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Mother’s lipstick

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In an interesting article, John Derbyshire thinks aloud about public intellectuals today. He takes as his starting point a book published in 1935 titled The Intelligentsia of Great Britain. The subjects of the book were George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, G.K. Chesterton, Bertrand Russell, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Middleton Murry, Dean Inge, Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur Eddington, E. M. Forster, G. D. H. Cole, Lytton Strachey, T. S. Eliot, and Harold Laski.

Derbyshire tries to discern what is common to all of these people. He decides that not only are they pretty smart, but they are well known and what they write and say has a certain weight to it. When they speak, people listen.

Derbyshire then tries to come up with a similar list for today. In doing so, he notes that no one takes poets or playwrights seriously anymore; that we have a great theologian in Richard John Neuhaus, but very few people have read him; and that we do well in the sciences, especially the human sciences.

Here is the list he comes up with for today:

Major-league intellectuals:

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Noam Chomsky

Ronald Dworkin

Freeman Dyson

Milton Friedman

Francis Fukuyama

Samuel Huntington

Charles Murray

Thomas Sowell

Gary Wills

I’m happy to say that Dyson and Wills were the only names unfamiliar to me, and Dyson, being a math guy, is not anybody I’m likely to bump into in the things I read (that’s my weakness, not his). Wills appears to be a historian, but for some reason I have not come across his name. Maybe my interests are too Anglo – European.

Looking over the list, Derb notes that:

By comparison with Paul Johnson’s 1935 list, mine shows a strong shift towards conservatism. The center of gravity of the 1935 list is well to the left of center; of mine, well to the right. This, I thought, must just be me; I’m just writing down the names of people I know about. To correct the balance, I leafed through some back copies of the reliably left-wing New York Review of Books and The New Yorker to pick out a heavyweight or two. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t. The modern Left simply isn’t competitive above the middleweight category. Considering their near-monopoly of academia, the arts, and the media, this is astounding…

I’m in agreement with him on this and I think the left dominance in the universities is in fact the cause of the problem. The conformity of thought makes universities (in the arts, anyway) intellectually less taxing and it makes the work they produce less interesting, especially to the general public, who are often well to the right of any faculty you could care to name. In addition I think the lack of any poet or playwright is a sign of maturity. There’s nothing wrong with Poetry or plays, but it is hard to see what a playwright might have to say about medical ethics that any averagely educated person couldn’t have said (which is to say, very little).

The other thing that leapt out at me was the total lack of theology combined with the good showing of the human sciences – Friedman and Fukuyama make the list, but Neuhaus does not. I can’t argue with merits of the choices, I just think it reveals the unbalance in our thinking. Friedman the economist and Fukuyama the political economy theorist are interesting people, but I’m not sure I would call what they do science. Economics, perhaps- political economy, no. The lack of interest in theology and the zeal to make Sciences out of subjects that are naturally Arts are probably both an attempt to act like the grown up society we all want to be, but in the end the result is analogous to giving a lipstick tube to a twelve year girl.

Like the child we we don’t know what adulthood is and can’t even dress the part, never mind act it. Perhaps if we lived in a society in which Neuhaus was read and discussed we would have a better idea of what science is and what its limits are, and perhaps –just perhaps– we could see ourselves just a bit more accurately. The theologians refuse to act like they are scientists and that is precisely what is missing.

As my favourite member of that class of ’35 put it: “What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” – G.K. Chesterton


Written by Curt

December 13, 2004 at 10:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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