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To Kill an Intellectual.

A Serial in Five Parts.



The anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.

INVESTIGATORS ARE, BY NATURE, INDIVIDUALISTS. We look out for number one and we aren’t in the habit of binding our fates to others—no collective bargaining, no class-action suits, no communal living. Still, our job is to help people who are out of options. So, despite ourselves, we get involved in other people’s problems—trying to help them dig themselves out. That’s why, when a wave of killings spread among intellectuals across the world, I knew I had to answer the call. Mass murder on a scale like this couldn’t be left to its own devices. It had to be stopped. Or at least investigated.

I didn’t know who was behind the killings, but I knew the guy to ask for some background information. Richard Hofstadter, historian extraordinaire, who wrote Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and who had explored the circumstances, if not the roots, of intellectual antagonism across three centuries of cultural development in the United States.

The first thing Hofstadter did was to note that anti-intellectualism was not “a single proposition but a complex of related propositions.” It was, he said, “an attitude . . . not usually found in a pure form but in ambivalence,” adding that it was “not a constant thread but a force fluctuating in strength . . . drawing its motive power from varying sources.” So anti-intellectualism wasn’t one idea, it wasn’t a quality that belonged to any single political or social group. It wasn’t endemic to any specific ideology. It was a diffuse prejudice that could find roots in any number of contexts and opinions. It could come at you from anywhere—at any time.

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This obviously made it difficult to pinpoint the source of the current wave of murders. There were too many suspects. Anti-intellectualism had spread so wide throughout the culture that even those who weren’t directly responsible could still be complicit—or, at any rate, not care enough to stop the killings. Intellectuals of all stripes were suffering a double-edged threat.

The danger was all-encompassing—that much I understood. But I still needed to get a better idea of what actually characterized anti-intellectualism. So I went back to Hofstadter, who described it as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it.” But what was the life of the mind? And were those “considered to represent it” actually representative of this vague and amorphous notion? I felt lost before I’d even begun.

Things didn’t get simpler. Hofstadter soon added that “the leading anti-intellectuals are usually people deeply engaged with ideas”—people who themselves took part in the so-called life of the mind. And making things even more convoluted, he explained, “anti-intellectualism is usually the incidental consequence of some other intention, often some justifiable intention.” Anti-intellectualism is a side-effect of something that can, in itself, be well-intentioned. And to really complicate things, it can also be “characteristic of forces diametrically opposed to each other.” So two sides in a conflict can both make intellectuals their targets. This was a lot of negative energy for a class of people who were presumed to do little more with their lives than think.

What struck me was the level of hostility that seemed to pervade the general attitude toward intellectuals. Why so much hate?

What struck me, from the outset of my investigation, was the level of hostility that seemed to pervade the general attitude toward intellectuals. Why so much hate? So much loathing? I knew I’d need to pursue these questions eventually—but it was too early. I was still trying to understand how this attitude had spread so pervasively throughout so much of the world. And here, too, Hofstadter had something to say on the topic: “if anti-intellectualism has become, as I believe it has, a broadly diffused quality in our civilization,” he postulated, “it has become so because it has often been linked to good, or at least defensible, causes.” The search for justice, then, had perils of its own. It could become a source for anti-intellectualism—a force fighting the life of the mind.

At another point, Hofstadter put this idea in blunter terms: “an unbridled passion for the total elimination of this or that evil can be as dangerous as any of the delusions of our time.” All the good done in the world was, at the same time, also a potential conveyor of its own brand of destruction. There’s no safe way, it seemed, to stand up for good without also taking stock of the ramifications of one’s ideas and attitudes. There was no pure evil—and also no pure good. Somehow, regardless of your intentions, you were always carrying some sort of threat to the life of the mind. Anti-intellectualism was at all times ready to pounce through any medium possible—including intellectualism itself.

