Tag Archives: critical thinking

Strategy and Clarity about the Police State and Racism, continued

This post is a follow up to my previous post, Knowledge Matters, Too: Tell the Twin Stories of Violence and Race, which introduced the dispositive role that power plays, specifically the overlapping institutions of the police state and militarism. I suggest you read that post before this post, which supplements it with additional parts.

In the main body which I subtitled “Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America,” I broadly connected the development of an authoritarian bully mentality with racist institutions of law and law enforcement. I must always be dissatisfied by an incomplete case made for an argument that I know can be rendered more sophisticated, and better supported. In this case I necessarily omitted a book’s worth of points supplemental to the argument, and specific correlations between the threads of state violence and racism. Life and death won’t wait for spelling things out as an intellectual might want. That is why I moved on quickly to nominate some tactics, not for protesting itself, but demands that stay on target—before the news cycle forgets and the opportunity is lost.

Ineffective strategy will fail, but even inefficient strategy will cost lives.

But because of those stakes and not in spite of them, in this post I’m going to expand on a few key supportive points I left underdeveloped. I am convinced that to reckon with these factors would make a profound difference to both efficiency and effectiveness.

 

Intro. In this post I pick up from questions of strategy to prevent police brutality and murder in the United States, with the discussion already framed and its purpose clear: results that save lives, and no other mission; not virtue-signaling, fund-raising, organizational prominence, community involvement, self-expression, listening and being heard, or any other cause in itself whether it seems noble or not.

I urge people to keep in mind that clever strategy often doesn’t feel right, or personally fulfilling. It doesn’t often provide an outlet to vent pent-up emotions. (I remind myself, too, because I can get as angry or disgusted as anyone can.) Effective strategy may not follow preconceptions. Pursuing it might not be popular. For example: it was counterintuitive and offensive to many that the realities of legal precedent required that ACLU lawyers should volunteer to defend the First Amendment rights of white supremacists, lest those rights be eroded for valuable protests of—among others—black civil rights activists. Historically, difficult cases on the fringe establish precedent, and the state goes after unsympathetic targets.

The strategic mind must be willing to let go of attachments and inhibitions that get in the way, and strive to be flexible. It aims above all to solve a problem, say, to cure a disease, like a doctor, who must do their job and give their medical opinion even if it isn’t liked. If sociopolitical strategy can be compared to a fight, as activists following the “revolutionary” metaphor often do, it ought to resemble the fight brought by a martial artist with calm bearing, who won’t allow emotions like anger to disrupt focus, and efficient movements.

In fact, perfect clarity about relative priorities would render devising strategy an amoral process to identify just what’s necessary to serve those goals. This was the precept for Sun Tzu‘s teaching, and to some extent Machiavelli’s. It’s possible to appreciate the lesson and apply it to serve quite different values and intentions.

What is necessary to solve a long-term problem is usually not what is already being done. Typical thinking ostensibly either produced the problem, mishandled it, misunderstood it, or distracted from it. That is why, at the risk of offense when I take some decades-old thinking to task for incessant errors, I propose checking it against other angles. Along the way, analysis from other perspectives will make it easier to identify productive tactics, that some protestors are already using (filming police thuggery). And, to see that some campaigners are on the right track with the concept of defunding police (contingent on security-role replacement adopting decentralized non-state services employed by local people, so as not to merely reboot the system).

 

Part I. Most well-intentioned responses fail to make adequate distinction between the dispositions of people in the general (national or regional) population, and the dispositions of:

  1. cops,
  2. the more powerful members of the police state behind them (prosecutors, politicians)
  3. psychopathic cops

So, many of those responses talk collectively about “America” and talk to “America.” This isn’t at all realistic. If it’s collective shorthand, it’s shorthand that has led the discourse astray, as political talk does.

Police throughout the US have, to some degree that probably varies from city to city, become more than a special-interest group, but a separately-associating group, a sub-population, with a lot of overlap between military veteran and cop families. Others grossly underestimate how far this goes. The enforcers keep their own culture, which is insular. Even the old practice of “walking the beat” (and getting to know the neighborhood and people in it) gave way to patrol cars, and nothing in common.

Cops likely hold fast to dramatically different attitudes and preconceptions about authority, themselves, obedience, soldiering, familiarity with violence, racial stereotypes, homeless people, gallows humor, and more, mutually reinforced by their unions and associations, partners, families, and drinking buddies.

