Read an Excerpt
“THE TRUE BELIEVER”
"A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith—but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act."—Arthur Koestler,The God That Failed
WHEN IDEOLOGY IS YOUR GUIDE, YOU’RE BOUND TO GET LOST. Ideology deludes, inspires dishonesty, and breeds fanaticism. Facts, experience, and logic are much better at leading you to truth. Truth, however, is not everyone’s intended destination.
This is a book about morons. The morons that we’ll meet don’t have tobacco juice dripping from their chins, sunburned necks, or any other stereotypical manifestations of dimness. As the title suggests, Intellectual Morons focuses on cognitive elites who embarrass themselves by championing idiotic theories, beliefs, and opinions. It is a quite pedestrian occurrence for stupid people to fall for stupid ideas. More interesting, and of greater harm to society, is the phenomenon of smart people falling for stupid ideas. Ph.D.s, high IQs, and intellectual honors are not antidotes to thickheadedness.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you don’t use your mind. Ideologues forgo independent judgment in favor of having their views handed to them. To succumb to ideology is to put your brain on autopilot. Ideology preordains your reaction to issues, ideas, and people, your view of politics, philosophy, economics, and history. For the true believer, ideology is the Rosetta Stone of everything. It provides stock answers, conditions responses, and delivers one-size-fits-all explanations for complex political and cultural questions. Despite the conviction and seeming depth of knowledge with which ideologues speak, they are intellectual weaklings—joiners—who defer to systems of belief and charismatic gurus for their ideas. Why bother thinking when the guru provides all the answers? What’s the use of examining the facts when the system has already determined the real truth?
When you submit to a guru, allow a system to predetermine your views, or become a knee-jerk party-liner, you abdicate your responsibility to think. For an intellectual, this is the unforgivable sin. Intellectuals think. This is what they do. When intellectuals let ideology do their thinking, we can’t with any justification continue to label them intellectuals. This is not an anti-intellectual book. It is an antipseudo-intellectual book.
And many obviously bright political leaders, academicians, journalists, and artists reveal themselves as pseudo-intellectuals.
Why does Al Gore believe that cars pose “a mortal threat to the security of every nation”? Why do feminist leaders defend accused wife-killer Scott Peterson against charges of killing his unborn son? Why do seemingly well-educated antiwar activists see President George W. Bush “exactly as a Hitler,” argue that the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and liken America to “a stuck-up little bitch”? Why does the intellectual godfather of the animal-rights movement, Princeton professor Peter Singer, object to humans eating animals but not to humans having sex with them—and why does the activist group PETA defend that position?
In other words, why do smart people fall for stupid ideas?
The answer is ideology.
Communism, environmentalism, animal rights, sexual anarchism, feminism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, relativism, deconstructionism—foreign ideologies to most people—have been embraced without scrutiny by intellectuals at various points during the past century. The intelligentsia’s enthusiasm for these isms has made it easier for them to overlook the shortcomings of those most closely identified with these systems. The ideologies themselves also get a pass, since their advocates dominate the fields that generally hold ideas up to scrutiny. Since this book argues against formulas, it is fitting that several of the systems and gurus discussed don’t fit into this formula. Both Objectivists and Straussians, ideologues on the political Right, operate outside of normal intellectual circles. But like the other ideologues discussed, they function inside a cloistered environment shielded from outside criticism. Society should be so lucky as to be guarded from these isms as the isms are from society, but an ideology’s blockers only seem to screen incoming ideas.
The primary and most obvious reason people join mass movements and follow ideology is the issues they address. To view all ideologues as entirely tricked or self-deluded overlooks the fact that at the core of many ideologies is a laudable idea, whether it is the need for a clean environment, a better understanding of other cultures, or equality of opportunity for the sexes. Naturally, people want to correct the failings they see around them. But dangers arise when the perceived morality of the mission allows immorality—lying for the cause, forcing the “good” upon society, self-righteousness, and so on—to corrupt the crusaders. Problems also occur when activists mistake any cause bearing their ideology’s name for a noble one. It is intentions rather than outcomes that matter for such people. Thus we must separate the ideological nonsense from the good idea it clings to.
Can’t we support equality of opportunity for women while opposing Andrea Yates–style “fourth-trimester” abortions? Does support for a multicultural outlook mean holding your tongue regarding the practice of female genital mutilation, AIDS-curing sex with virgins in South Africa, and Middle Eastern “honor” killings? Can’t one be against cruelty to animals and still enjoy a tunafish sandwich?
To the ideologue, the answer is no. All the ideology—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is a package deal.
