Siddhartha Chatterjee
Rhetorical Swiss-knives: Part 3
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Hammer of Intellectualism

Let us begin with a quote:

But I would go further. One of the principal lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is-beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.

Paul Johnson in book Intellectuals (P.S.)

Back in my college days, I used to hear a term called “Antel” at times. Gradually I learnt to identify “Antels”. The ones who will wear a “panjabi” (a bong ethnic dress) with Levi’s jeans and a bata shoe, will keep untrimmed beard, will take a jhola (bags made from clothing) everywhere they go to, will learn how to play guitar or tabla and yes, final sign is an important one, will smoke
no cigaret other than Wills. We, the science-techie types often used the term in a pejorative sense but I later realized that for many students in humanities departments the tag “antel” was often a badge of honor. Now, obviously, they would not use such an un-intellectual term for themselves. These band of merry young folks used to refer each other as intellectuals. I sometimes get to meet these “intellectuals” as certain vices of youth were more readily available in humanities campus. The “intellectuals” were deeply radical left who attended less classes (as being pawn of bourgeoisie education system would harm the cause of the oppressed) and contributed more to the economic well being of the nearest tea-shop owner who, dressed in jeans/shirt and hawaii chappal, symbolized the oppressed of the world. The “intellectuals” detested free-market bent of Indian economy (“neoliberalization of market” it was called as if there was an old liberalization somewhere in the past) and liberally quoted Chomsky and other “giants” to show how Indians are becoming slaves of “decadent” capitalism.

Too immersed in the youthful affairs to care about politics or economy yet smart enough to figure out that preferring free market to Chomsky’s ideas rarely help in deciding who get to sit close to the girls in the movie hall, I often nodded in silent agreement. Much to these intellectual friend’s dismay, I later became a “pawn” of same decadent capitalism and became part of the same reviled bourgeoisie. I later got in touch with some of them but, by then, I have
read enough to see through the smoky mixture of burnt tobacco and socialism – the later being more harmful than former to the well being of our species. Yet, the cult of intellectuals continue it’s grand march towards socialist utopia. The reviled members of bourgeoisie middle class like us are made to be feel enough guilt to pay attention and admit “If these smart people say socialism is good, then, well, it must be so….”. This Intellecutal dogma is one of the reason public discourse is so bland and directionless in our country.

The tag “intellectual” is somewhat debatable. Are all intelligent people intellectuals? Why should we value them? Probably because they show new ways, new insights, new approach to the old problems. But the very definition of “new” means it is different from what is customary. Coming up with “new” in a society that is used to “old” ways is not easy. Rest assured, a new iPhone is far
easier to get used to than a new idea or a new way of doing things. Socrates was forced to drink poison. Hypatia, one of the towering intellectuals of her time, was skinned alive. Only few ideas changed world and even fewer did any good to our species, rest changed the fate of their originators or cursed their legacy. Those whose ideas changed the world and stood the test of time were definitely not very popular in their times. Greg Cantor whose mathematical innovation altered mathematics in such a fundamental way (and made enterprise-software-as-we-know possible) was thoroughly reviled by most of the colleagues of his generation. Yet his fate was better than those who were roasted alive or quartered because their religious or political ideas were disliked by power-that-be be it priest or king. Most of these were called intellectuals by their followers as a form of paying respect, it is very difficult to find a coherent definition of intellectual.