The accused are not presumed innocent by cops, for example. That mindset goes even further, and presumes a “duty of the jury to convict” the accused, as though it were a jury’s job, which sounds fascist to non-authoritarians of any skin color. It’s a brotherhood that prioritizes each other, and covers for each other against citizens, by lying in court if necessary, so the state prosecutor can make cases. That’s “part of the job” for many. But it’s certainly far more than a job.

It’s debatable how much talking to the general population about racism will be ignored by this entrenched population. But that—to put it mildly—does not seem as productive or timely as undercutting their means of support and indulgence, which has so far been lavished on them by the state.

We have also to examine and account for the extent to which that separate, tribal culture and population are tolerant and protective of partial psychopaths. We cannot be certain exactly how many of the police officers who behave like thugs are psychopaths attracted to the power of the badge, or have instead been hardened to display a psychopathoid indifference toward lesser people, the ruled subjects of a thugocracy. This is only because the government doesn’t test candidates to exclude psychopathy, though it has objective and testable psychological and physiological criteria. (Known, in part, from studies in prison populations, so hardly new to the criminal justice system.)

Although not as permissive as a combat unit in a war zone, a police career must seem like a pretty good one to a psychopath—comparable to the way that a narcissist fits right into a political career, and is able to earn rewards from a lack of empathy instead of social penalties. Psychopaths are unafraid of the physical danger which might make a job on the streets unappealing. They get civic status and special legal protection, as well as opportunities to bully people in unequal power dynamics—threaten and frighten them, assault them, brutalize (and sodomize) them, if not choke them to death or shoot them and be acquitted, or never even charged.

Psychopaths are the category that best accounts for the infamous repeat offenders of police brutality complaints, because they are motivated by the adrenaline thrill of violence or abuse, and not averse to hurting others by virtue of common empathy.

Psychopaths in uniform don’t necessarily have any particular fixation (like racist ideology) on any one type of victim, just a fixation on bullying victims of opportunity. The thing is that inner-city minorities, immigrants, and the plentiful suspects of minor crimes supply those victims of opportunity with few career repercussions.

NB: Even with repercussions in place, psychopaths are dangerously impulsive, not long-term thinkers, by definition. They can never be trusted with license to use violence (if anyone could). They simply need to be excluded from power.

Further, psychopaths are not averse to transgression of well-understood social norms. They are even attracted to committing moral transgressions, such as sexual violence, because these are exciting. They should not be confused with mere contrarians attracted to devil’s advocacy, or to espousing shock opinions that cause outrage. We should consider that to propound and insist that Racism = Bad does nothing more for the psychopath than flag a transgressive thrill they may actually find inviting—and certainly won’t process as immoral, in the sense that others feel morals keenly. This is a different problem from commitment to racism as an ideological matter. It cannot be solved by confrontation or shaming, which they simply don’t respond to in the same way others do.

Based on an educated guess, I would say the danger posed by the presence of psychopaths in uniform probably exceeds the more-often discussed danger posed by white-nationalist infiltrators, although I do suspect many of those are, more-importantly, psychopaths. Psychopaths need no particular organization or belief to brutalize people; they can be, rather, enabled by these things. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it is consequential to discern these causes and origins, because police could continue to harbor psychopaths even if they shun racists—and perpetuate the problem.

And, psychopaths cannot be convinced not to be racists with moral arguments, or with punishments. They cannot be induced to stop committing violent crimes in uniform, any more than their recidivist counterparts in prison stop after they go through rehabilitation. Their neurology has permanent and recurring effects on behavior, which do not respond to psychological intervention.

 

Part II. Most well-intentioned responses are guided by lack of nuance about prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Most well-intentioned campaigns about racism are therefore diffuse and ineffectual, not on a timescale geared to emergency prevention.

The causation or enabling of violence by prejudice, bigotry, or (specifically) racism, which itself comes in numerous forms, and a range of severities of bias or hatred, is certainly a subject in itself. Evidence lends itself to endless debate over “contributing factors” by subjective viewpoints. The most salient point though, which can be made clear, concerns contrasts that are not being made between what’s universal (prejudice), or debatably-general (bigotry), and a very particular kind of racism indeed.

