The Spectacle Blog

God and Man at The American Spectator: Intellectuals vs. Ordinary Americans

By on 6.8.10 | 12:35PM

It was very interesting to read Philip Klein's reaction to Robert Knight's column about conservative intellectuals -- including George Will and Charles Krauthammer -- who have in essence surrendered to gay radicals on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy.

John Guardiano addresses our colleague directly on the issue at hand. My concern, however, extends beyond this narrow question of policy. Philip defended himself Monday:

The main point I was trying to make was that it's hard to debate DADT because one's opinion is so closely tied toward one's perception of homosexuality. As somebody who doesn't view gayness as a big deal one way or the other, I honestly have trouble seeing the problem with allowing gays to openly serve in the military. At the same time, those who oppose lifting the ban start off with the assumption that homosexuality needs to be actively discouraged by society.

Which tends toward confirming the point I made here in my weekend post: This debate has been framed so that one's position on a matter of policy serves as a barometer of "one's perception of homosexuality," as Klein says. Only one perception of homosexuality is acceptable among the bien pensants, and therefore only one policy conclusion -- the overturning of DADT -- is possible.

This is not to assert that Philip's opinions are insincere. It would be unfair to claim that Philip endorses the repeal of DADT because he fears being disinvited to cocktail parties in Georgetown (or Dupont Circle, for that matter). What I am saying is that Philip's perspective typifies the tautological nature of intellectual consensus, as I explained at my own blog:

What Knight calls intellectual "groupthink" means that viewpoints unpopular among the elite usually lack articulate advocates, and few things are currently less popular among the intelligentsia than "homophobia." . . . Just as with other issues, like immigration, the views of the articulate elite are opposed mainly by Ordinary Americans - people who live their lives outside the elite "bubble" - and those in political life risk ridicule and ostracism if they disagree too loudly with prevailing elite opinion.

Since I began employing the term "Ordinary American" -- it was the title of an American Spectator column in May 2009, for example -- many have wrongly interpreted this phrase as synonymous with "Joe Six-Pack." But the Ordinary American is not necessarily a blue-collar Archie Bunker populist stereotype. What I have in mind, actually, is those who do their work and live their lives outside the world of those whom Friedrich Hayek classified as "intellectuals":

What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself. . . .
The class does not consist of only journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists . . . The class also includes many professional men and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who through their habitual intercourse with the printed word become carriers of new ideas outside their own fields and who, because of their expert knowledge of their own subjects, are listened with respect on most others. There is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or ideas except through the medium of this class; and outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men, dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it their job to keep abreast of opinion. It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented.

If any particular opinion attains dominance among the intellectuals, then, the man who disagrees will generally be unable to cite any recognized authority in support of his position. (Among the elite, it goes without saying, the Bible has no authority.) There are few if any researchers seeking data or reporters pursuing news that contradicts the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy. If such research and reporting does exist, there are few editors, publishers or broadcasting producers who will present it as "important enough to be told to us." Nor will such heterodox thought find its way into classrooms and textbooks and, because higher education is quite nearly a sine qua non of membership in the intelligentsia, the educated man who questions the elite consensus is viewed as an eccentric, a kook. 

This is how information and opinion controverting the intellectual consensus becomes, in a word, marginalized.

The Ordinary American often has opinions and beliefs that contradict the intellectual consensus, yet is usually at a loss to articulate his dissent in a way that the intelligentsia will recognize as valid. This is not because the Ordinary American is ignorant or stupid, but rather because his educational and professional career has not permitted him to acquire, refine and habitually practice the skill-set necessary to meet the intellectuals on their home field.

The articulate elite therefore appear to possess a monopoly on wisdom, and dissenters are reduced to sputtering indignation, feeling that they have somehow been cheated in a rigged game.

Furthermore, defenders of the intellectual consensus wield fearsome weapons against potential adversaries. Liberal blogger Ron Chusid denounced Knight and me as members of the "American Taliban" and "the authoritarian right." The purpose of labeling antagonists with these epithets, of course, is to discourage emulation, to make an example of the heterodox critic, to warn anyone tempted to agree with the dissenters that they too will meet this gruesome fate: Expulsion from the ranks of the bien pensants.

Philip Klein specializes in the discussion of politics and policy, and his response to Robert Knight is aimed merely at defending his own position on the issue of DADT. While siding with Knight and opposing Klein on that issue, my larger concern is the self-confirming nature of consensus among the elite.

To state it concisely and directly: I contend that, like many other well-educated Americans of his generation, my young friend Philip has been indoctrinated.

This is a charge Philip can be expected to dispute vehemently. A half-century ago, in Up From Liberalism, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote:

In the hands of a skillful indoctrinator, the average student not only thinks what the indoctrinator wants him to think . . . but is altogether positive that he has arrived at his position by independent intellectual exertion. This man is outraged by the suggestion that he is the flesh-and-blood tribute to the success of his indoctrinators . . .

J'accuse!

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