Defining one’s position based on what serves the cause makes the party line triumphant. Allegations of sexual impropriety against Senator Bob Packwood, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger—all Republicans—sparked angry campaigns to oust these men from political life. When women accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, indecent exposure, and even rape, the same Democrats who rabidly attacked Packwood, Thomas, and Schwarzenegger reflexively defended the president. Hypocrisy is, of course, bipartisan. One president with a (D) next to his name sponsors humanitarian missions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia and the opposition blasts him for “nation building.” His successor, who sports an (R) next to his name, does the same thing to a greater degree in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti and his party’s stalwarts cheer him. What matters to the party-liners in both cases is not the issue involved but how that issue can be used to damage political opponents. “The issue is not the issue,” 1960s radicals famously remarked. It still isn’t, unfortunately.
Ideologues are prone to mistaking their ideal for the real. Whether consciously or not, they tend to see what they want to see and to find what they want to find. The impulse to evaluate reality by how it vindicates the greater theory leads to a selective use of facts, cooking the books, and simply making things up when the facts don’t cooperate. In other words, ideologues draw conclusions prior to investigating. Smaller truths pale in comparison with the importance of the larger “truth,” the ideology.
What never fails inside the mind of an intellectual never works outside the confines of his head. The world’s stubborn refusal to vindicate the intellectual’s theories serves as proof of humanity’s irrationality, not his own. Thus, the true believer retrenches rather than rethinks; he launches a war on the world, denying reality because it fails to conform to his theories. If intellectuals are not prepared to reconcile theory and practice, then why do they bother to venture outside the ivory tower or the coffeehouse? Why not stay in the world of abstractions and fantasy?
From an early age, smart people are reminded of their intelligence, separated from their peers in gifted classes, and presented with opportunities unavailable to others. For these and other reasons, intellectuals tend to have an inflated sense of their own wisdom. It is thus arrogance, and not intelligence, that leads them into trouble. They’re so smart, hubris compels them to believe, that they can run everyone else’s life. But no one is that smart. What’s more, theorists devising systems for the rest of us to live under often have a difficult time running their own lives. Mundane tasks are to them what quantum physics is to the rest of us.
“To make of human affairs a coherent, precise, predictable whole one must ignore or suppress man as he really is,” social theorist Eric Hoffer observed. “It is by eliminating man from their equation that the makers of history can predict the future, and the writers of history can give a pattern to the past.”
Systems fail because the notion of a single idea directing, ordering, and planning the lives of vast numbers of people is an absurd one. Human beings are too independent, and the fact that there are more than 6 billion of us makes applying one system to all of mankind an idiot’s endeavor. Tolerance for the failed idea rarely wanes. Tolerance for the humans invariably does. When the masses balk, elites impose their will. After all, they know what’s best for us.
The same impulse that pushes men to believe arrogantly that a system can plan the affairs of whole nations leads them to think that a theory can explain all of history. Single-bullet theories of history rarely pan out. The attraction of such explanations is their simplicity. They relieve adherents from any obligation to think. The answers are preordained. “Human nature,” sociologist Raymond Aron reminds us, “is not very amenable to the wishes of the ideologists.”
Why has ideology taken such a powerful hold over so many smart people? Humans desire meaning in their life. With the decline of religion among the well-educated, intellectuals increasingly look for meaning outside the church, temple, and mosque. Ideology can fill this void. It bestows an easy-to-understand explanation for the way the world works. It supplies a moral code, membership in a community, and a vocation. The new religions exalt secular saints, enforce dogma, punish heretics, value self-sacrifice, and sanctify writings. In short, ideology serves as a proxy religion for people who view themselves as too smart for traditional religion. And since worshiping a god is an impossible task for the self-obsessed, the intellectual moron worships himself—man—and the ideas that will deliver us all into salvation.
Seeing ideology in this light—as a substitute for religion—explains quite a bit. The ideologue believes he possesses a truth others have missed—for the more audacious true believers, the key to earthly redemption. Ideology contains no such power, but if you believed that it did, dishonesty, repression, murder, and other sins might be seen as a mere pittance to pay when you’re providing deliverance to humanity. When you’re saving the world, what’s wrong with telling a few lies? If you’re making heaven on earth, what’s wrong with sacrificing a few people to save the rest? But heaven is in heaven and not on earth, and demands for human sacrifice necessarily make any cause suspect.
Behind the bad ideas that have poisoned politics and culture stands ideology. Behind ideology stand gurus—the popularizers and founders of the theoretical systems that have done great mischief by misleading people. These are the ones who have planted the many harmful and false ideas that have taken root in our society. We must naturally go back to these gurus to examine the roots of those bad ideas. Only by looking at the ideas and those who propagated them—and when, where, why, and how they did so—can we begin to clean up the mess that the ideas have unleashed.