Combating prejudices presents an eternal challenge for vigilance and self-examination, as well as scientific doubt and questioning. I don’t mean to suggest that any one prejudice in particular (such as prejudice against black people) is natural or inherent rather than a construct of culture. That sort of claim always rests on tendentious pseudoscience and scientism, aping objective methods to justify values and beliefs, and pretend to derive them objectively. It used to be white segregationists, and now it is more likely radical black nationalists who cite pseudoscientific studies claiming that “the races”—left over from debunked eugenic and racialist theories—cannot get along. Actual science found that genetics and inherent behavior don’t break along lines of skin color.

But *forming prejudices* is natural. Human primates are rife with prejudices acquired about appearances and man-made categories, as an evolutionary product of fumbling through managing risk, and problem-solving our personal world with imperfect operational knowledge. Much of that tentative ‘knowledge’ was simply received from some source, not even personally experienced, and not actively questioned. We rely too much on group, primate-level influencer (family, friend, figurehead) cues for approval or disapproval as a means of sorting people and things, and navigating life’s many shoals. Neurotic people undergoing insecure phases might fall back on old prejudices the most, but we all use them.

As a result: We dislike or mistrust many things, hate few, and want exceedingly few if any people dead with our own hands—and few of us want the opportunity to decide, as a career choice.

No, that, we have to say, is different. When it keeps happening, that phenomenon really requires a different explanation and causal chain from vague nationwide “racism,” which includes lesser prejudices and/or bigotry, without distinction from the likes of the Klan. Particularly, when so much of the population reacts negatively to the specter of violent racism, it’s conspicuous that the prejudice, the moralism of the country takes cues against it, far more than for it. (Even sympathies and defenses from the separate population for “one of their own” seem fewer than before.)

But even if all that weren’t so—or, let’s say we discount moral outrage as insincere—it would still be a remarkable abdication of intellectual responsibility not to admit that it’s an extraordinary claim to make, and not a self-evident one at all, to draw an arrow from prejudice, or even bigotry, toward incidents of hands-on murder (by probable psychopaths)—in the ways that abstruse racial academics and college-educated activists habitually do. The formula and its logic are no less fallacious for having caught on.

It’s absurd on the face of it to convince people that re-examining whether they unconsciously hold their purse tighter when a black man walks by, or don’t hire enough qualified black employees, has something to do with kneeling on a black man’s throat for nine minutes. We’re reminded that both types of phenomena stem from a common history—but everything in human society does. This in itself doesn’t mean two things are closely connected, or cause each other. It doesn’t establish an interaction, or causative relationship.

Worse, it squanders precious time and energy to confuse the response this hopelessly during a genuine societal emergency slow-burning for decades, punctuated by avoidable deaths of real people. It no doubt appeals to us to think that the worst events already fall under our personal control, or personal development. It has thousands of well-meaning and influential people urging each other to “do the work.” Meanwhile the power of the police state ratchets event by event, not on some glacial timescale on which eroding all prejudice could be a realistic goal.

The explanatory laziness about accounting for what is happening at the hands of cops suggests to me other agendas from certain campaigners and activists besides focusing on that outstanding problem—whether they really care more for other social-justice issues and want to redirect effort there, have some axe to grind about “capitalism” or “society” in general—or else harbor guilt (so-called “white guilt”?) in search of a reason for taking blame, and therefore prefer a diffuse accusation that includes everyone. A need for mutual confession would fit with certain activists’ (and slackivists‘) preference to talk to each other, and demonstrate to sympathetic quarters, more than confront those who disagree, or do their worst, as activists in the 1960s civil rights movement did.

I can speculate, but the point is that only a precise diagnosis of the systemic problem leads to a timely solution and productive strategy. A great many activists and campaigners unfortunately do not pursue this, stopped by a premature answer: a fundamentally flawed and racist society they envision, that requires mass-penitence and soul-searching, and in effect, must protest itself. That kind of collectivism formed of vague self-image and grand abstraction is useless to real human beings on the ground—to individuals. In this case it will let more individuals get killed, when the killers could be stopped.

“America” needs to be sorted out conceptually instead of blurred, if we want to get serious about solving the problems that occur across that enormous, disparate, and populous land. As I’ve written before, a general population and its power structure are blurred as a matter of institutional interest, hiding how little they have in common behind a “common interest,” and hiding how little control most people really have behind “participation.” Dealing with that ugly secret could be every bit as messy and uncomfortable as cleaning up after a racist past, but unfortunately the work has only earnestly begun on the latter. This isn’t just work ahead of “America,” by the way; it looms over everybody.