I pivoted from Hofstadter and went to a person I knew for a fact was interested in how evil and thinking were related to each other: Hannah Arendt. And I could see that, in The Life of the Mind (1977), left incomplete at the time of her death, she had anchored her entire exploration of the role and faculty of thinking in human life around the questions that arose for her during the Eichmann trial.

During the trial, Arendt was, as she put it, “struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives.” Later, she put this idea in simpler terms: “it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness” that had burbled up as evil. Yet for her, thinking wasn’t just contemplation, it was also everything involved in being in the world. It was “the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.” This claim on our attention, she added, was exhausting, unless you were Eichmann, who, she said, “differed from the rest of us only in that he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Reality, it seems, made no claim on Eichmann, who never stopped to think. This was the root of unthinking and unintellectual evil. It was an evil that was not against intellectualism, but lacking it altogether.

Arendt had, at the outset of her reflection, done something different than Hofstadter. She’d described the state of anti-intellectualism—not the idea—and then went on to ask, “Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?” Was a thinking person, her question seemed to ask, less given to wrongdoing?

It was an admittedly dubious line of thinking since, at first glance, it seemed to imply that only intellectuals could be good. But Arendt soon qualified this statement and turned it on its head: “If . . . the ability to tell right from wrong should turn out to have anything to do with the ability to think,” she said, “then we must be able to ‘demand’ its exercise from every sane person, no matter how erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid.” Thinking—intellectualism—had nothing to do with someone’s level of intelligence or knowledge. It had to do with a practice, a habit. Rather than tying it to mental aptitude, she instead bound up intellectualism with the issue of sanity. Thinking wasn’t a question of being smart. It was a question of being sane. As she put it: the “absence of thought . . . can be found in highly intelligent people.” Intelligence and intellectualism were not one and the same.

Actually, in his own way, Hofstadter had also made this distinction, calling intelligence “an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, and predictable range,” while describing the intellect as “the critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind.” Intelligence was used for applicable purposes. Intellect had a purpose of its own. Or as he put it elsewhere, “Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.” Oddly enough, these distinctions and explanations were made in a chapter titled “On the Unpopularity of the Intellect,” which made me wonder just what was so unpopular about creativity and wonder. What made these kinds of qualities so unpopular?

I started to think that maybe the whole issue of anti-intellectualism was just a case of mistaken identity. When Hofstadter compared intelligent people to “hired mental technicians who use their minds for the pursuit of externally determined goals,” I could somehow understand the sense of disgust—or at least resentment—that this could engender in others. They were like hire goons, assassins, villains who used their minds to the benefit—or harm—of other people.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, had “a certain spontaneous character and inner determination,” Hofstadter claimed. They were free-thinking and the major difference between them and intelligent people “is not in the character of the ideas . . . but in the attitude towards them.” Intellectuals treated the life of the mind differently than intelligent people. They were driven not by specific outcomes but by “a special sense of the ultimate value in existence of the act of comprehension.” For them, he suggested, “the life of thought . . . is also a medium through which other values are refined, reasserted, and realized in the human community.” Thinking, as Arendt suggested, was supposed to make them better people. Not because they were smart. But because they used their mental capacities, to the degree that they had them, to actually reflect on their beliefs and actions.

The problem was that honest intellectuals could easily be mistaken for mercenaries of intelligence…es-pecially when intellectuals possessed “the ability to comprehend and express not only different but opposing points of view.”

The problem was that honest intellectuals could easily be mistaken for mercenaries of intelligence, further complicating my attempts to figure out who was at the root of these killings. Especially when, as Hofstadter also claimed, intellectuals possessed “the ability to comprehend and express not only different but opposing points of view.” When dealing with people who can, in principle, represent viewpoints with which they don’t actually agree, you need a certain amount of time and nuance to really get to the bottom of what they are actually thinking and saying. People today just don’t have that sort of time. Everyone’s in a rush, both killers and victims, so it’s easy to confuse the innocent with the guilty. A person who can “identify imaginatively with or even to embrace within oneself contrary feelings and ideas”—such a person is simply too demanding for the times. This kind of person needs to learn to pare down their very humanity to a degree that others find easy to comprehend. As for their “belief that in some measure the world should be made responsive to their capacity for rationality”—what species of rationality holds opposing views and embraces contrary feelings? Intellectualism’s rationality is too idiosyncratic to be universally appreciated. This was its blessing and its curse.

