forward, we are laying off several thousand of you. And the dishonest, weasel-ish phrase keeps advancing, with no one to stop it. Language like that is a lubricant to the calamity all around us.

If nothing else, intellectuals, who are compulsive scrutinizers and falsehood-exposers, console us for our troubles by blowing the whistle on just such petty insults to our dignity. (And no, Jon Stewart can’t do it all himself.) Their abstract models of what ought to be instead of what is even sometimes inch reality a little closer to becoming bearable.

Too bad even the proverbial rocket scientist can’t understand the forces that are afflicting us now. Brother, can you spare a paradigm?

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.