INTELLECTUAL PARALYSIS ON THE LEFT. WHY?
At the end of this rambling monolog, Chomsky says left wing intellectuals have not been speaking out. For decades. So there’s a vacuum. No new left ideology.
There’s a debate. Some culture critics explain that a war on intellectualism, beginning in the 1960s, has decimated the number of intellectuals in America so that today, intellectualism itself has almost disappeared.
Other culture-watchers (particularly Richard Posner, John Michael) say that actually, intellectuals have not disappeared, they are just paralyzed. They have dropped into a deep uncertainty, and they carry a horrible anxiety.
To sketch this explanation we contrast an earlier era, the 1950s and its ideological cohesion, against the 1970s and its cultural and ideological fragmentation.
American intellectuals of an earlier era were a bold lot. They had swagger and abrasive styles, and they wrote slashing opinion. A common theme was to contrast the current state of affairs with important fundamentals: truth, reason, justice, freedom, and then berate how our society was falling apart.
But that stopped.
A new fashion appeared, cultural relativism. It says, among other things that, there’s no universal fundamentals. That there’s all these different communities, and we should allow that what is the truth, and what is good and just and what correct in one community, is not the same in others, so don’t be judgmental, because each community (fundamentalists, gays, primitives, mystics, Mormons, southern blacks, military) has their own ways, and that is beautiful, and don’t get critical.
This is called multiculturalism. One community is not better, they’re just different.
Then the ideal is that all communities nicely cohabit in tolerance and harmony.
Actually this may have started in universities. And not just anthropology departments, but English departments adopting a new principle: literature cannot be judged by a universal standard, each community or historical period does its own writing thing and none is better, they’re just different. Everything’s relative.
At that, intellectuals freeze.
Intellectuals are naturally judgmental. Intellectuals use universal values, and they work by ideological confrontation. Which contrasts with what university academics do – today’s academics think and write cautiously and are nothing if not accommodating.
But in the last few decades, academia has absorbed intellectuals. Intellectuals need jobs too, and in effect, the price of keeping the job is acting like a nice college professor. So intellectuals have caved in. They are not producing their usual good stuff. Nowadays, their published writing is no different from anyone else’s. Colored prudent. And that is a big loss to our culture.
Relativism not only affects literary criticism, it has also infected university research, moral standards, whole thinking styles. And another thing: if everything is relative, so are the rules.
Under relativism, logic itself, a fundamental rule for chasing down the truth, is negotiable. Some communities use logic, some don’t. Sometimes personal charisma is more important than the rules. And that is beautiful, don’t get critical.
Right there, intellectuals freeze.
The hallmark of the public intellectual is his bold use of the rules of logic and reason. Reason is the biggest weapon in his arsenal and sometimes at considerable personal risk she or he uses it against tyrants, governments, religious dogmatics, exploiters, warmongers. A real intellectual hungers for overarching principles and universal standards: the rules of investigation are more important than the endpoint of the debate. If there are no universal rules, logic can be outshouted by any charismatic spokesman: Marxist, feminist, Objectivist, the military.
Relativism says that what is fair play, and what is not, and what is important, and what is not, depends on what community you’re in. (Also how, or whether, things get done.) Under multiculturalism, everything is ok.
Next, hierarchy is out. Because hierarchy means something is unequal. For example, no values are hierarchically better than others, they’re just different.
Being an intellectual opens a person to being despised as an elitist. That comes with the territory, it’s always been a problem especially when intellectuals lend their incendiary language to industrial strikes, human rights protests, draft riots. The intellectual joins the populist, but the populist later thinks he is too well spoken. Historically this has always been a point of tension; but in these days of hierarchy being politically incorrect, it is more uncertainty.
So ideally in the relativism world, everybody does their thing with tolerance and mutual respect, and all cohabit in diversity, and people of all different kinds and creeds and ways get melted together. On the surface, it looks like all this unbounded multiculturalism offers great flexibility. On a good day this relativism feels like freedom. But on a bad day, it feels like the ground is shifting under your feet. Relativism really allows no certainties, everything is shifting seas.
Now back to reality. Actually, universities (like the world outside) are competitive places. University teachers, and people who want to be – the younger ones trying to establish themselves – are working under this corrected atmosphere of no-certainties. Publishing a clear statement is now discouraged, because it involves a value judgment. Diverse or not, academics’ minds are on professional survival, so they don’t take any risks, especially the kind that get you noticed – especially the scandalous places that logic can take you. So their work suffers. Writers are skin-sensitive to community correctness and they watch out for peer disapproval.
The aggregate result can be seen in any university library: journals, shelf upon creaking shelf of cautiously dense writing that nobody ever reads.
Politically, argues Donald Wood, multiculturalism is a step backward. Because in practice the different communities don’t get along harmoniously. In practice, it’s turned into a new tribalism.
So, in all this. After the 1980s, can you name any new left intellectuals? – asks Jacoby. Very few. Academic lefties are caught between the conflicting demands of universal standards vs. relativism, caught between the conflicting demands among communities promoting their local agendas, concerns not to ruffle academic protocol, worried about being skewered as an elitist.
Caught in the terror of uncertainty. Today’s left intellectuals have simply lost their nerve.
Too bad, remarks Chomsky. Because today, our nation is in a dangerous predicament, being torn up by propagandists on the right.