This also gave some context to Hofstadter’s core claim on why intellectuals might have been targeted: “Intellect is resented as a form of power or privilege.” When you believe that you’re working for the hearts and souls of others—that you’re capable of bringing some understanding to this unfathomable world—you may be seen as setting yourself apart from those around you. It doesn’t matter whether this is what you believe. People’s perceptions have little to do with who you are in reality. And, most of the time, this simple fact of life is relatively harmless. But if you’re an intellectual, mistaken perceptions can turn you into a target. Not because you’ve actually done anything wrong, but because, regardless of what anyone else is doing, you’ve stood up for what you truly believe is right.

There’s a fine line between believing in one’s convictions and an overdose of self-righteousness. And that line usually runs through demagogy. As long as you are professing a personal belief, rather than trying to rile up the masses with your opinions, you cannot be accused of misleading others. But I’m an investigator, not a judge, and my jurisdiction doesn’t extend to deciding on the quality of public influence. It is limited to understanding how questions of right and wrong can lead someone not only to be targeted, but also killed—at least intellectually. This last thought made me wonder whether this whole killing spree wasn’t actually an inside job: the result of some disgruntled intellectuals who decided to take out their frustration on their closest associates. In which case, I needed some insight into the kind of animosity that could be engendered by intellectual debate.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, I also knew where I could go to find an acrimonious exchange. The truth is that I had a few good choices—and perhaps the most obvious would have been to follow the public split between Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But I needed a debate that went beyond polite expressions of disagreement. I needed to inspect a disagreement that drew blood—and I knew just where to look.

I was thinking, of course, of Arendt’s public debate with Gershom Scholem over her reporting of the Eichmann trial—the same event that had, a few years later, sent her on her final philosophical journey into the life of the mind. In response to her reports, Scholem leveled at her the harshest charge that existed between two persons of the Jewish faith—lacking Ahavat Israel or “Love of the Jewish people”—a phrase that cut straight to her sense of belonging. She, in turn, addressed him as “Gerhard,” cutting down his own sense of belonging by denying the Hebraized version of his German given name. In the end, the argument that grew between these two intellectual powerhouses came down their most deeply-held beliefs about human agency. The core issue wasn’t some abstract, intellectual concept. It was a question of mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

The historical background of this incident is well-documented. Arendt was sent by The New Yorker to cover the Eichmann trial in a series of articles that were later published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The idea that the greatest genocide of the twentieth century could be considered a banal form of evil provoked reactions in more than a few Jewish thinkers. But Scholem—who had considered Arendt a friend and who had praised her, and been praised by her, as a major intellectual—took personal offense.

Scholem had spent most of his life devoted to the Kabbalah, the medieval tradition of Jewish mysticism, including its evil realm, the Sitra ahra, and the movement started by Sabbatai Zevi, who used kabbalistic ideas to convince hordes of followers that he was the messiah. There was no banality possible in Scholem’s understanding of evil. It was mystical, it was demonic, and it was malicious. And, no matter how you sliced the pie, it included a measure of intent. You could be unintentionally misguided—but you couldn’t be accidentally evil.

Arendt, on the other hand, had spent her life studying the systematization and machination of suffering and destruction. She had arrived at the idea of “radical evil” as emerging from “a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.” The extermination camp, the gulag, the atom bomb—they were all capable of causing destruction on a massive scale, in which no single life had any significance. But they were also all dependent on a detachment from humanity that made being human no longer something of value. Life was a means for geopolitical ends, ideologies, and terror. And so, once she conceived of evil as systematized, it was a small step to stripping away any sense of intent from it as well. Systems, after all, have no sense of will. They just follow the program.

