Why the cabdrivers are right
February 1, 2002
Intellectuals can convince themselves of anything because they are so little bound by the facts in front of their eyes. They are the last people in the world likely to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Better to construct a theory why the emperor is really dressed and just looks naked.
While the ability to think counter-intuitively and beyond the immediate sensory data is a great asset to astrophysicists contemplating black holes and string theory, in the world in which most of us live, the anti-empirical bias of so many intellectuals often proves dangerous. A talent for ignoring facts, or reinterpreting them contrary to their plain meaning, for instance, made Western intellectuals such "useful idiots" to Lenin.
For many intellectuals, a beautiful theory trumps hundreds of unruly facts. Freudianism, for instance, was one of the main pillars of Western intellectual life for most of the twentieth century. Yet, as Frederick Crews and others have argued, there exists not one shred of empirical evidence for Freud’s tripartite division of the mind. Worse, a great deal of recent historical research suggests that Freud falsified many of the case studies upon which his theory was based.
Nor is there any scientific evidence to support the efficacy of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic tool. Despite this, only in the last two decades did the pendulum begin to swing sharply away from psychoanalysis towards short-term therapies and pharmacological solutions to mental problems. Freudian theory was simply too lovely to abandon.
Much of the theorizing so beloved to intellectuals grows not from inductive reasoning based on observed facts but rather from the emotional needs of the theorist. Infantile rebellion, expressed as reflexive hatred of one’s own society, the need to perceive oneself as a brave rebel against stupidities of the common herd, and the belief in one’s innate moral superiority are all reflected in much of what passes for modern intellectual life.
Hatred of all things American, for instance, leads Western intellectuals to moral equivalencies completely detached from the phenomena being discussed. To deflect criticism of the Soviet Union’s iron grip on the peoples of Eastern Europe, for instance, ‘70s leftist intellectuals argued that American cultural imperialism was no less real. Hollywood films and the Iron Curtain were thus both subsumed under the abstract category of "imperialism."
At one of the 140 teach-ins against the war in Afghanistan on American campuses, a Columbia professor proclaimed that it was hard to know which was more frightening -- the destruction of the World Trade Center or the rhetoric emanating from the White House. Not a conundrum, one suspects, likely to have troubled many Americans outside of the Ivy League.
At prestigious Williams College, a student announced to enthusiastic applause. "I know that the United States is going to use this as an excuse to kill millions of people, like it always does. I feel it." "Truth" is a function of feeling not fact.
Intellectual categories become so real for intellectuals that they completely obscure the consequences of their actions. University professors were well-represented among the leaders of Pol Pot’s government, which slaughtered two million of its fellow Cambodians.
Joachim Klein, a member of the notorious Baader-Meihoff gang and an accomplice of arch-terrorist Carlos, broke with the movement when he found himself in an anti-Zionist training camp in an Arab country surrounded by European leftists on one side and European neo-Nazis on the other. Only then did he realize that "anti-Nazism" had somehow morphed into old-time Jew hatred. But, then, Klein was a mechanic, not an intellectual. Otherwise he would come up with a dialectical explanation.
For Joshka Fischer, the current German Foreign Minister and another former radical, the selection of Jewish passengers by German leftists at Entebbe was a similar shock. To the slogan "No More War," he now added another principle, "No more Auschwitz." Thus did the leader of the pacifist Green Party become a vociferous supporter of military intervention in the Balkans.
Fischer’s recognition that the real world demands choices between morally tainted alternatives, and that the desire to remain pure may often be the most immoral choice of all, is not one easily absorbed by intellectuals. At a time polls showed 92% of Americans favoring military intervention in Afghanistan, even if there were civilian casualties, only 22% of Harvard students felt the same way. (True, 69% would have supported military action if President Bush could have somehow contrived a war with a guarantee of no civilian casualties.)
IN few countries have the follies of intellectuals had such a profound effect as in Israel. Oslo architect Dr.Yossi Beilin serves as the archetype. Beilin freely admits that his various peace plans were based less on any empirical evidence of a Palestinian decision to live in peace with Israel than on his emotional inability to live in a world in which peace is impossible.
His peace plans, he concluded, could be implemented because they must be implemented. Since those plans are fair and just in his eyes that justness must be equally obvious to the Palestinians. Should became would, and even today, in interview after interview, Beilin steadfastly refuses to admit that there were any errors in his original conception.
All evidence that the Palestinians have not accepted Israel’s right to exist – the Palestinian Authority maps and textbooks, in which Israel does not appear; the continual incitement to drench the land in Jewish blood and celebration of jihad and martyrdom in the Palestinian media; and finally, the renewed declaration of war by Arafat in Septermber 2000 – mean nothing, as far as Beilin is concerned.
Avirum Goldblum, one of the leaders of Peace Now, commented last summer that he feels everyone who sees a Peace Now sticker on his car, is asking themselves, "Who is the idiot driving this car?" Why, I wonder, has every Jerusalem cab driver known for the last eight years what Goldblum and many of his fellow Ha’Aretz readers are only now discovering. The answer, I guess, is that the cab drivers are not so smart.