David Rieff on the Death of Intellectualism

Question: Is intellectualism dead in America?

Rieff: I don’t think this is a very intelligent time, I’m thinking of 2009.  I think… you know.  I think, right this minute, people are the old cultural ways of thinking, whether it’s the novel or some of the great 19th century art seem very tired to people.  On the other hand, some of the newer arts perhaps having lived up to their advance billing one way or another so… you know, it’s not a great period culturally as for politically, it’s just moronic.  But… You know, that’s happen before.  I mean, England in this… I mean, if you think of Britain… England, I should say properly, in, say, 1660, you have this incredible number of really marvelous writers and… And then, you know, think of Britain in the late 1690s, there was pretty much nobody of really first-rate… It happens.  I don’t have any great sense that this is the end of things.  What’s true is that the arts that people are… I think that some of the, as I said, the great 19th century arts, novel, opera, some other things aren’t in a very good shape and… at the moment.  Maybe they’ll be revived, maybe they’ll die.  I don’t know.  And then, the idea of a kind of culture where there was kind of a kind of authoritative cannon just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.  It just doesn’t.  And either another cannon will be created or we’ll live in a somewhat anarchistic relation to these things for a while.  But… But again, I think it’s, you know… What’s the phrase? What’s the joke?  “Spaces… Time I saw everything happen in spaces so it doesn’t happen to you.”  There’ll be other periods of intellectual ferment, even if this one is not such a period.  In any case, now that the economy is such a… A lot of people are so frightened now that we’ll see what happens in this period of a very different kind of economy and very different kinds of expectations.  Who knows?  It might be good for the arts.  You never know. 

Question: Could the internet inspire the next Enlightenment?

Rieff:    I don’t think the Internet gives life or death to anything.  I think the Internet is… It’s simply a fact of this time and will be a fact of life until something supersedes it.  But… I mean… Look, everybody who has this sort of techno-utopian romance about the Internet, I think, forgets that the 2 principle uses of the Internet are the downloading of pornography and the selling of useless merchandise.  So the idea that somehow the Internet has led to a new age of enlightenment, you know, just strikes me as kind of self-absorption on the part of people for who may, perhaps, use the Internet in that way.  I tell you, when my mother was ill, I spent a fair rate of time on the Internet, looking at sites about blood cancers.  And I’m, for a lay person, reasonably competent. I mean, I have a good lay knowledge… only a lay knowledge, I quickly empathize it. Biology and medicine, It’s a subject that interests me and always interested me.  And so… I mean, I follow it and I read it.  But it seems the Internet was worse than useless.  You couldn’t tell… You had to have… to bring so much knowledge to the Internet in order to get anything out of it.  And I wonder if that isn’t true for a lot of disciplines.  I mean, sure, if you’re… It’s a fantastic tool for research.  You know, it’s amazing.  If you’re working on a story or an article or trying to think something through and you want information quick, it’s great.  But you still have to come to it, being able to evaluate that information.  Otherwise, you don’t know the difference between, you know, the views of, you know, Harold Varmus the President of Sloan Kettering and of [Ron Harvard].  I mean, again… You know, I don’t see the… I don’t see the Internet as providing these… Wikipedia’s the perfect example of this.  Everybody’s rewriting everything on Wikipedia constantly.  Indeed, you try to maintain the site on Wikipedia, you know that you’re constantly trying to revise what’s some lunatic has put on it.  I simply don’t… I don’t buy this, frankly, which doesn’t mean I don’t welcome it, I don’t use it.  I’m a great iPhone / Internet / Twitter user and I don’t have… I’m not [illiterate] in anyway.  But I don’t… I think it’s… Both, it’s emancipatory.  And its informational potential are vastly exaggerated.  We’re still the same creatures, whatever toys we have… whatever technological toys we have.  I mean, I think it’s also… You know everybody… some would often say somewhere that we always privilege our own times and that that’s understandable humanly, but because it’s the time that we’re fated to live and die in. But it’s indefensible intellectually. There’s absolutely no reason unless you’re… unless you’re completely, I think, fanatical believer in some kind of progress narrative, to think that you’re necessarily so much smarter than people 200 years ago.  There’s more technological information, more scientific information.  But whether that is to be… whether from that, you can extrapolate. A sort of superiority strikes me as… Well, highly unlikely, let’s put it that way.

David Rieff on the decline of intellectualism.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.