Friday, September 04, 2009

Why intellectuals are political

Why are literary intellectuals addicted to politics?

For Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, the answer is obvious. “[T]he human being, by nature, is zoon politikon, a political animal,” he points out. And the intellectual, presumably, is a human being (at least some of the time). The truly important distinctions, Vallicella insists, are between politics and partisanship, on the one hand, and between the vita activa and vita contemplativa on the other.

Still I boggle. Intellectuals would appear by definition to have dedicated themselves to the life of the mind, and yet for many—correction: most—intellectuals the questions that arise in art, literature, history, religion, or philosophy end with a bump in politics. And I mean politics, not partisanship—not merely the active life, but the public life, the social life, the practical workaday campaign for hope and change or the organized opposition to it. I am beginning to think that politics are never separated from advocacy if not partisanship. And this is true even of the fuzzier notion retailed by literary types, where politics refers to a social vision.

Take Vallicella’s example. On C-Span, the head of an “outfit promoting a strict interpretation of the U.S. constitution” repeated again and again that his “organization was not political, not political, not political!” Nonsense, Vallicella replies. “What the man wanted to say was that his outfit was not partisan,” he suggests, going on to explain that by not partisan he means “not affiliated with any particular political party such as the Republican Party, or the Democrat Party.”

But this is an excessively narrow meaning. That strict interpretivist outfit is clearly partisan, because it is a party administered and mobilized for the purpose of advocating a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, it belongs to the organized opposition to the intellectual school or party advancing the concept of a “living Constitution.”

The distinction between politics and partisanship is without a difference. All political animals are partisans; political action is collective action. Every proposal for the sake of change and hope has its supporters and detractors, and they are likely to organize themselves pretty quickly.

What is not clear to me is how to explain the party-mindedness of the literary intellectuals now on the scene. Consider “Bush bashing,” for example. Between about 2002–’03 and this year, it became a commonplace in fiction and literary discourse, as I have remarked here and here. Even Marilynne Robinson, who need not declare herself on the side of the angels to gain the respect of her readers, appended a Bush-bashing essay to The Death of Adam when it was reprinted in 2005 after Gilead had won the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote:

[F]or some time the word “bashing” has been used to derail criticism of many kinds, by treating as partisan or tendentious statements that are straightforwardly true or false. To say that the disparity between rich and poor in this country exceeds any previously known in American history (putting aside the marked economic disparity between plantation owners and slaves) is to say something falsifiable—that is, for practical purposes, verifiable, and in any case arguable. But such statements are now routinely called “Bush bashing.”[1]And is this closing statement also falsifiable? Or is it a different kind of statement altogether?—a Two-Minutes Hate, perhaps. How much courage is required of a professor of English at the University of Iowa to praise “Bush bashing,” or to pretend that a statement about income disparity is a representative example of it? What is at stake for Robinson?—other than posturing as politically courageous, I mean.

What is so disheartening is that an earlier generation of literary intellectuals had good reason to be political. In the ’thirties and again in the decade and a half after the Second World War, the intellectual class displayed great courage and energy, first in opposing fascism and then in opposing Communism. In the first decade of the new century, however, there has been no comparable passion for anti-Islamism. Politics have decayed to a stylistic flourish.

The source of this undemanding political attitudinizing antedates George W. Bush. In the two decades between the emergence of the New Left and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political obsessions of literary intellectuals were oblivious to totalitarianism. They were narrowly fixed on what the intellectuals decried as American imperialism. (Since America was not legitimately an empire, they were obliged to modify the object of their indignation to cultural imperialism.) Thus the events of 1989–’90 brushed past them without effect. During the holiday from history that ended on September 11, 2001, they were holed up in their departments, systematically replacing Western civilization with multiculturalism.

But the generation of intellectuals who identified themselves as anti-fascist and anti-Communist were not cultural relativists. Indeed, they sharply differentiated themselves from those on the Left, like I. F. Stone and Lillian Hellman, who found a way quietly to abandon their anti-fascism after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” Hellman famously told the House Un-American Activities Committee in a 1952 letter.[2] But by then she had already cut her conscience many times over.

There are those, then, for whom politics is cause for urgency and those for whom it is an image on a T-shirt, a means of sympathizing with force in the name of justice. The problem is not that intellectuals are political, but that so many belong, not to an active political party, but to what Edith Wharton calls “the throng of fashion.” They imitate the language of real politics, because it is the way they trim their texts to suit the current fashions.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Picador, 2005), p. 257.

[2] Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), p. 353.


Anonymous said...


Lee said...

I find it fascinating that you should distinguish between postwar intellectuals and our current crop of political intellectuals. Whatever one thinks of the validity of their respective political stances, anti-fascists and anti-communists faced relatively receptive audiences on the domestic front, as far as I have been able to discern through my readings of history.

It took almost no courage to be a contributor to The God That Failed or Encounter or whatever; discovering one's anti-communism was all the rage at the time, supported by the most powerful people in the domestic political sphere. By contrast, being in the public eye and standing against powerful and popular domestic forces after 9/11 -- standing against the Afghan and Iraq wars at the height of their popularity; opposing Bush when doing so risked being branded as "objectively pro-Saddam/pro-terrorist" -- took considerable courage, in relative terms.

dick said...


Do you really believe that? In the small political life of the metropolitan and academic areas not be stand against the Afghan and Iraq wars would be the exception. The rest of the country might not agree but withint the small society of the Left in America no courage would be necessary. It is like Pauline Kael and Richard Nixon writ all over again. The Left in the coastal regions is so divorced from the rest of the country that they seem to inhabit different nations totally.