Monday, February 12, 2007

The intelligentsia, history, and the existence of evil intent

Ruth Dudley Edwards has written an article that appeared in the Telegraph, entitled "Sleepwalking With the Enemy." It's about the tendency of so many in the West, especially the intelligentsia, to make excuses for and downplay the threats of Islamist fundamentalist totalitarians such as Iran's Ahmadinejad.

Her personal background, as she outlines it in the article, positions her to see things a bit differently than some of her colleagues in the British writing world:

I grew up in the Republic of Ireland under an authoritarian religion that bossed about submissive governments; as a British public servant, I saw the damage done by pusillanimous jobsworths; as an historian of the 1930s, I learnt how the wishful thinking of the deluded intelligentsia helped Hitler and Stalin; researching a book on the Foreign Office I came to understand the limitations of a diplomacy that believes the best of everyone; and fascination with the wilder shores of Irish republicanism that I encountered at my mad granny's knee led me subsequently – as a journalist and campaigner – to spend many years in intellectual combat with militant Irish republicanism, struggling, with some success, to understand the terrorist mind.

Another example of how personal history colors our political outlook. But the part that really caught my attention was this, her description of her experience studying that instructive first draft of history, the newspaper:

When I left the public service, researching and writing the biography of the publisher Victor Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club, and then a subsequent history of The Economist, made me realise how many clever people are fools...I read enough Times and Economist leaders written by Oxbridge double-firsts welcoming the encouraging signs of statesmanship emanating from Herr Hitler to disillusion me forever about the wisdom of the commentariat: the default mindset is still to resist the notion that evil exists and that when bad people say bad things, they may just mean them.

It does appear that there's often something about the intelligentsia that makes them especially hobbled in seeing the existence of evil intent. And I say this as a person with some experience in academic life. Perhaps it's some combination of the rather protected lives many intellectuals lead, the insular bubble in which they live; the hegemony of multiculuralism, and postmodernism with its moral relativity; the sincere desire for the world to be at peace, and the need for psychological denial in order to believe that goal is achievable--and, unfortunately, another factor one should least expect in academics, ignorance of history.

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