Intellectual Morons examines the mendacity and foolishness of those who have had a far-reaching impact on the world through ideas. The progenitors of these stupid ideas are in some cases the leaders of massive popular movements. Others have had monuments erected in their honor. The majority have authored books that have sold in excess of a million copies. They are not bohemians relegated to the fringes of society. They are the paragons of establishment respectability.
So who are the generals leading armies of intellectual morons?
Alfred Kinsey, Margaret Sanger, and Michel Foucault propagated a notion of sex without consequences. Those “liberated” from antiquarian ideas regarding sex soon found themselves chained to unplanned offspring, incurable diseases, and personal emptiness. Kinsey, Sanger, and Foucault peddled falsehoods to alter the prevailing morality to accommodate their own unconventional behavior. They needn’t change; the world should. Kinsey knowingly perpetrated a fraud, shouting “Science!” to silence skeptics. Similarly, Planned Parenthood founder Sanger simplistically branded any opponent of her agenda as a tool of the Catholic Church. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Foucault pushed the limits of sexuality and paid for it with his life. All three shared a penchant for damning their critics as troglodytes standing athwart progress.
Feminist matriarch Betty Friedan covered up her life in the Communist fold and fabricated an everywoman, housewife persona to legitimize her ideas. Years later, when victimhood became all the rage in feminist circles, she leveled, then retracted, a charge of spousal abuse. Despite her celebrity status, many of her claims went unchecked by journalists and academics for decades.
Soviet spy Alger Hiss lied for the most primal of reasons: to save his skin. It is hardly unusual for someone facing years in a federal penitentiary to obfuscate the crimes he has committed. What are we to make of his supporters?
Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Gore Vidal have spent the better part of their long lives portraying the nation that has protected their freedoms as the base of worldwide oppression. The self-refuting nature of their work has never dawned on them. Vidal’s jaundiced view sees America operating behind the curtains during the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing. Zinn penned a million-selling America-bashing history that reads more like fiction. Chomsky overlooked the very real sins of anti-American governments but saw with amazing clarity nonexistent offenses committed by the United States. The MIT professor denied Pol Pot’s mass killings in Cambodia, for example, but imagined a “silent genocide” conducted by the United States against Afghanistan. The trio has never lost faith in their theories, only in reality.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu peddled falsehoods to enhance her credibility as spokeswoman of the oppressed. When caught, she simply dismissed her accusers as racists. This was a sufficient explanation for her academic admirers, who continue to assign her book as if nothing has changed.
Like the street-corner evangelist, biologist Paul Ehrlich warns of the proximity of doomsday. Giving Ehrlich the benefit of the doubt, one could say that he never intended to deceive others. Perhaps his many predictions for environmental apocalypse were merely wrong. That he continued to issue such dire forecasts after deadlines for earlier predictions came and went is a sign that Ehrlich should have been dismissed. He wasn’t. He gained celebrity and credibility from the media, higher education, and the world of philanthropy. The more wild and inaccurate his declarations, the greater his stature became. Since Ehrlich issues his proclamations from Stanford University, and not from a sidewalk pulpit, the intelligentsia confuses his delusional fanaticism for wisdom.
W.E.B. Du Bois looked for heaven on earth behind the Iron Curtain and, like most ideologically motivated searchers, found what he was looking for. At one time or another, the NAACP cofounder offered praise for just about every bad idea that came along in the twentieth century—Communism, Nazism, racial separatism, and eugenics, to name but a few. Du Bois’s academic cheerleaders revise history to manufacture a civil rights hero who never existed.
In a more enlightened time, advocating infanticide as humane while condemning Thanksgiving dinner as something akin to murder might have suggested a mild form of insanity. Today, it earns Peter Singer an endowed professorship at Princeton University.
Ayn Rand launched a philosophy that elevated her own opinion to holy writ, immodestly naming it Objectivism. In the process, she sold tens of millions of books and established a global following. The best Objectivists ironically were the ones who imitated Rand most closely, right down to her Russian accent. Rand liked smoking, so lighting up became obligatory for her acolytes. Rand hated Shakespeare, so her followers denounced the Bard while partaking in Charlie’s Angels, what she called “tiddlywink music,” Ian Fleming spy novels, and any other low-church indulgence that Rand found pleasurable. Rand sought to prove the perfectibility of man, but her life instead demonstrated how human we all are.
