The Magazine

Captive Minds


Domesticating intellectuals -- housebreaking them, to be a tad vulgar -- is a serious, though seldom adequately discussed, business. After all, intellectuals traffic in ideas, many potentially quite toxic and dangerous, so they must be reigned in, lest like Typhoid Mary, they wreck havoc. This domestication might be compared to taming a wild beast prior to its useful employment. Putting them on the payroll helps, but more critical is the psychological component, inculcating an attitude of subservience to dominating power.

Ritual public self-debasement can render them safe. Here the would-be independent thinker openly and "voluntarily" endorses ideas everybody, including the speaker, knows to be patently false. This act tacitly admits agreeable pliability -- "I am a prostitute for hire," to put it crudely. Galileo recanting his heresies before the assembled Church Fathers is the classic illustration. More modern examples include Stalin's show trials, where innocents "honestly" confessed to non-existent crimes, or the public expressions of self-criticism under Mao. The open, "willing" surrender of self-respect is critical: one must drink the Kool-Aid and enthusiastically ask for a second glass. After a few such glasses, and a forced smile after each one, society has fewer worries.

Though this phenomenon infuses today's left-leaning universities, it is even more popular on the right, and for good reason. While an "undomesticated" intellectual might embarrass a university, even instigate unruly demonstrations, not even the most heretical professor threatens the university's very existence. Edward O. Wilson's unPC sociobiology might outrage fellow tenured Harvard professors, but they were not personally affected if students riot. The billion dollar endowment hardly noticed.

Not true for conservative think-tanks and similar entities enjoying revocable tax-exempt status. More importantly, an "out-of-control" intellectual might embarrass big donors and thus bring almost instant de-funding. Larry Summers could never inflict that on Harvard. Universities may employ hundreds of over-the-top Ward Churchills and Bill Ayers but conservative think-tanks cannot risk the right wing equivalents. Their financial footing is too precarious.

The need to tame potentially unmanageable conservative intellectuals is highly selective. On dozens of topics, right-wing thinkers are absolutely unencumbered. Nobody worries that some senior fellow will embarrass anyone by advocating refurbishing America's electrical grid system or make it easier to license drugs. But, when race, immigration and similar hot button issues are on the agenda, the pressures on intellectuals to get-with-the-program become immense, at least for those who are dependent on institutional largess. And keep in mind that topics like race can spill over into countless other subjects -- crime, welfare policy, educational attainment, economic inequality, even healthcare among countless others.

Imagine a conservative think-tank holding a luncheon forum on revitalizing once great American cities, i.e., Detroit, Newark, St. Louis, and the like. This is a walking-on-eggshells topic where policy wonks must conspicuously avoid plain-to-see awkward realities. Participants must grasp, even if unconsciously, that brutal honesty would disqualify them from future employment and make them social pariahs, no small matters for those lacking life-time tenure. But this risky venture is also a wonderful opportunity to entice intellectuals to drink the Kool Aid of domestication.

The first speaker, a Harvard Ph. D., offers a statistical analysis of how high tax burdens and mandatory health insurance forced employers to flee cities like Trenton, NJ, and that lower taxes and deregulation ensures revitalization. A second well-credentialed expert stresses human capital, noting how these troubled cities neglect 21st-century relevant education. The solution, he confidently asserts, is school vouchers and innovative charter schools so employers will flock to Camden, NJ, to hire these tech-savvy graduates. He highlights how Singapore and South Korea rose via high-powered technically oriented education.  A third brainy participant recounts his experience in Pakistan with micro loans to encourage local entrepreneurs to initiate small businesses, which, in turn, will revitalize local commerce. He suggests that increased home ownership among the poor would help build the equity necessary to fund micro businesses.

A spirited discussion follows about funding charter schools, administering small low-interest loans and the right tax incentives for high-tech firms corporations to create a mini-Silicon Valleys in Garry, IN. Audience members during the Q and A comment on the pernicious impact of the minimum wage, public employee unions, burdensome EPA paperwork, the evils of current eminent domain policy, shipping manufacturing jobs to China, confiscatory taxation, deteriorating infrastructure, und so weiter. Such laments are guaranteed to elicit applause at any respectable conservative function. 

The symposium is a great success. Major donors loved the snappy give-and-take between Harvard and Chicago PhDs, though, happily, all speakers endorsed lower taxes and less regulation. Even attendees bewildered by arcane statistical disputes found the lunch highly stimulating. Several foundation officers present approached the speakers soliciting research proposals regarding urban re-development. A few asked for business cards and mentioned upcoming similar forums. Their writings are soon published in the think-tank's journal and media interviews quickly followed.        

Much of this, of course, was a charade, intellectual Kabuki Theater. Nobody, especially the invited distinguished speakers, even cast a sideways glance at the giant elephant in the corner -- all these horrific cities collapsed as the non-white population soared. These cities in question, each plagued by crime and drugs, are all black dominated and all cesspools of chronic corruption. Put Simply, East St. Louis ain't Taiwan.

Moreover, billions in urban aid targeting education, free healthcare, empowerment districts, vocational counseling, and every other imagine uplift-the-poor social welfare intervention has failed. A totally honest expert would have at least broached the possibility that the best statistical predictor of intractable urban woe was "percent black," and if "percent Hispanic immigrant" were included in the equation, all other potential explanatory factors would be irrelevant. This suicidal but honest expert could have further added that low economic development is nearly entirely predictable from average IQ scores, regardless of race, and since we cannot boost IQ, all the billions and other schemes are a total waste of time.

Of course those acknowledging the elephant would never be invited to the party. In-charge administrators know full well that pointing to the pachyderm risk everything: big donors would be horrified to be associated with such a bomb thrower, the Q and A would be filled with charges of racism, the few African-Americans in attendance might storm out, and if the mass media got wind of the presentations, the Institute's tax exempt status might be scrutinized.  A social and, ultimately, an economic disaster!

More important for our purposes, however, is the psychological effect on the experts skillfully avoiding the elephant. They certainly realize that their analyses are, at best, incomplete. Our University of Chicago expert, for example, lives in Hyde Park and knows full well that his impoverished neighbors will not use new-found discretionary income to fund business start-ups -- they will spend it on immediate consumption. And so on and so on.

No doubt, these speakers will find their initial experiences at ignoring the elephant quite disconcerting. Some might switch specialties or become cynics who confess truths only in private. But for many, these appreciated, career-rewarding presentations will become commonplace -- provided, of course, that they don't change their tune.

And now for the key point: after repeating these incomplete truths in public and being celebrated for openly drinking the ideological Kool-Aid, they will internalize it. The elephant no longer exists -- they have gotten with the program. To admit that one has been publicly lying repeatedly to advance a career is not easy; far easier to convince oneself that these fantasies are, indeed, true -- charter-schools competition will return Newark, NJ, to far better days when hard-working Connecticut Puritans founded it as "New Ark." Those interested in the underlying psychological forces are invited to read about cognitive dissonance theory.   

We are not condemning domestication; civil society undoubtedly requires it. Brutal honesty may be wonderful in the abstract but social peace requires pushing certain disruption-causing matters off the public agenda and silencing disorderly intellectuals. Moreover, our analysis only concerns speaking the truth in visible institutional settings, and today's heretics enjoy ample Internet freedom to be heretics. The Kool-Aid is only served in prestige settings.