- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

INTELLECTUALS AND SOCIETY

By Thomas Sowell Basic Books, $29.95, 416 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

As Paul Johnson succinctly put it, intellectuals are more interested in ideas than in people. In this far-ranging study, in clear and vigorous prose, Thomas Sowell, scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, syndicated columnist and author of more than 30 books, puts meat on the bones of Mr. Johnson’s definition.

Today, Mr. Sowell says, whether the subject is war and peace, health care or the auto industry, intellectuals set the terms of the national debate, and by so doing define and shape the climate of opinion in which official policies develop.

“We must be clear about what we mean by intellectuals. Here ‘intellectuals’ refers to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas - writers, academics, and … a penumbra of those whose role is the use and dissemination of those ideas.” That includes teachers, social activists, political operatives, “and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals.”

Despite former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famous description of members of the national media as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” Mr. Sowell is willing to give journalists if not quite full, then at least adjunct intellectual status.

Unsurprisingly, the ideas these adjunct intellectuals embrace and disseminate all derive from a long-standing leftist intellectual orthodoxy, although one suspects that in many cases, the intellectuals are just not bright enough to understand that the product they’re peddling is Marxism Lite - which raises questions about their intellectual credentials. But no matter. As a recent example, in his chapter “Intellectuals and War: Repeating History,” Mr. Sowell builds a devastating case against the leftist antiwar political and intellectual establishment and its cheerleaders in the media during the period of the “surge” in Iraq.

“Insistence that the surge was a failure only escalated as signs of its success began to appear.” Among the increasingly frantic naysayers: the New York Times, especially its columnist Paul Krugman, who late in 2007 declared flatly that “the surge has failed.”

On the opening day of Gen. David H. Petraeus’ testimony before Congress, the New York Times allowed MoveOn.org to run a full-page ad accusing Gen. Petraeus of being a liar. To boot, Mr. Sowell writes, “The New York Times charged MoveOn.org less than half the usual rate for a full-page ad and waived its policy against ads making personal attacks.”

” ‘We need to stop the surge and start to get our troops out,’ trumpeted Sen. Joseph Biden in August 2007.”

Mr. Biden, initially a strong supporter of the war who proudly pushed his own eccentric and unworkable plan for dividing Iraq into three ethnic/religious segments, now trumpets the Obama administration’s success in Iraq - a success due entirely to the Bush surge - which has inspired President Obama to launch a Bush-style surge (he won’t call it that) of his own in Afghanistan - and without a peep of protest from the erstwhile anti-surge alliance.

Throughout history, Mr. Sowell writes, influential intellectuals have been disastrously wrong in their analyses and prescriptions. In the 20th century, the theme was “collective surrogate decision-making by government” on both the “totalitarian left” and the “democratic left” - with emphasis on “left.”

Early on, Lincoln Steffens wrote as glowingly about Mussolini’s fascism as he had written about Soviet communism. H.G. Wells urged students “to be ‘liberal fascists’ and ‘enlightened Nazis.’ ” Charles Beard, the New Republic and the poet Wallace Stevens were among Mussolini’s apologists. W.E.B. Du Bois “put swastikas on the cover of a magazine he edited,” like many of the leading intellectuals of the day seeing the Nazis as part of the political left.”

In 1936, Du Bois said that ” ‘Germany today is, next to Russia, the greatest exemplar of Marxian socialism in the world today.”

“During this early period,” Mr. Sowell writes, “it was common on the left, as well as elsewhere, to compare as kindred experiments Fascism in Italy, Communism in the Soviet Union and the New Deal in the United States.”

It’s impossible to know just how much similarly muddled thinking led to the great wars of the last century and the unrest that rages today. But there’s no doubt that intellectuals helped feed the ideological fires that touched it all off. As Thomas Sowell shows us, while ideas often have disastrous consequences for people throughout the world, intellectuals, who help shape the policies growing out of those ideas, seldom pay the price.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).


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