Academic Sycophants

In the Chronicle, Paul Rahe complains of intellectuals who suck up to dictators:

What would it take to elicit servility from an intellectual? Money would help, of course. Just ask the Harvard professors who … shilled for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in return for a quarter of a million dollars a month. …

If one wished to understand why thinkers who pride themselves on their acumen so often find themselves sucking up to those who wield power, one would, I think, be well-advised to reread Jean-Jacques Rousseau. … Rousseau distinguished the philosopher from the man of letters. “The taste for philosophy,” he claimed, “relaxes all the ties of esteem and benevolence that attach men to society” and renders men indifferent to acclaim. The “cultivation of the sciences” has the opposite effect on “the man of letters.”

“Every man,” Rousseau writes, “who occupies himself in developing talents which are agreeable wants to please, to be admired, and he wishes to be admired more than anyone else. Public applause belongs to him alone: I would say that he does everything to obtain it—if he did not do still more to deprive his rivals of it. … [Rousseau] paid special attention to the figure who “has the misfortune to be born among a People and in times when Savants, having become fashionable, have put frivolous youth in a state to set the tone; when such men have sacrificed their taste to the Tyrants of their liberty,” and there he contended that such an artist “will lower his genius to the level of the age and by preference will compose vulgar works that will be admired during his lifetime rather than marvels that will not be admired until long after his death.” …

It would be hard to deny that he identified a propensity evident within the intelligentsia. Think of the tyranny of fashion that besets the humanities and the social sciences. It is sufficiently powerful that one can pull a book off a library shelf, read a paragraph or two, and all too often know precisely when it was written and under the influence of what fad. When celebrity is the aim, a scholar who is ambitious is almost certain to become a sycophant—chained to the tastes adopted and the ideas embraced by the audience whose acclaim he seeks. In our time, the scholar, the writer, and the artist may not be parasites dependent on aristocratic patrons, but that does not mean they are truly free. The desire for applause tends to inspire servility in anyone subject to it—and it is a short step from flattering one’s public to flattering monsters who wield influence and power.

It’s not clear how many “philosophers” there are, versus “men of letters,” in Rousseau’s terms. But by definition, we shouldn’t expect such “philosophers” to be esteemed or admired by much of anyone. Most academics don’t claim they aren’t sycophants – they just claim that their audience is mainly other academics like themselves, who have better taste than the public or tyrants. But its not clear their tastes are much better, and they often pretend to more autonomy from outsiders than they actually have.

Rahe seems to focus his complaints on academics who shill for autocrats.  But are academics who shill for democratically elected leaders really any better?

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  • Buck Farmer

    You offer futarchy as a solution to many biases and short-comings in our political system. I more or less accept your arguments vis-a-vie academia.

    Do you have any thoughts on:
    1. The net effect of all this academic status-competition
    2. Whether institutional, cultural, or even individual steps could be taken to shift the equilibrium up

    Otherwise is this just more gnashing of teeth?

  • Matthew Fuller

    Mind, the name of the fight ageing blogger, has a post that addresses this question at the very end of the post.

    The FDA is not elected and to those who oppose ageing, a tyrant. So yes, here is a distinction with a difference.

  • The Qaddafi warp is a social phenom worth studying, and it affected a greater chunk of the West than academia. I think it gets to why people value purity theatre so much (suddenly post-rebellion everyone who took money from Qaddafi from Beyonce to LSE is “impure”, like they would have been pre-2003).

  • Perhaps I’m just contrarian, but I thought Benjamin Barber gave a pretty good defense of his actions. There’s a bit of guilt-by-association going on which lowers normal standards of evidence.

    My co-blogger says the right-wing association with suspecting intellectuals of wrongheadedness is bolstered by Rahe’s place of teaching.

  • Intellectuals in modern day America or Europe are conformist assholes, in general. There are no philosophers anymore. You killed them, I killed them, we all killed them.

  • Pingback: Recomendaciones « intelib()

  • shilled for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in return for a quarter of a million dollars a month”

    I would shill for Qaddafi for half that.

  • cournot

    There is an implicit dichotomy here that is inappropriate — the choice between scholarly work with indifference to acclaim vs pure status seeking. But what if you want to do good? Then ideally you would seek status for the purpose of persuading people of the value of good ideas. Sadly, the latter often becomes a pure chase for status. Conversely, so-called purists are so indifferent to social convention that they blind themselves to useful interaction and (even when endowed with the truth) have no effective way of conveying those truths to the majority. Even worse, those who are autistic truth seekers can be biased by not knowing how to interpret useful comments or information when phrased in biased ways or presented in forms that aren’t cleanly rational or neutrally argued. So their own work is itself biased by the unwillingness to understand and sympathize with the desire for collective feeling and status in ordinary humans. Knowing the latter while pursuing truth is hardest of all. But sadly, most “truth seekers” are happy to revel in their identity as asocial nerds even if it lessens their effectiveness as scholars.