This was the point around which Scholem and Arendt finally butted heads. It was probably not incidental that their core disagreement grew out of her stay in Jerusalem—the city that Scholem had called home since immigrating to Palestine in 1923 and which Arendt visited to observe the trial in 1961, taking notes for her articles. Scholem and Arendt were no longer in the same city when her reports were published. But it was in that place that their perspectives on evil exposed their utter irreconcilability.

I consulted directly with the now-infamous correspondence between them over the issue—which was published at Scholem’s suggestion and, with Arendt’s approval, included her reply. Interestingly, their starkest difference was expressed not in terms of evil, but as questions of the heart. “It is that heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious tone,” wrote Scholem, “to which I take exception.” He then elaborated on his distaste for her voice: “…that tone—well expressed by the English word ‘flippancy’—which you employ so often in the course of your book.” It was less the ideas than the way they were expressed that really got to him. Arendt replied to his charge of heartlessness by doubling down: “the role of the ‘heart’ in politics,” she wrote, “seems to me altogether questionable.” Oddly enough, this part of their exchange gave me the sense that neither Arendt nor Scholem was more or less justified in their ideas—and also that their positions weren’t as far apart as the reputation of these letters had made it seem.

Perhaps trying to rip out one’s political heart was connected to something else. Perhaps it was a coverup for another intellectual crime.

I then reached Arendt’s retort to Scholem’s charge of lacking Ahavath Israel. “I cannot love myself,” she answered, “or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person.” It was a profound—and, to this investigator at least, a profoundly sad—statement. I’d been looking for intellectuals killing each other. But here I found one that was killing her love for herself. I wondered: What did she have against herself? Why could she never love anything that had to do with her? I also began to question whether there was, indeed, no role for the heart in politics. Perhaps trying to rip out one’s political heart was connected to something else. Perhaps it was a coverup for another intellectual crime. This would at least explain why she was playing into the stereotype of the heartless intellectual.

My first clue that there was more to the disagreement than the issue of evil came a few lines later, where Arendt, despite all of her protests against love, nevertheless expressed an emotion related to the Eichmann trial: “…wrong done by my own people,” she said, “naturally grieves me more than wrong done by other peoples.” She was referring to the role of Jewish communal leaders in enabling the deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. This participation was, as acknowledged by most contemporary historians, itself part of the unfathomable horrors of the Holocaust. And the Eichmann trial was, arguably, a case against the systematization of evil—against the idea that a person with any measure of power could be exonerated by a claim of bureaucratic innocence. Arendt’s book could have just as easily been held up as a case study for how radical evil cannot hide behind banality. But this was not the approach that she had taken, and, since I was interested less in the intellectual aspect of the disagreement than the split between these two personalities, it also wasn’t the aspect of the split between Arendt and Scholem that really caught my attention.

I was more taken by the notion that, despite stating that the heart had no role in politics, Arendt could still express grief over the wrongdoing of her own people, including in the political realm—and its implications for life and death. There was no doubt in my mind that Arendt was justified in this emotion. The only contradiction was that she, herself, had rejected the role of the heart in politics. And so I honed into her reply to Scholem and looked for some sort of clue that would explain this paradox, which I found just a few sentences later. “This grief,” she wrote, “is not for public display.”

Now it was clear. Rather than express any genuine emotion publicly, she’d taken on that same detached tone that Scholem had read as heartless, sneering, and malicious. She wasn’t lacking Ahavat Israel. She was withholding Avel Israel—grief over the part that Jewish had been forced to play in the deaths of their own people. Her lack of emotion had led to a misunderstanding that expressed itself as an intellectual duel to the death—especially since, when faced with evil personified in Eichmann as a person sitting before him, Scholem could not imagine repressing his emotion.