In Defense of… [on thoughtful critiques of ‘The Cult of Letters’]

Not long ago I was writing some notes for The Constellation of Man about certain self-deceits of abstract thinkers, and in particular—to put a page of discussion succinctly—why philosophers (in a broad sense) feel accomplished about verbal descriptions of the world that do not match it. Even writing about false models yields an inward sense of order, and (like scientific knowledge) some sense of control over the world or orientation within it.

Every time I make a case along these lines—about the limitations of language, or against relying on any intensive subculture & psychological type built on systematic thought (e.g. men of letters, academics, scientists, philosophers)—it is intended to be constructive, in my Nietzschean fashion. But resistant, worrisome notions do spring to mind:

  • that I am going against the grain of defenses of the “life of the mind” which intellectuals tend to write today, in possibly-vain attempts to popularize it;
  • that attacks on dumbed-down culture depend on endorsements of linguistic and mental prowess that I could be seen as undermining;
  • that I am aiming at easy, marginalized targets—groups which have included or still include myself;
  • that I might be read as though I’ve succumbed to the pervasive disease of self-disgust.

It’s difficult not to write in solidarity with a marginalized group that one belongs to. I am keenly aware of writing for (against?) a modern audience, a quasi-literate world, which largely rejects my kind.

By “my kind,” I don’t simply mean intellectuals in the enterprising sense.

This world barely knows what to do with a generalist, the “Renaissance man” who once would have occupied essential roles, and renders almost every deep thinker an outsider if not an outcast. This has become so normalized they do not imagine their abilities could ever be welcomed. People dislike introspection, shrug at philosophy, and dismiss challenging literature. Intellectuals have few opportunities that pseudo-intellectuals have not taken. Fakes thrive in a culture tolerant of superficiality, and selling-out. The “literary world” is replete with an embarrassment of writers who should not have bothered, inspired by third-hand moral notions from ideologues, and boring formulae for creativity. Quantity proliferates while investing in quality seems pointless or quixotic. “Philosophers” are either dead, academic, or popularizers recycling old ideas. (Admittedly the sometimes-aligned categories of psychologists and scientists are more popular categories and aspirations, but these oftener refer to technical professions that don’t have much to do with being a “thinker.”)

My kind are infrequently persecuted today, but only because we are hardly seen. We feel as if we are, but much more to the point, we are ignored when we crusade, and superfluous in our hiding places.

What I do, and what I stand for has no purchase in a world that seeks not the transformative power of understanding, but nodding in agreement, and vituperative argument. The outspoken detest nuance and repel curiosity. Elitist snobs, smug about nothing more accomplished than a highfalutin philistinism, look down on the coarse folk who are proud to spite them with the lowbrow kind.

Everywhere we witness the unspiritual work of the uncreative, uninterested in profound human experience, and worse, contemptuous of it. Humanism no longer means anything useful. It is a world which has left behind both the apolitical (or antipolitical) values of culture, and the virtues of Man.

So I feel that I should stand up for philosophy, for genuine intellectuals, for long thoughts and real books. I am very sympathetic.

But I see it as part of my task to sincerely address the limitations of words and the foibles of thinkers. It may have to come across as self-effacing, when I least wish to be.

Struggling to grasp and to tell discomfiting but important truths is one of the distinctive habits that sets us apart from other people—if “we” aim to be more than merely literate or articulate, and also aim to question things. Certainly the great many who believe what suits them do not relate to that habit, or appreciate it.

As far as claiming an identity, however, I think it is more important that turning that microscope toward ourselves distinguishes those of us who pursue genuine intellectual, psychological or philosophical effort from poseurs, who only retell the familiar truths they already overcame, knowing they might disturb or uproot someone else.

I count among these the “skeptics” who feel no duty to be skeptical of their own convictions. Those who no longer challenge their own justifications while they challenge others to reexamine theirs are more properly referred to as moralist than intellectual in any progressive or inquisitive sense.

In any case, the unexamined limitations of thinkers, and of philosophy—especially second- or third-hand ideas, in academia, journalism, and authorship of popular media—have poisoned or imperiled so much progress, there is far more at stake than being true to oneself in the tradition of thinkers with an intellectual conscience.

Scribes

The Cult of Letters

Intellectuals have long wished for other people to agree with them about the value of verbal ideas in themselves. They prefer a life of ideas, so their affinity is natural. Of course they also have an interest in bringing ideas to others, and interpreting them for others, for the status and influence it brings. At the same time they have some interest in opacity, not unlike that of priests who interpret the enigmas of a mystical religion. Intellectuals do not wish for transparency about their motives, and they do not wish to have their value questioned. They are no freer of ego than anyone else, as a rule, and no more disposed to introspection.

