The fall of the American intelligensia

Sam Smith, 2000- Cultural phenomena don’t usually sign surrender terms so it’s a bit hard to pinpoint when the American intelligentsia collapsed, but the day that 400 historians joined the Clinton defense team will probably do as well as any.

In a statement replete with bad history, lousy law, and childish politics the 400 academics provided intellectual succor to the nation’s leading suckee, that felonious fraud in the White House.

Ex cathedra, ex cathedra, ex cathedra onward; into the valley of fin-de-siecle decadence rode the 400. . . It was an act so obsequious in cause and transparent in purpose that only the similarly sycophantic Eleanor Clift could keep a straight face when the matter was discussed on the McLaughlin show.

The ad was the handiwork of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who has been flailing about for the past few decades seeking a president who will treat him as kindly as did John F. Kennedy.

It was not the first time that Schlesinger has served as prop man for presidential mischief.

Back when JFK was getting ready to invade Cuba, the New Republic got wind of the CIA’s training of Cuban exiles.

Schlesinger was shown an advance copy’ of the article, which he promptly passed to Kennedy, who in turn asked (successfully) that TNR not print it. The New York Times also withheld a story on the pending invasion, which Schlesinger would later praise as a “patriotic act” although he admitted wondering whether if the “press had behaved irresponsibly, it would not have spared the country a disaster.” Schlesinger was a prototype for that modern phenomenon, the meddlesome Harvard prof seeking manly vigor by helping presidents ravage this country or that — including sometimes our own. Henry Kissinger and McGeorge Bundy would soon follow. Later, the staff and management of the Harvard Business School would assist at the collapse of the Russian economy even as their colleagues at the Kennedy School were teaching scores of American politicians how to repeal 60 years of social progress.

Of course, gratuitous abuse by the intelligentsia began well before the Bay of Pigs.

Compared to those men of the mind involved in the Inquisition, for example, Schlesinger & Co. look pretty respectable. And it certainly hasn’t all been Harvard’s fault. As LBJ once told an aide, the CIA was filled with boys from Princeton and Yale whose daddies wouldn’t let them into the brokerage firm.

The American intelligentsia has repeatedly let the country down. Consider that exemplar for generations of law school students: Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Prospective litigants have all learned Holmes’ immortal warning that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Fewer, I suspect, have also learned that these words were uttered in defense of the contemptible Espionage Act and that Holmes himself was among those upholding Eugene Debs’ sentence of ten years in prison for saying such things as “the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” And as early as the turn of the century, Julian Benda noted in the 1920s, there had been a shift among intellectuals from being a “check on the realism of the people to acting as stimulators of political passions.” He described these new intellectuals as being most interested in the possession of concrete advantages and material values, while holding up to scorn the pursuit of the spiritual, the non-practical or the disinterested.


Thus there is no argument here that the capitulation of many intellectuals in the matter of Clinton is novel. What is the unique, however, is the absence of its alternative. There is, for example, nothing even remotely close to the sort of intellectual division that occurred during the Vietnam War in which the Kissingers and Bundys were matched by others — including those the New York Times in 1970 headlined as “1000 ‘ESTABLISHMENT’ LAWYERS JOIN WAR PROTEST.” 


In The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, Howard Zinn describes a response by some of the intelligentsia stunningly at odds with what we are currently observing: 


The poet Robert Lowell, invited to a White House function, refused to come. Arthur Miller, also invited, sent a telegram to the White House: “When the guns boom, the arts die.” Singer Ertha Kitt was invited to a luncheon on the White House lawn and shocked all those present by speaking out, in the presence of the President’s wife, against the war. …. In Hollywood, local artists erected a 60-foot Tower of Protest on Sunset Boulevard. At the National Book Award ceremonies in New York, fifty authors and publishers walked out on a speech by Vice President Humphrey in a display of anger at his role in the war.

These, remember, were protests against a far more liberal, far more Democratic president than we have today — a man who had already shepherded through Congress the most progressive social changes since the New Deal.

Further, the demon waiting in the wings was not a bland George Bush virtually indistinguishable from the incumbent but Richard Nixon.

Those, however, were different days. Now we have Toni Morrison exculpating Clinton because of his “blackness” and Schlesinger exculpating him because Reagan lied as well.

Today, on the flimsiest and most sophistic of grounds, the intelligentsia has lined up behind the slimiest president in American history. It’s just lucky we didn’t have to rely upon this craven crowd when we were fighting George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Carmine DeSapio and Richard Daley. They probably would have lectured us all about party unity.


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