For Scholem, the seat of evil was Eichmann, who’d shipped the Jewish people off to be killed. For Arendt, the seat of evil was Jewish leadership, which had also become involved in shipping the Jewish people off to be killed. But whereas Scholem had no qualms about expressing his emotion, Arendt was more hesitant. In an ironic twist of fate, Arendt became the seat of evil for Scholem. He didn’t just believe that Eichmann had intent. He believed that Arendt had it too—and that hers was to single out the Jewish leaders who had been forced into making unthinkable decisions about who would live and who would be sent off to die. There was no question that some of them had acted corruptly and used the system for their own benefit. But this was not the point for Scholem. Every group of people had its scoundrels. It was the system itself, and especially the people who instituted and propagated it, who bore ultimate responsibility. Arendt just couldn’t see it that way because it was too sad for her to think of Jews sending other Jews to their deaths. She felt grief about the crime, but no compassion for the criminals terrorized into guilt. So she had, as a result of emotional repression, written a book that seemed to accuse the victim rather than the murderer.

Interestingly, the question of Arendt’s intent, which Scholem had never asked directly, was raised by a younger historian of the Holocaust, Leni Yahil, whom Arendt had met during her stay in Jerusalem, and with whom she also corresponded until her book was published, leading to a total split between the two. Scandalized by Arendt’s reports, Yahil asked her in the frankest way: “what was, or is, your own innermost intention that you were pursuing?” Arendt—writing from Greece and mockingly apologizing for her brevity on account of it being “so overwhelmingly beautiful here”—was completely dismissive of Yahil’s question. “You don’t really seriously think,” she wrote, “that I have ‘innermost’ (and hence unspoken) intentions.” Yahil’s response was as serious as Arendt’s was sardonic: “while you did not have any unspoken intentions,” she noted, “what about unconscious ones? How deep does your self-criticism reach?” Well, as it turned out, perhaps it reached too deep, which may have explained the seemingly flippant tone of Arendt’s book. Either way, she never responded to this or any other letter from Yahil. And after completing arrangements for publishing their exchange, she also never wrote again to Scholem.

The masses of dead Jews were long gone. But the living were left fighting over the guilt left behind.

The whole thing was like a vendetta that had spiraled out of control. The masses of dead Jews were long gone. But the living were left fighting over the guilt left behind. These intellectuals, whose ideas were so intimately bound to the historical tragedies they’d survived, had ended by turning on each other. It made me wonder whether it was worth the effort to save their kind—especially since, as intellectuals, they were so busy putting targets on each other’s backs. It was as if intellectuals, who were already being targeted by others, had nothing to do in their spare time but knock each other off.

How do you help a class of people who can barely help themselves? How do you support a group that, though misidentified as enemies of the greater good, are also constantly under threat of friendly fire? When bullets fly from all sides, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find the true source of the barrage. Especially since, while the war against evil is being fought, there are individual duels being conducted on the sidelines.

It was this tendency for self-immolation that I found so frustrating and incomprehensible when it came to intellectuals. Hofstadter had said it himself: “…anti-intellectualism isn’t the creation of people who are categorically against ideas.” So I understood that the next thing this investigation needed, before any other potential suspect could be considered, was to rule out any chance of this killing spree being an inside job. And, to do this, I had to undertake an uncompromising interrogation of what was now considered academic anti-intellectualism—the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.

The usual suspect in this line of inquiry was Pierre Bourdieu, the French public intellectual who once told The New York Times, “I think if I hadn’t become a sociologist, I would have become very anti-intellectual.” As he explained, he had been “horrified” by the network of French higher education and its vast cultural influence on the nation’s society. His inaugural lecture at the College de France was a takedown of the ritual of inaugural lectures. And his magnum opus, Homo Academicus, was a book-length takedown of the intellectual power structure of the French academic class. It was a deconstruction of the best-known deconstructionists which broke down everything from issues of competence to space, power, time, succession, and publication, all in relation to the background and activities of his fellow academics. It was a classic kind of cannibalistic work that scraped away at the structure of intellectual life through intellectuality itself. It was the use of ideas to undermine the realm in which ideas existed. And, most confusingly, it made the case that academia did the exact same thing to intellectual life: “it colludes with appeals to ‘reliability’ . . . to spoil or discourage any thought liable to disturb an order founded on resistance to intellectual liberty or even on a special form of anti-intellectualism.” The man who had almost become anti-intellectual was calling the entire system of higher education in France an anti-intellectual project at its very foundation.