Questions are reasonable. What is the value of books, beyond selling books? What is education for, besides enlarging the industry of education, or providing technocrats able to perpetuate a system? What can language change? When we talk about things, what are we really accomplishing? Are we really getting to the bottom of anything? Is an intellectual life more profound than, say, a visceral life, or a life spent in nature? Is “book learning” more important to self-development than say, sexuality, or traveling?

What specific and personal reasons could an intellectual have for the ideas they subscribe to, other than the neutrality, objectivity, or intelligence they prefer to presume? More importantly, what will paying attention to what they say bring to someone who does?

What is the point of philosophy or philosophers, besides their own purposes, interest, fascination, or importance? Why should others pay attention to something they write, instead of—for instance—learning an ostensibly more practical skill? Why should it hold more value than say, manufacturing a better refrigerator, shipping trade goods, or planting a nice garden?

(I believe I know the long and unflinching answers to questions of this sort, but my point is that it’s truly extraordinary not to ask them. How usual, yet how egregious of the intellectual ilk to simply feel entitled to respect from others, like an aristocrat or bureaucrat, without earning it by doing serious work and making a real contribution to  life. A contribution need not be measurable, or quantifiable, or immediate, or tangible, but surely one could explain it, or demonstrate it, if it were real.)

Making a case for Art instead of mere entertainment bears a similar burden of proof. Art diverts personal, temporal, material, and financial resources to be lavished upon its creation, and appreciation. Art is difficult, and it makes demands. Why a troublesome mental exercise instead of a diverting story? If the mental exercise is our diverting story, we think the answer is straightforward: art, surely, should speak for itself. The artist, whose creative experience is so profound, also thinks art should not need justification, as does the aesthete. But art does not speak for itself, except to those who are already convinced by their emotion and perception.

We deceive ourselves to think that—unearned—a civilizational value like self-knowledge, or the means of the written word, speaks to those who have never known its worth personally. Justification is precisely what we must provide, if we wish to make the extraordinary case that our business, our cause, our purpose, our great project should become the business of others who presently see a perplexing waste where we recognize a necessary investment. Why should others who see an abstraction where we feel much more, join us and devote themselves to furthering its reality in some way, or support us in our work to do so?

It’s tempting, sometimes necessary, to write defenses of what is being lost. What is really called for is not idealization of these things, or of the types of people who are already persuaded by them, but first: transparency in admitting why certain people might already be won over. Sometimes, they have a liking as instinctive as any other. Unflatteringly, they might have motives as aggrandizing or indulgent as any.

Second, and only after establishing credibility with the first: communication which deepens the shallow appreciation others have. Demonstrate the value of a life, if you wish others to adopt any part of it.

If a philosopher is drawn to philosophize partly for the benefit of setting his mind in order—comparable to what practicing yoga does for others—this makes a surprising argument for learning to think in just such an ordered (precise, careful, or systematic) way—if not specifically as a philosopher, then as a critical thinker, perhaps under the label of a scientist.

(I remember hearing this sort of argument made for studying classical languages, back in prep school—in the traditional, philological manner, with formal grammar and linguistics. I thought it strange at the time, but in retrospect, it makes excellent sense to me. Even as the specifics of a Latin and Greek education fell into disuse in my memory, habits of explicit mental order continued to be useful.)

Another illustration: a poet is almost certainly a pretentious thing to be, a verbose and vestigial role about as vital as an appendix, to anyone who has not written poetry because they felt it—or else, heard their sense of life echoed in poetry, having understood that imagery and cadence are the birthrights of a tongue.

We are used to disingenuously speaking of the social good, instead of the personal good, when the personal good can be an easier case to make and a more persuasive one. Societal virtues from “creativity” to “learning” remain abstract, until they can be personally appreciated. That is true even if consequences of eroding a virtue—for enough people to fail to express it personally—are grave. The utilitarian argument for a virtue is weak by itself. Imagine the position of defending “romance” that way to someone who had never felt it!

A brief digression: conversely, what if the consequences for neglect are not dire? The same exercise of demonstration—of including others to understand, or at least participate in what they are missing—indicates selective importance when it is not persuasive; people find out what they are missing, and it is not much.

