Beware of intellectuals

I remain fascinated by the letter below to Business Day, which I archive here because I know Business Day – like most if not all on-line SA newspapers, just drop content from their website. It was written in a time when the Native Club, and its memberhip was being debated in the press.

Posted to the web on: 09 June 2006
Noxious role

The current public debate around intellectuals calls to mind Paul Johnson’s conclusion in Intellectuals, in which he outlines the noxious role of intellectuals over the ages.

“I detect a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers and philosophers, eminent though they may be, to tell us how to behave and conduct our affairs. The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old.

“I share that scepticism. A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.

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

“Beware committees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals. Distrust public statements issued from their serried ranks. Discount their verdicts on political leaders. For intellectuals, far from being highly individualistic and nonconformist people, follow certain regular patterns of behaviour. They are often ultraconformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value.

“This is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous, for it enables them to create climates of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies, which themselves often generate irrational and destructive courses of action.

“Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.”

Kerry Swift
Johannesburg

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