News & Politics

The Life of the Mind

Pursuing the "life of the mind" and taking full responsibility for the choices you make has nothing to do with intellectualism, elitism or being an "expert."
My beautiful babies: in my last letter I may have given the impression "intellectuals" should be put on a pedestal.

If that's the case, pardon my lack of clarity. What I was warning you about is the anti-critical thinking virus, which is dangerous because soft heads can create hard hearts. And social misery. That's what I meant by "anti-intellectual." I used it because "anti-critical thinking" sounds so, um, intellectual.

This is important because some folks have a tendency to fall for what's called an either/or fallacy. If you are against X, you must be for Y. If you're criticizing anti-intellectuals, you must consider yourself an intellectual etc.

It's more common than the mass marketing of bad hip hop. "Either you're with us or against us." "Stay the course or cut and run." Now, we've got this new brand-name called "surge." So, it's either "surge or surrender." I trust you see the bad logic there. If not, just throw this letter away and, no, you can't ever borrow the keys to the car.

As I see it, there are two kinds of "intellectuals." There are ivory tower intellectuals -- experts with an interest in obscuring reality using big words and fancy theories to maintain their mystical status, while justifying anti-democratic privilege, prestige and professorial power. And then, there are truth-seekers with a child-like sense of intellectual curiosity. That could be anyone from a physicist or pianist to an auto mechanic or garbage collector.

Henry Kissinger is a good example of the ivory tower intellectual. One of the few things written, or said, by the former Secretary of State and war criminal that makes any sense to me was his candid definition of an "expert."

An "expert," he wrote, is "a person who knows how to articulate the consensus of his constituency." In other words, you're an "expert" when you use your intellect in the service of power, very often working for the military-industrial complex -- the axis of evil President Eisenhower warned your grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation about to no avail.

To be a real "expert" also means rationalizing the prevailing power matrix, which includes constructing intellectual-sounding arguments demonstrating why The People should not have any real say-so in the policy decisions that rule their daily lives. Go look up Walter Lippmann, one of the most influential public intellectuals of the 20th century, and read his arguments about the need to "manufacture consent" in order to get The People to do what's best for The People.

Check public relations icon Edward Bernays: "It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during (World War I) that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind."

Bernays went on to write what Karl Rove certainly understands. "The manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental cliches and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror and the tyranny of the enemy."

Matter of fact, you'll find just about every "respectable expert" out there, dead or alive, telling you that non-expert public opinion is stupid, wishy-washy; not to be trusted or heeded.

The basic argument these "intellectuals" make is that people like you and me are too dumb to understand things like why we "must" launch a war of aggression on a people that had nothing to do with 9/11 or WMD and why we've got "no choice" but to bomb their neighbors too before they bomb us. That's what "expert opinion" is for -- to make the "tough choices."

The "experts" who get disproportionately quoted and who dominate news talks shows repeatedly suggest the only people who really understand things like war and peace are the "experts."

It's really apparent when an entertainer dares to voice a political opinion challenging established power -- unless, of course, you're talking about the actor Ronald Reagan. "That's different." He was "the Great Communicator" who wasn't afraid to drop bombs. If we were all being honest, we'd call these intellectuals what they are -- experts in propaganda, the subject of my next letter to you.

In contrast, when it comes to outside politics, like sports and entertainment, it's accepted and encouraged for laymen to throw deference-to-the-experts straight out the window. Noam Chomsky is right about this. Sports fans have no qualms about publicly disputing decisions made by Hall of Fame players and coaches. Fans actually use lots of intellectual energy analyzing team match-ups, as you've seen me do many times. Critics might be called Monday morning quarterbacks but no one says they're anti-football or un-baseball or whatever.

So, please, don't get it twisted. When I talk about anti-intellectualism, I'm not making a case for being an "intellectual." I'm talking about pursuing the life of the mind and taking full responsibility for the choices you make. Besides, if I had to bet on either public opinion or expert opinion, I'm rolling with P.O.

Don't take my word for any of this. Check it out for yourself because you certainly won't learn it in school. I'm not hatin' on educators. They've got a work force to train. But while you're learning the "right" answers, don't stop pursuing the wonder-filled questions you had about the world before they tried to turn you into a period. You owe that to the world. And that's word to your GED-gettin', no college degree havin,' self-edge-i-bicated Daddy.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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