Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

From Reason to Treason

‘Our age,” Julien Benda wrote in The Treason of the Intellectuals, “is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.”

That came to mind recently when I saw the following headline on Salon: “A guy most famous for saying ‘F*** You Michael Moore’ is now marrying Bristol Palin.” Now, whatever you may think of Moore, Palin, or “the guy” in question, the asininity of this statement transcends time and space. For you see, “the guy” in question is Dakota Meyer, the second-youngest living Medal of Honor recipient and the first living Marine to earn the medal in nearly 40 years.

Even if Michael Moore didn’t deserve the verbal equivalent of a bird-flipping — though what twisted soul would argue that? — you would think earning the highest military honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty might rank a bit higher on one’s c.v.

Whether the staffers at Salon count as intellectuals is of course open to debate, but it’s worth recalling that the original French title of Benda’s cri de coeur was “La Trahison des Clercs.” What Benda meant by “clercs” were “all those who speak to the world in a transcendental manner,” or those known in medieval times as “scribes.” Or as our friend Roger Kimball writes, “academics and journalists, pundits, moralists and pontificators of all varieties are in this sense clercs.” Surely under an umbrella this broad, even the cast at Salon can find shade.

And not only they; the democratization of the media, often something to be celebrated, has had the more dubious effect of making clercs of us all to one extent or another. Spelunk the subterranean depths of the Internet and you will find a seemingly infinite number of self-styled clercs shining their moralizing lamplight on the issues of the day (as with many creatures living in the darkness, their eyes grow larger and their ears more acute, the better to spot their prey).

Benda’s diagnosis of the West’s intellectual betrayal — or rather his diagnosis of the intellectuals’ betrayal of the West — is an underappreciated marvel. From Socrates until the end of the 19th century, according to Benda, it was the job of the clercs to uphold universal ideals for all mankind. Humanity “did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.”

In other words, our hypocrisy is what made our humanity recognizable. Barbarians are rarely hypocrites; animals never fall short of their ideals — for they have none.

But according to Benda, the intellectuals could not bear the burden of this contradiction. The rise of nationalism, socialism, and all the ethnocentrisms that disguised themselves in such cloaks amounted to a rejection of universal ideals in general and of the Enlightenment in particular. Intellectuals, for the first time, sided with the mob over Socrates. Indeed, the mob itself, with its particular appetites and desires, became the new beau idéal. “Those who for centuries had exhorted men, at least theoretically, to deaden the feeling of their differences . . . have now come to praise them, . . . be it ‘fidelity to the French soul,’ ‘the immutability of their German consciousness,’ [or] . . . the ‘fervor of their Italian hearts.’” The Christianity that proclaimed in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” gave way to the Aryans and socialists alike who proclaimed Jesus their blue-eyed savior or the “first socialist.”

Benda was writing in 1927 and yet he foresaw the terrible war that such thinking would yield barely more than a decade hence. The good guys — not counting the Soviets, of course — won that war, but today’s intellectuals are content to continue losing the peace. In a sense, the intellectuals are no longer treasonous, because treason can be committed only against a regime still in power.

One need only look at the universities — for a thousand years the home of the clercs — to see that universalism is the new sedition. Free speech is now openly derided as oppressive wherever and whenever it is deemed a threat to the sovereignty of particularism that today flies under the coalitional banner of “diversity.” Universal truths must give way to “personal truths,” and inconvenient facts are the disposable inheritance of privilege.

Economic freedom, every bit as much a gift of the Enlightenment as free speech or freedom of conscience, is every day seen as an enemy of decency and justice. Even Mrs. Clinton, that most implausible champion of the little guy, has begun talking about the need to “topple” the “1 percent,” as if the highest percentile out of 100 were not an unconquerable mathematical abstraction but a caste of overlords like the Polish szlachta in the 14th century.

The perverse irony is that defenders of the Enlightenment are now just another identity-politics group — and one of the very few kinds of people one is permitted to be bigoted against. In a much-ballyhooed interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, former Olympian Bruce Jenner made a brave admission: He’s a conservative. “I believe in the Constitution,” he explained. He also admitted he’s now a woman, or on his way to becoming one. As National Review’s Katherine Timpf noted, it was the former confession that horrified many liberals. “I’m open-minded but I’m not sure I can accept #BruceJenner as a Republican,” film critic Bill McCuddy announced on Twitter.

Benda’s age was marked by intellectual organization of political hatreds. It has given way to the age of political organization of intellectual hatreds, and in such an age, lovers of liberty are the new traitors. Be happy in thy treason.

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