Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Fall of Intellectual Prestige

Reading some of Virgil Thomson's columns for the Herald Tribune can sometimes be downright painfully anachronistic. Consider what he wrote on October 3, 1944 about the future of symphony orchestras in the United States:
This [financial] support will be forthcoming exactly as long as the orchestras maintain their nationwide intellectual prestige. And they will maintain that only so long as they are clearly instruments of public instruction.
To put this in historical perspective, Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life appeared in 1963, writing primarily about the state of the American mentality in the decade following the one in which Thomson wrote the above passage. This was a time when "intellectual prestige" was, for all intents and purposes, an oxymoron, since anyone with intellect might question a society driven by little more than the pursuit of consumer goods or the uneven distribution of wealth; and anyone raising such questions clearly posed a Communist threat.

Things have changed a lot since then. The Iron Curtain fell and some of the most vigorous capitalism in the world is practices in the former Soviet Union. It is probably practiced even more vigorously in the People's Republic of China, which has not given up its Communist name but has shown itself to be highly adept at the gaming tables of capitalism. However, when intellectual prestige was beaten down to a pulp in the Fifties, it never really recovered, even when we managed to elect Presidents who valued intellect as much as Franklin Roosevelt did in trying to get the country out of the Great Depression. Now we live in an age in which it does not take very much intellect to recognize that people are more likely to believe in Santa Claus or winning the lottery than they are to benefit from what our government is trying to pass of as "economic recovery." Indeed, it is because intellectuals know a naked emperor when they see one that they are still viewed as dangerous; and, in such a cultural setting, "intellectual prestige" is a liability, rather than an asset.

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