Europeans Jacques Derrida, Leo Strauss, and Herbert Marcuse put forth theoretical frameworks that attempted to legitimize dishonesty as a form of expression. The topsy-turvy world of Marcuse directed readers to see intolerance as tolerance, violence as nonviolence, and totalitarianism as freedom. Derrida leads a gang of literary critics that exhorts connoisseurs of the written word to read into texts any meaning desired, regardless of the author’s intent. Leo Strauss, the Right’s house deconstructionist, remains the only figure associated with contemporary conservatism to gain a major following within academia. Strauss purported to discover hidden meanings in the works of great philosophers by relying on numerology and encoded silences. When several of his followers occupied key positions within the executive branch of the U.S. government prior to 2003’s Iraq war, the consequences of this crackpot ideology proved greater than fostering ignorance of long-dead philosophers.
“If you’re on the wrong road,” C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” For too long, intellectuals have been traveling briskly down the wrong paths, taking the rest of us along for the ride. It’s time to get off and turn back, quickly.
To fix what’s wrong with politics and culture by laboring for the victory or defeat of a particular candidate or piece of legislation is merely to chop away at branches that will grow back. Real change will come only when we unearth the roots of the bad ideas holding sway over countless academics, journalists, artists, government officials, and other elites.
Joiners rarely have more than a surface knowledge of the issues in which they involve themselves. What they lack in knowledge, they make up for in passion. Every reader has come across the joiner, the person who shifts every conversation to the favored cause of the moment, attends massive group-therapy sessions commonly referred to as protests, and decorates his car with various bumper stickers. To the automobile’s owner, pithy lines like “Keep Your Rosaries Out of Our Ovaries” and “Hate Is Not a Family Value” clearly express his views. To everyone else, the myriad slogans blur, and only one message stands out: The owner of this car is a screwball.
The celebrity joiner is always sure to wear the appropriate ribbon, use an acceptance speech to ramble on about a political cause, and serially affix his name to diverse petitions. Susan Sarandon, Michael Stipe, Alec Baldwin, Ed Asner, Jane Fonda, and Yoko Ono are a few who qualify for the celebrity joiner hall of fame.
Even the joiner’s inability to abide by the ideology’s dictates fails to persuade her of possible flaws in the secular faith.
•“I think the only people in this nation who should be allowed to own guns are the police officers,” proclaimed Rosie O’Donnell. “I don’t care if you want to hunt. I don’t care if you think it’s your right. I say, ‘Sorry. It is 1999. We have had enough as a nation. You are not allowed to own a gun,’ and if you do own a gun I think you should go to prison.” After making these remarks, Million Mom Marcher Number One made headlines when her bodyguards sought concealed-weapons permits to protect her children when they went to school.
•Megabucks populist Arianna Huffington ran for governor of California charging that “corporate fat cats get away with not paying their fair share of taxes.” She should know. The tightfisted Huffington paid no state income taxes in 2001 and 2002 and handed over a meager $771 to the Internal Revenue Service during the same period.
•Michael Moore excoriates big business for exporting jobs, weakening unions, and offering miserly pay and benefits. In his own business dealings, Moore proves more flexible. The Roger and Me director outsourced the design and hosting of his website to Canadian companies. Sporting the poseur fashion of scruffy jeans and his trademark baseball cap, the man behind Fahrenheit 9/11 lives in a multimillion-dollar Manhattan condo, demands first-class flights and five-star hotels, and sends his daughter to a posh school. One Hollywood source states, “Michael’s the greediest man I’ve ever met.” Former employees describe the work environment Moore created as “a sweatshop,” “indentured servitude,” and a “concentration camp.” According to former workers, union scale, health care, humane hours, and even pay for services rendered were at times hard to come by for some in Moore’s shop. A writer for the short-lived TV Nation remembered Moore explaining to a pair of writers, “[I]f you want to be in this union, only one of you can work here.” For GM’s Roger Smith, such behavior warranted an attackumentary.
•Self-proclaimed environmentalist Barbra Streisand laments our “unsustainable way of life” and declares that decreasing “fossil fuel emissions” is “the most important thing that we can do today.” But Streisand owns an SUV, trades shares in the oil and gas company Halliburton, and occasionally travels in a forty-five-foot mobile home that gets less than ten miles to the gallon. In a case thrown out of court, Streisand actually sued an environmental activist for posting a picture of her beachfront home on the Internet to document coastal erosion.
They’re excessive, but can we blame Rosie for providing safety to her children, Arianna for keeping the money she earned, Moore for prefering Big Apple glitz to factory-town tedium, or Babs for living in comfort? But if the advocate can’t live under the system, why must we? The cognitive dissonance should spark the joiner to reassess the tenability of her position, but it rarely does.
