Who are the intellectuals?

[Noam Chomsky, from Understanding Power]

WOMAN: Noam, I’ve noticed that in general there’s a strong strain of anti- intellectualism in American society.

When you say there’s “anti-intellectualism,” what exactly does that mean? Does it mean people think Henry Kissinger shouldn’t be allowed to be National Security Advisor?

WOMAN: Well, I feel there’s a sense in which you’re looked down on if you deal with ideas. Like, I’ll go back and tell the people I work with that I spent the whole weekend listening to someone talk about foreign policy, and they won’t look at that in a positive way.

Yeah, because you should have been out making money, or watching sports or something. But see, I don’t call that “anti-intellectual,” that’s just being de-politicized— what’s especially “intellectual” about being concerned with the world? If we had functioning labor unions, the working class would be concerned with the world. In fact, they are in many places— Salvadoran peasants are concerned with the world, they’re not “intellectuals.”

These are funny words, actually. I mean, the way it’s used, being an “intellectual” has virtually nothing to do with working with your mind: those are two different things. My suspicion is that plenty of people in the crafts, auto mechanics and so on, probably do as much or more intellectual work as plenty of people in universities. There are big areas in academia where what’s called “scholarly” work is just clerical work, and I don’t think clerical work’s more challenging mentally than fixing an automobile engine— in fact, I think the opposite: I can do clerical work, I can never figure out how to fix an automobile engine.

So if by “intellectual” you mean people who are using their minds, then it’s all over the society. If by “intellectual” you mean people who are a special class who are in the business of imposing thoughts, and framing ideas for people in power, and telling everyone what they should believe, and so on, well, yeah, that’s different. Those people are called “intellectuals”— but they’re really more a kind of secular priesthood, whose task is to uphold the doctrinal truths of the society. And the population should be anti-intellectual in that respect, I think that’s a healthy reaction.

In fact, if you compare the United States with France— or with most of Europe, for that matter— I think one of the healthy things about the United States is precisely this: there’s very little respect for intellectuals as such. And there shouldn’t be. What’s there to respect? I mean, in France if you’re part of the intellectual elite and you cough, there’s a front-page story in Le Monde. That’s one of the reasons why French intellectual culture is so farcical— it’s like Hollywood. You’re in front of the television cameras all the time, and you’ve got to keep doing something new so they’ll keep focusing on you and not on the guy at the next table, and people don’t have ideas that are that good, so they have to come up with crazy stuff, and the intellectuals get all pompous and self-important. So I remember during the Vietnam War, there’d be these big international campaigns to protest the war, and a number of times I was asked to co-sign letters with, say, Jean-Paul Sartre. Well, we’d co-sign some statement, and in France it was front-page news; here, nobody even mentioned it. And the French thought that was scandalous; I thought it was terrific—why the hell should anybody mention it? What difference does it make if two guys who happen to have some name recognition got together and signed a statement? Why should that be of any particular interest to anybody? So I think the American reaction is much healthier in this respect.

WOMAN: But I want to point out that you’ve told us about a number of books this weekend which support some of the contentions you’re making: you would not know a lot of these things if you hadn’t read that material.

That’s right— but you see, that’s a reflection of privilege, not a reflection of intellectual life. The fact is that if you’re at a university, you’re very privileged. For one thing, contrary to what a lot of people say, you don’t have to work all that hard. And you control your own work— I mean, maybe you decide to work eighty hours a week, but you decide which eighty hours. That makes a tremendous difference: it’s one of the few domains where you control your own work. And furthermore, you have a lot of resources— you’ve got training, you know how to use a library, you see the ads for books so you know which books are probably worth reading, you know there are declassified documents because you learned that in school somewhere, and you know how to find them because you know how to use a reference library. And that collection of skills and privileges gives you access to a lot of information. But it has nothing to do with being “intellectual”: there are plenty of people in the universities who have all of this stuff, and use all of these things, and they do clerical work. Which is perfectly possible— you can get the declassified documents, and you can copy them, and compare them, and then make a notation about some footnote referring to something else. That’s in fact most of the scholarship in these fields— take a look at the monographs sometime, there’s not a thought in people’s heads. I think there’s less real intellectual work going on in a lot of university departments than there is in trying to figure out what’s the matter with my car, which requires some creativity.


…I’m not trying to disagree, I just think that we should look at the thing a little differently. There’s intellectual work, which plenty of people do; then there’s what’s called “intellectual life,” which is a special craft which doesn’t particularly require thought— in fact, you’re probably better off if you don’t think too much— and that’s what’s called being a respected intellectual. And people are right to look down on that, because there’s nothing very special about it. It’s just a not very interesting craft, not very well done usually.

In my own view, it’s wrong if a society has these kinds of differentiations. My own early background was in a kind of Jewish working-class environment, where the people were not formally educated and they were workers— like somebody could be a shop-boy, or a seamstress or something like that— but they were very literate: I would call them intellectuals. They weren’t “intellectuals” in the sense that people usually talk about, but they were very well-read, they thought about things, they argued about things— I don’t see any reason why that can’t be what you do when you’re a seamstress.

[Fran Lebowitz, on Talk of the Nation]

CONAN: You also say that— talking about democracy— that there is a place for— we’ve heard a lot of criticism, these past several months in particular, of elites, yet you defend elites to the death.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, I defend certain kind of elitism. In other words, when— oh, I don’t know, Republicans, for instance, you know, disparage elites, they don’t mean rich people. They love rich people. You know, they mean smart people. They don’t mind elite athletes. They use that phrase all the time. They love elite soldiers, you know? So we know what they mean when they say elite. And so, you know, it’s not true.

CONAN: Isn’t it another way of continuing the culture war that we’ve read about, again, for— well, nigh unto to four decades?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yeah. I mean, it’s— of course, if you hold the positions these people hold, you naturally would be weary of the person of intelligence, because a person of intelligence can see that these positions are grotesque.

CONAN: And persons of intelligence, that’s defined by what, meritocracy?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: It’s defined by me.