courtesy Travis Hardin Home : Essays : You Might be an Intellectual

Sep 2005. Originally appeared in the newsletter of North Alabama Mensa.

From the LocSec

by Travis Hardin

When submitting letters to Kevin, our newsletter editor, please find a way to make your point civilly, speaking about ideas and movements rather than characterizing a previous letter writer. Ad hominem replies can begin a name-calling contest that can poison our group. I try to set a reasonably good example, and I attempt to air only important ideas because of limited space.

The R.G. of August 12-14 was a lot of fun with informative speakers, thanks to R.G. chair Debbie Darossett, hospitality chair Louise Hardin, and co-chair Ray OíConnor who came from Dallas with his wife Sue to steer the hospitality. Hearty thanks to the many who helped, including Kevin Omel, who did a lot of the necessary support work.


There are several formal definitions of An Intellectual. The word as a noun came into being in Russia in the 1860's to designate university-educated youths who were critically thinking personalities, or those who questioned all traditional values in the name of reason and progress.1 The latter is leftist in essence. But if one defines intellectuals as "The culture-bearers of their society, the upholders of tradition and learning against the popular passions and politics of the day," they are on the right.2 Ironically, those decried these days as "liberal elites" find themselves defending learning against the passions and politics of the day.

"In social fact, an intellectual is often one who simply identifies himself as an intellectual, participates in discussions deemed intellectual, and is confirmed in that status by those who are recognized informally as the leaders of the intellectual world."3

What follows if you are an intellectual? In a famous quotation from "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in The New York Rev of Books, Feb. 23, 1967, Noam Chomsky writes:

"It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of government, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us."

If you feel that paragraph in your gut, if you feel a crusading spirit, you might be an intellectual. Chomsky is speaking of institutional intellectuals, but we who are not can boost the truth, boost science, and boost the conditions that encourage intellectualism, even if we donít have the training, facilities, or leisure. Wanting to think straight and to know the truth is an attitude anyone can have, and in my opinion, everyone should necessarily have. Thomas Jefferson expressed that Enlightenment idea so: "Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error."4 Kant said, "The motto of enlightenment is Sapere aude! Have courage to use oneís own intelligence!"5

The conservative backlash is the salient movement of our time. Its grand unifying theme is anti-intellectualism.6 Starting when Roosevelt turned a bunch of college professors loose on the nationís economy, through the defense of spy Alger Hiss by the "best people," enforced "political correctness" toward minorities, the bias of peer-reviewed journals in refusing to print creationist articles, peace talks that interfere with the Rapture, and now impatience that our nation is not becoming imperialistic, laissez-faire capitalist, and godly fast enough Ė these things provoke burning outrage.7 Various people specialize in keeping one or another of these outrages alive, but rage at intellectuals and delusions of martyrdom are what unifies. Emotion overrules thought; the movement would wither without rage. And without ignoring insincere leaders baiting with moral issues and reaping more advantages for business. The most prominent conservative leaders, "themselves an assortment of millionaires and lawyers and Harvard grads, lead a proletarian uprising against the millionaires, lawyers, and Harvard grads."8

Iím the kind of person who sees a monumental conflict always churning between the advocates of enlightenment and the advocates of ancient tradition. The latter calls to mind ignorance and superstition, the paternalism of the dark ages, Dickensian social structure, and destruction of all human progress. To others, winning that conflict means going back to pleasing God and to Godís ordained free market economics.

Some people in the backlash frame the struggle in exactly those monumental terms, their goal explicitly being the overthrow of scientific materialism.9 Call me alarmist, but I think that is of some passing interest.

1.The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought



4.T. Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782.

5. Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment?" essay, 1784

6.Thomas Frank, "Whatís the Matter With Kansas?" p. 191

7.Ibid., p.192,217,248

8.Ibid, p.196


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Last updated March 2016