Joiners mistake great passion for great wisdom. They are more persuaded by the volume and pitch of an argument than by the logic and facts behind it. The bolder and brasher the pronouncement, the better it sounds in the true believer’s ears. Initiates speak an insider language. The ideologically elect demonstrate more concern for proving their ideological bona fides than for effectively communicating ideas to outsiders. Patriarchy, proletariat, whim-worshiper, words that would be about as meaningful to most listeners if spoken in Martian, are liberally tossed about by the joiner to enhance his credibility within his particular circle. In addition to buzzwords, the ideologue peppers his speech with mantras, slogans, and other mindless bromides.
Movements attract misfits. The desire to change the world usually corresponds with personal unhappiness. The frustrated man, not the self-contented one, goes about altering his surroundings. He would do better changing himself, but egomania prevails and fosters a less rational cure for his troubles. Mass movements also attract misfits because they take all comers. Someone who finds it difficult to make friends, or to fill in any of the 365 empty dates on his social calendar, is relieved of these problems by remaining obedient to the Cause. The individual who doesn’t thrive as an individual longs to be part of something bigger. The Cause allows him to belong to the group, but naturally takes his individuality in the process. As the joiner loses his identity amid the mass, adversaries lose their individuality—their humanity—in the eyes of the joiner.
Apostate Communist Stephen Spender, writing in The God That Failed, recognized this aspect of mass movements. “[W]hen men have decided to pursue a course of action,” Spender wrote, “everything which seems to support this seems vivid and real; everything which stands against it becomes abstraction. Your friends are allies and therefore real human beings with flesh and blood and sympathies like yourself. Your opponents are just tiresome, unreasonable, unnecessary theses, whose lives are so many false statements which you would like to strike out with a lead bullet as you would put the stroke of a lead pencil through a bungled paragraph.” In other words, in pursuit of ostensibly humanitarian ends, the true believer sees no contradiction in wiping out other humans.
The religious nature of ideology spawns an odd character—the ismist, the true believer who floats from one ideology to the next. For the ismist, the ideas expressed hardly matter in comparison with being a part of something, belonging. Hence, we witness the spectacle of rabid Communists transforming into virulent anti-Communists, Objectivists becoming Scientologists, and religious conservatives morphing into gay activists—any cause will do.
To question the joiner’s faith is to mark oneself as an enemy. Mocking the guru or challenging the system puts the ideologue on the defensive, and not merely regarding his worldview. The joiner, whose submission to the guru’s teaching is often rewarded with automatic friends, a newfound social life, and restored purpose, views the heretic as a threat to all this and defends accordingly.
“To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason,” Eric Hoffer noted regarding the ways of fanatics. “It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.” In his midcentury classic The True Believer, Hoffer depicted the mass-movement fanatic as one seeking to escape from the self by means of enlisting in a world-saving cause, one that he would kill or die for. His glorious ends justify his despicable means. The ideologue’s faith seems impenetrable: “At the root of [the fanatic’s] cockiness is the conviction that life and the universe conform to a simple formula—his formula.” The true believers Hoffer described are just like the ones we find today. Times have changed but not much else.
It is folly to blame “bad” ideology for the current degraded state of the public square. The problem isn’t necessarily Left ideology or Right ideology, but all ideology. Anyone who abandons rational analysis for the dictates of a governing philosophy is bound to be led astray. To the ideologue, what matters is not whether an idea is good or bad, harmful or beneficial, or true or false. What matters is whether it can serve the Cause.
There is great danger when lies are institutionalized as truth. Ideas, Richard Weaver famously wrote, have consequences. Men of action adopt ideas and put them into practice. Civilization suffers the repercussions of bad ideas. The evils this past century witnessed are not historical constants. The concentration camps and the gulag, total war, and Big Brother’s garrison state came about because bad ideas wrought bad consequences. These were anything but accidents. Closer to our time and place, unparented children, well-traveled venereal diseases, and dissipating freedoms—to smoke, to own firearms, to drive without the government’s robotic paparazzi tracking you—result from the implementation of some scribbler’s fantasy of how the rest of us should live. Ideology makes us susceptible to pernicious and false ideas, because true believers never view evidence of the system’s failure as just that. In the face of failure, ideologues have a vested interest to claim success.
Ideology acts as a mental straitjacket. It prevents adherents from seeing reality, encourages zealotry, and justifies dishonesty. It makes smart people stupid.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, the unjustified warnings regarding book learning seem more appropriate to the intellectual morons we find today: “They will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.” This is a fitting epigraph for those discussed in the following pages.
From the Hardcover edition.