One of the reasons intelligent young people are drawn disproportionately to the left in politics is that they admire intellectuals and assume that intellectuals are smart not just about their own fields but about everything. And since intellectuals are predominantly left–wing in their politics, their smart young followers conclude that the smart place to locate themselves politically is on the left. The conclusion follows naturally from the assumption, but the assumption follows from nothing more substantial than the self–admiration of people who dabble in ideas.
The history of the last century suggests, in fact, that intellectuals as a class are not smart about politics at all. George Orwell caught much of the truth of the matter in his observation that certain ideas are so outrageous that only an intellectual could believe them. Who but an intellectual, after all, could build a system of political economy on the ideas in Das Kapital? Intellectuals are drawn to comprehensive utopian schemes because of their disdain for the ordinary and their sense that a satisfactory politics must be, like them, immensely clever. William F. Buckley, Jr. famously said that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston phone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University. Most sensible people would concur.
The point here is not essentially ideological. What makes intellectuals as a class politically stupid is not, or not simply, that they are leftists. (I have encountered more than a few politically stupid conservatives.) But at Harvard and elsewhere in the modern intellectual world, the left has generally predominated, and so most of the political lunacy emanating from intellectual circles has had a leftist cast. A great many intellectuals of the twentieth century, and many of the most distinguished, were drawn to Marxism; the few fascist intellectuals were virtually all second–rate crackpots.
What brings the subject to mind is an interview with the British playwright Harold Pinter in the March issue of the Progressive. (Pinter is, strictly speaking, more artist than intellectual. But his plays are noted, among other things, for their absurdist complexity, and he is the kind of artist often identified as an intellectual. He also speaks and writes frequently on political issues.) In the interview (conducted by Anne–Marie Cusac) Pinter discusses his plays with subtlety and care, concluding with the observation that “it’s very complex, the world of our imagination, and human life is very, very complex.” But then, immediately, this: “Political issues don’t seem to me to be at all complex.”
Pinter proceeds to demonstrate his noncomplex political worldview. “In the so–called democracies in which we live . . . we are mostly told lies. Or, where we are not told lies, we are told a lot of bull****. [There is a] complicity between government, business, and [the] media which few people care to contemplate. I think that the structures of power essentially treat people with contempt because that’s the way they survive. But they say the opposite. They say, ‘We love you.’ . . . Even while they’re torturing [people], they’re saying, ‘We love you.’ Please trust us and rely upon us. . . . We’re looking after your best interests by torturing you.’”
What kind of torture, the interviewer wonders. “All kinds of torture, including the torture . . . in American prisons. I’m not really saying that the United States would assert that they are looking after the best interests of the two million people in prison. But they would say that they are looking after the best interests of society. And they’re not . . . by a very long stretch. They’re doing something quite different. They are suppressing a great body of people . . . thousands upon thousands for obviously very minor offenses. . . . The proportion of black prisoners is extraordinary, and recently with the whole question of Florida, the number of black voters who are actually disenfran chised in a number of ways is quite eloquent, I think, as to what’s going on in your country.”
Pinter goes on in this fashion at some length about a great many issues. (He is, by the way, no more sanguine about conditions in his own country than in the U.S. Tony Blair has “sold [the U.K.] down the river” and his government “is interested only in big business.”)
Pinter may seem an extreme case, and in some ways he is. Not many commentators approach the level of insouciant simplemindedness displayed in this interview. But in one way, at least, he is quite representative. I have spent my entire adult life among intellectuals, and over and over have encountered the implicit attitude Pinter makes explicit: “Political issues don’t seem to me to be at all complex.”
It never ceases to bewilder me. People who in their fields of expertise insist on rigor, precision, and high seriousness approach politics as a cartoon world of heroes and villains, sinister special interests and noble suffering humanity. They think in clichés and speak in agitprop. How can a Pinter or anyone else possibly suppose that “human life is very, very complex”—except when it comes to politics? Intellectuals as such have no particular responsibility to take time away from what they know best to immerse themselves in the intricacies of political life and thought, but absent such immersion they would do well not to give public utterance to their ignorance. To sum up by random example: Albert Einstein should have stuck to his physics.
Intellectuals are people who understand, or ought to understand, that the more seriously one engages a subject the more complicated he finds it to be. Scholars experience the phenomenon time after time: you approach a new subject with a few large general impressions and inevitably discover, upon investiga tion, that the impressions don’t do justice to the complexity of the data, or, at the very least, that they take on shades of ambiguity you had not previously imagined. Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum holds as much in politics as it does anywhere else: the only simplicity to be trusted is that which emerges at the far side of complexity.
Intellectuals who take their calling seriously know that they have a moral duty to be intellectually unfrivolous. They do a disservice both to their own integrity and to the public interest when they think that duty ends at the gateway of politics.