Sunday, February 10, 2008

Polemic: The Art of War

The role of “public intellectual” never really took hold in America. Specifically, the public intellectual as political and cultural polemicist has been absent from the American scene. There have been exceptions (Mencken comes to mind) but they stand out precisely because of their status as “exceptions.” There has always been an enormous gulf between the “pointy headed intellectual” and the rough, broad-shouldered “man of action.” Say what one will about Teddy Roosevelt (and, dog knows, the man contained within his doughy body a breathtaking variety of uniquely American intellectual and emotional defects), the guy was always good for a useful quote.

"Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind."

In America, action has always trumped reflection, and the wellspring for action has always been emotionalism rather than reason. But can’t we advocate another view, the idea that thoughts can be a form of action, if they are communicated? Friedrich Nietzsche (someone I will trot out often on this blog as he so often suits my purposes) never really “did” anything in any sense that an American would understand. He had thoughts, he wrote them down and he got them out into the world. And yet Europeans – and civilized people in general – would have no problem with the idea that Nietzsche’s thoughts moved the world. Karl Marx also comes to mind, with his endless sedentary ruminations in the libraries of England: the thoughts he put to paper moved the world.

For rational, civilized people, there is no dichotomy between thought and action. Right thinking is seen as a form of action, and leads in a natural and unforced way to even more right action. And right action completes the loop by helping to shape more right thinking. This view of things is met with slow, blinking incomprehension in America. It’s time for us to engage in a bit of intellectual education. It’s time for those Americans who I refer to as “the sane, the secular, and the sensible" to go to war. Time to fight the most important war of our century, the war of ideas against the obscurantists, the fanatics, and the purveyors of offhand murder in the name of some “higher cause,” whether that higher cause be religion, some idealistic “ism,” or that most pernicious of alibis, “the spread of democracy.”

Who am I at war against? I am at war against “isms” of all kinds. Specifically, I am against those “isms” that seduce humans to yearn for some “Beyond” at the expense of this world. Because it is those who are focused on some “other life” that seem to find it all too easy to commit any outrage in this life, the only life there is. All those people who want to “change the world” scare the hell out of me. I’m with Camus: I don’t want to change the world; I just want to change lives. I think changing lives has much more value.

In America, we have an uphill slog, to say the least. American “thinkers,” such as they are, tend to be the sort of people that inspire a sort of bemused contempt in the typical American “men of action.” The enemies of reason have long known that we lovers of reason just don’t “get it.” Well, we need to “get it,” and sooner rather than later. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s time; long past time, maybe. Time for an end to the kind of ingrown, masturbatory self-regard that is the defining characteristic of the American intellectual. Time to move beyond the cowardice of excuses and alibis and “other priorities.” Time to stop asking our enemies to hold our hands and sing “Kumbaya” with us. It’s time to marshal our intellectual resources and go to war.


Erik said...

Sorry to throw out an -ism, but right thought and right action just remind me of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

Right View
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

Unlike alot of -isms, Buddhism is about becoming an ethical person. An interesting concept IMHO.

CrustyPolemicist said...

Busted. :-) Yeah, I was thinking of that intriguing ethical worldview that somehow managed to get stuck with its own "ism" (Buddhism) when I wrote that. And I agree that most "isms" are not about becoming an ethical person, they're about "changing the world," a truly dangerous and noxious concept that I hope to look at in detail in a future blog.