Friday, 10 August 2012

Irresponsible Intellectuals

Karl Marx, 1875
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
This past week I read an old book by Paul Johnson, Intellectuals. It’s about twelve prominent intellectuals, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Lillian Hellman (the only woman).  Johnson’s thesis is that to be able to evaluate intellectuals’ theories, you should also understand their private lives. What we learn from this book is that almost all the intellectuals he discusses treated their women in their lives terribly, no great surprise. Also, most of the ones who claimed that they spoke for “the workers” had nothing at all to do with workers, except perhaps their servants and the mothers of their illegitimate children. An example is Karl Marx, who had a son with his household servant but never helped care for him or recognized him as his child.

Johnson’s bias in this book is obvious. He calls the leftist intellectuals with whose ideas he disagrees “intellectuals,” while he reserves the term “men of letters” for more moderate or conservative thinkers. One of his intellectuals is Jean-Paul Sartre, famous for his apologetics for the Soviet Union. When asked about the gulag (the system of Soviet prison camps), he replied, “As we were not members of the Party… it was not our duty to write about Soviet labour camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of this system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” He also admitted lying after visiting the Soviet Union, partly because “it is not polite to denigrate your hosts.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1950
Retried from Wikimedia Commons
While conducting research on the historical backgrounds of the state-induced famines I am currently researching, I found a number of other examples of irresponsible intellectuals. Approximately 3.3 million Ukrainians (and many others) died in the state-induced famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union. Yet British observers such as the socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb travelled through Ukraine at the height of the famine and brought back glowing reports of the harvest. George Bernard Shaw in 1931 “discovered that Stalin was a fine fellow and that everyone in Russia had plenty to eat.” Walter Duranty, a reporter for the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting on the Soviet Union. He claimed in November 1932 that there was “neither famine nor hunger,” yet he was aware of the famine’s extent, privately telling both American diplomats and fellow journalists that as many as ten million people might have died of hunger. He finally admitted in the press in 1933 that there were food shortages in the Soviet Union, but famously defended Soviet policies by stating that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
As in Ukraine, Western journalists were either duped or closed their eyes to what was happening during the Great Leap Forward in China, 1958-62. When asked by editors at Look magazine to investigate reports of famine, the American journalist Edgar Snow blamed the reports on Cold War propaganda, and in his later memoirs wrote “I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph.” The leftist French politician—and later President of France--François Mitterand, visited Mao during the Great Leap Forward and later reported uncritically Mao’s contention that there was no famine, only “a period of scarcity.”
Leftist intellectuals also disregarded the plight of the Cambodians during Khmer Rouge rule, 1975-79. In their single-minded mission to expose the United States’, but not other states’, violations of human rights, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman referred in 1979 to a “propaganda campaign” that they maintained ignored “interpretations of developments in Cambodia that departed from the theme of systematic genocide.”
Slavoj Žižek, 2009
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
And now we have to ask about the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek. According to an article in the July 12, 2012 New York Review of Books by John Gray, Žižek thinks neither Mao nor the Khmer Rouge went far enough in their attempts to create new, revolutionary societies. Gray quotes Žižek referring to revolutionary violence as “divine” and “redemptive.” If Žižek really celebrates violence as Gray suggests, does it matter? Is he merely an obscure intellectual whose influence is limited to those who actually ready the International Journal of Žižek Studies, but whose thinking doesn’t influence anyone in the real world of policy-making? Liberals, and those who value human rights, are proponents of freedom of speech, while university scholars like me also try to protect academic freedom at all costs.  But do we have a responsibility not to glorify violence and not to ignore evil? I think we do.

Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, quotesfrom Sartre on pp. 243 and 244.
John Gray, “The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek,” New York Review of Books, vol. 59, no. 12, July 12, 2012, pp.22-24.

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