I didn’t particularly agree with his arguments. But they were relevant to my investigation for at least two reasons. First, they offered more than Hofstadter’s general caveats about anti-intellectual tendencies being part of a global phenomenon—they constituted a totally separate and sustained study of its manifestation, at least across the pond. Second, they were proof that intellectuals and anti-intellectuals didn’t cancel each other out, but rather sustained each other. Ultimately, without the so-called anti-intellectual academic world, Bourdieu would himself have had had no target for his intellectual critique. He was entrenched in the same world that he’d spoken up against. Or, put another way, no amount of criticism on his part really undermined the structure of academic and intellectual power—it only reaffirmed his inability to escape its dominion over the life of the mind.

The educational system, as a system, cared no more or less for human life than the exterminational system of the death camps.

It seemed that the educational system was a system like any other—not different, in its systematic aspects, from the system of human deportation and extermination created by the Nazis. The educational system, as a system, cared no more or less for human life than the exterminational system of the death camps. It was as radically—or banally—evil as the man in charge of transferring all the Jews to the gas chambers. What made a difference was the intention with which the system was built. The educational system, for all its flaws, at least intended to teach people something. While the exterminational system meant only to annihilate them.

Bourdieu’s reflections exposed the reality that, for all their apparent acrimony, intellectuals weren’t actually killing each other off. On the contrary, in their own peculiar way, they were keeping each other alive.

It didn’t seem like intellectuals were guilty of the killings that had been plaguing their kind. Sure, like every community, they had their share of dysfunction and infighting. That didn’t mean they’d wished death upon each other. So I had to widen my investigation and follow a different line of inquiry if I wanted to find a potential culprit.

It wasn’t an easy task. There was something about intellectuals that made me want them to be guilty. I thought of Wordsworth, who’d reflected on the dangers of the mind, writing that “Our meddling intellect / Misshapes the beauteous forms of things,” adding that “We murder to dissect.” It was his own verdict on the insidiousness of intellectuality—his own moment of anti-intellectualism—equating the dismemberment of bodies to the dismemberment of ideas. Geoffrey Hartman, the literary critic who’d escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport and become a professor of literature in the United States, rephrased the issue this way: “Can the intellect yield true moral judgments? Is it not tainted by originating in a crime against nature, however unwitting or inevitable this crime may be?” His framing of the question totally opposed Arendt’s intellectual positivism, which had suggested that the intellect might act as a pathway to ethical action. Instead, he expressed a healthy measure of Wordsworthian doubt about the origin of thinking—and its role in the social order of human life. It also cast the death of the intellectual in a romantically tragic light. The unwittingness and inevitability of the crime made it seem as though criminals were more innocent than the authority that put them in jail.

This was when I began to suspect that it wasn’t the intellectuals, but the intellect itself, that had been the real target of the killings. And since the intellect was an abstract entity without any tangible form, those who wanted it dead had to target—and liquidate—real-life intellectuals across the globe. I also understood why, in an essay on the role of intellectuals in the modern world, Bourdieu had noted that “intellectuals of different countries always have to keep in mind . . . the effects of their past or present confrontation with experiences of political despotism.” He had sent a coded message to all intellectuals, a supratemporal-transnational warning, reminding them that the enemy was not within, but without. It was not just some theoretical enemy killing the spirit of the intellect in the life of this or that nation. It was a real enemy with a real agenda to eliminate real living intellectuals.

DAVID STROMBERG is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Smart SetPublic Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of Old Truths and New Clichés (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a reissue of the canonical story, Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition (Restless Books). His recent work includes A Short Inquiry into the End of the World (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew,” which appeared in The Hedgehog Review. This is the third in that series. His website? It’s here.

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