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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