The ambiguity of the definition of “intellectual” is probably one big reason, we saw more charlatans claiming that tag without contributing anything to our understanding of the universe or ourselves. But let us not be uncharitable. In the age of visual consumption where molestation of a girl who could be our daughter or sister is a commodity, so commodities like “intellectuals” had to be mass produced, more the merrier. It is the reason that over the past century, print and visual media assumed itself to be the authority that can hand out the certificate of various labels including “liberal”, “intellectual” or “secular”. This is no less preposterous than catholic church offering ticket to heaven. So when those tv-certified intellectuals with their inflated sense of self-worth begin to discuss about the world affairs, what we get is mere baloney and that is an understatement. Since their tag is bound to the authority (i.e. the entity that runs the media house promoting them) that knighted them, no amount of feedback or criticism can deter them or change their position. This is a global phenomemon. So Dr Thomas Sowell writes in Intellectual and Society :

Intellectuals may choose to imagine what are the wider social consequences of their own actions, inside or outside their fields of professional competence, but there is little or no consequential feedback when they are wrong, no matter how wrong or for how long

So when the mass media and freshly minted intellectuals came together, bubbles formed. Like other bubbles made by nature, these bubbles are too filled with air and serve no purpose other than providing a visual delight. Unlike other bubbles, however, these bubbles are intended to be very toxic. Daily consumption of these bubbles result into a very warped view of present or past events. In this sense, they are similar to LSD. But there is more! These manufactured intellectuals are encouraging hundreds of wanna-be to become intellectuals whose only aim seems to be producing more balderdash so that they can call themselves intellectuals. The certified intellectuals are under spotlight often,but wanna-be themselves are very interesting creatures and they are here for quiet sometime.

When the JNU-bred intellectual friend of the niece of a close friend landed in the mecca of “decadent” capitalism, I was stupid enough to agree to receive him. As I drove along the 6 lane wide freeway, he mumbled about too much wealth being concentrated in too few hands. Common courtesy prevented me from asking about the source of the wealth of the Jewish businessman who owns the entity that invited him to the country for “lecture”. The few days we stayed together, he passionately argued his case for destruction of “greedy capitalists” and, each time, I pointed out the flaw in his line. Irritated, he told me that I can not be an intellectual if I feel that way. It was such a non sequitur that I had to laugh. I told him that I never asked anyone to consider myself an intellectual. His expression was worth a picture. The chap eventually left and never showed the courtesy of calling back. But I am thankful for a rare glimpse of the underbelly of an wanna-be: the need for approval of intellectuals. Since then, I noticed this demand for call-me-an-intellectual in various face-to-face discussions, internet discussion boards, blog comment spaces and twitter.

It is hilarious and pathetic at the same time. This is partly Indian phenomenon although there are other places this problem persists. Richard Crasta or Atish Taseer may criticize brown writer’s need for white intellectuals’ approval, but we should understand that this need-for-approval is a pyramid scheme, a sort of caste system of it’s own kind. The wanna-be, the bottom layer would strive to do anything to gather the approval currencies. Now, along comes people like Arundhati Roy, born in top layer and holder of the tag “one of the most important voices of the world” just after writing one mediocre book. Now this pyramid is not just a harmless honor system. There exists ways of monetizing this scam. An interested reader may refer to this article by
a well known “activist” “intellectual” to see the kind of monetary rewards exist at the middle layer. The reward for top layer is a bit different: book tour, book reading session in socialite exclusive clubs in the lounges of seven star hotels, first class air-fare and, lest we forget, a place in the international lecture circuit. This lecture circuit is a strange beast. The list includes
former US presidents like Bill Clinton or Jim Carter, or alive dictators like Pervez Musharaff to other gangu-telis like some of our gyanpith winners. After all, if you are sitting in Savoy hotel advising phoren journos about poverty, intellectualism is not a bad career. It is useful to take a full stock of Indian honor system to estimate how the game is played in national scene. But even if you dont have an award, dont feel bad. TV studios are there for you. But what happens to those intelligent people who take their intelligence seriously? A certain chapter of
autobiographical account of a true Indian intellectual will tell you the consequences.

But one question remains. How to deal with these wanna-be? The best way to deal with intellect’s dogma is to deny it the role of approver that it desperately seeks. The main strength of any dogma, be it religious or political, lies in people’s willingness to submit to it without asking a question. So ask a question and don’t expect to be called an intellectual. If asking a question strips you of any credential then it is a credential we never needed in the first place.