Posted on | January 28, 2013 | 9 Comments
Mark Steyn and fans at the National Review Institute Summit
“Growing up in the USSR, where the only permitted sources of information were textbooks and the official media, I believed that the Soviet Union was the most advanced society in the world. All other countries lived in poverty and oppression, devoid of the sun of Marxism-Leninism. I wanted them to become more like the USSR for their own good, and couldn’t wait to grow up and live in the communist future, not worrying about money.”
— Oleg Atbashian, Shakedown Socialism, 2010
“So it is that those who wish to force us into acquiescence with a world increasingly secularized and dehumanized, must either confess themselves absolute determinists . . . or they must admit that they intend to shape the future themselves, which is not argument at all, but an announcement of intention.”
— Richard M. Weaver, “On Setting the Clock Right,” National Review, 1957
In 1949, Friedrich Hayek published an essay entitled “The Intellectuals and Socialism” that is still worth reading today. Conservatives are so accustomed to being accused of “anti-intellectualism” that I think at times we almost believe it. The important question is — as it was in 1949 — what do we mean by “intellectual”? And if the terms are not contradictory, what is the duty of a conservative intellectual?
What is an “intellectual”? They are “professional secondhand dealers in ideas,” as Hayek described them:
[An intellectual] need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself.
The intellectual is an “intermediary,” then, and not necessarily an originator of ideas, but rather someone who promotes and popularizes ideas through his position. What distinguishes the intellectual from others is not his superior intelligence, but rather that his occupational speciality involves speaking and writing, giving him the opportunity to influence the beliefs and opinions of others:
The class does not consist of only journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists all of whom may be masters of the technique of conveying ideas but are usually amateurs so far as the substance of what they convey is concerned. The class also includes many professional men and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who through their habitual intercourse with the printed word become carriers of new ideas outside their own fields and who, because of their expert knowledge of their own subjects, are listened with respect on most others. There is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or ideas except through the medium of this class; and outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men, dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it their job to keep abreast of opinion. It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented.
To put it another way, intellectuals are the articulate class whose communication skills — and greater access to the institutions through which ideas are disseminated — give them a greater influence in shaping public opinion. In this sense, Jon Stewart is as much an intellectual as Charles Krauthammer. The director of a TV commercial may, in this sense, be an intellectual as influential as an Oscar-winning film director.
Having been recognized a few years ago as a “top Hayekian public intellectual,” I have thought a lot about this: What is my job? What are my duties? What counts as failure or success?
Others must supply their own answers to these questions, and the greater their influence, the greater their responsibility. Certainly the editors of and contributors to National Review, being inheritors of the legacy of William F. Buckley Jr., must conceive how great a burden they bear to prove themselves worthy of that great patrimony. Truly, they stand on the shoulders of giants, not only of Buckley himself, but also such memorable conservative thinkers as Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk and Eric Voegelin.
Here is a question: Does the conservative intellectual owe greater loyalty toward conservatism or toward intellectualism? That is to say, does he pursue his personal interest in maintaining his credentials as an intellectual in good standing, or does he risk disfavor by defending and advancing the conservative cause?
Certainly it was neither easy nor popular for an intellectual in 1957 to argue, as Richard Weaver did, against the proposition that “you can’t turn back the clock.” All the world then was enamored with the idea of Scientific Progress which, it was widely believed, had rendered obsolete certain “horse and buggy” notions about human liberty:
If one remarks that both theory and observation prove that collectivism is fatal to individual liberty, one is blamed for being out of step with the times. If one hazards an opinion that the amount of noise and confusion prevailing today is perhaps not the best thing for the human psyche, one is branded an enemy of progress. In fact, I can’t think of any objection to the present physical and moral order which will not likely be answered with some variety of the charge that the critic wants to turn the clock back.
Weaver was arguing against a certain trick by which self-declared apostles of modernity smuggle their own preferences into the future, disguised as the inevitable consequences of “historical forces.” Pointing out the trick did not endear Weaver to an intelligentsia profoundly enamored of such deterministic thinking, and one imagines the liberal thinkers of that era scorning Weaver as a nostalgic reactionary.
Richard Weaver could only advance the conservative cause by estranging himself from his own class interests as an intellectual, allying himself with a movement which (then as now) was viewed with tremendous disdain by the vast majority of intellectuals.
Weaver had one advantage that today’s National Review writers may not appreciate: He wasn’t constantly hustling to get himself booked on cable TV news or talk radio, trying to clamber up the ziggurat of ambition that today defines the career path of conservative intellectuals.
Nor, for that matter, did conservatives in 1957 consider themselves to be de facto partisan apologists for the Republican Party. Nowadays, the political interests of the GOP are foremost among the problems that conservative intellectuals are expected to address, so that it is difficult to distinguish the party from the intellectuals.
Please don’t accuse me of wishing to “turn back the clock,” but I’m not exactly confident that “historical forces” have amounted to Scientific Progress for the conservative movement, and my weekend in Washington did little to bolster my confidence:
No fistfights broke out during the National Review Institute’s “Future of Conservatism” Summit in D.C., disappointing my hopes for the weekend. Some sort of bloodletting — at the very least, a venting of grievances — might do everybody good after the Republican defeat in November. Alas, decorum prevailed and none of the panelists even raised their voices in anger.
The most depressing moment of the conference came, perhaps not coincidentally, during a panel on immigration when radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, representing the pro-amnesty side of the argument, announced that he really didn’t want to be debating immigration because it was bad for Republicans to talk about the issue — especially when those talking about it were middle-aged white guys like himself and his antagonist, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Undeterred by Hewitt’s disavowal, Krikorian recounted facts that ought to give pause to conservatives who, since November, have begun jabbering desperately about winning over Hispanic voters by adopting a pro-amnesty line. Krikorian noted a Pew Research poll from 2011 that found Hispanics have the lowest opinion of capitalism of any group surveyed. Only 32 percent of Hispanics hold a favorable view of capitalism, while 55 percent have a negative view. Even supporters of the left-wing Occupy Wall Street movement expressed a more favorable view of capitalism than did Hispanics. Insofar as the Republican Party promotes policies favorable to capitalism, then, it is at odds with the sentiments of the one group whom the pro-amnesty Republicans insist their policy ideas will win over to the GOP.
Facts are stubborn things, John Adams once observed, but perhaps even more stubborn is the sense of panic that has gripped Republicans since Obama’s re-election. . . .