Narrow intellectual interests that have been claimed, justified, even trumpeted as “socially relevant” turn out to have relevance to a very few who articulate them. These have marginal importance to “society,” as this is comprised of nothing other than actual people. Personal knowledge obtained from familiarity is a valid microcosm of consequence, albeit incomplete.

Like an aesthetic that appeals to a certain type, some subjects are trivial and dispensable to anyone else who gets to know them. They aren’t merely specialized areas of expertise that are useful to others indirectly, like engineering—a fact which familiarity with the subject would reveal. They turn out to be extrinsic to civilizational needs, as well as the marrow of human pursuits.

(As an aside, I would argue that a case of precisely this is ongoing, as ideas about “identity” originating in academic cul-de-sacs reach a larger audience, third-hand, through mass-produced fiction with a see-through agenda, and internet media. To be lectured tastes like bitter medicine, particularly without the coating of a good story, or a dramatic proposal. But more than this, a wider audience finds these ideas themselves inapplicable, vacuous, or tiresome instead of liberating or redemptive [like any resounding myth]. The interested group may have expected to acquire importance like the medical experts the public willingly deputizes at great expense to cure disease; we need not understand the details to believe that specialists studying them conduct valuable work. Promulgators of identity politics may have hoped to awaken others to an ethic, or hoped to inspire existential discovery, much as promoters of class theory had hoped. Instead, today their diagnostics of “identity” are revealed to be—for most intents and purposes—neither remedial for social problems, nor inspiring to most individuals, as interesting as they seem to a self-appointed group.)

I see it as my task to show many of the virtues I wish were more prevalent, so they can be believed. I see it as my task to lay bare faults that can be remedied only if we are pointed to them, but also to concretize these things—like “the life of the mind”—that devotees want others to see as magical, too, and describe with an air of gnosis, things which more often appear unreal to others and therefore unconvincing.

If we claim anything as a pure good—as people have done with comprehensive knowledge, subversive knowledge, and every approach to “truth”—people will know this for a lie. They will suspect we are being vague about why it is a good at all, because it is not good for much. They can even dispute its substance completely, except as our favorite form of frippery, which they have no need of. Perfection is unconvincing.

Without acknowledging that there presently exists great skepticism, and perhaps for good reasons, toward many of the expensive, strange, troublesome, sometimes self-sacrificial values that generalists, artists, outsiders, crusaders, mavericks, psychologists, intellectuals, thinkers and philosophers take for granted, we will never convince those who subscribe to specialized, bourgeois, materialistic, literal, popular, and conventional values today that they are deprived—nor (as I believe) that they are taking terrible risks with the future, and with things that matter to everybody. This is a case we can make only by earning the right to make it.

We should be willing to say “Perhaps they are right!” and even dare to say, “Maybe what I am doing is useless, or unimportant,” or at least wonder in what particular ways that might be so. There is no other way but to admit the possibility, and entertain it provisionally, so that the impractical can be shown to be practical—or so that it can be made so by developing it with greater substance, relevance, and honesty than before. Unproductive occupation, and trivial preoccupations can be abandoned, so that other lines can be taken up with energy.

These are the gifts of criticism. Centuries of cloistered assurance and praise have enfeebled the life of the mind, gutted the profession of the philosopher (except for those who followed Nietzsche, who reformed by asking the hard questions), and debased literature and intellectualism.

With all our technology, we are scrabbling for the stuff to repair civilization, mixing one mortar after another that will not hold. I would not ignore those who do not trust thinkers (as they know them), or value thinking deeply. I would listen to people who are not satisfied by ideas today sooner than I would blame them.

We should keep asking the same questions they do, on the face of it: “What good is it?” And good for whom, and good for what?

This is a radical impulse, instinctively resisted by those who are invested in depth and complication. Nevertheless, it is a good one intellectuals neglect. They will not hear it. Their habitual inner rejoinder is always, “if only you knew the depth and complication I do!”

The doubts and questions seem superficial—and they are—when (as the intellectual knows) they are challenges that come from simplicity, from unfamiliarity with intellectualism, and ignorance of that “depth and complication.”

In fact, it is the intellectual who can take the doubts and questions deeper, enrich them, and fulfill their exploration, which is so essential; a life of study, and working with ideas, is essential to knowing how to question itself properly, and not just essential for instructing others. But insofar as carrying on with these simple, pragmatic questions appears to be a quest to destroy oneself—to undermine a reason for being, to unmask triviality, to obsolete oneself—the intellectual refuses to take it up seriously. The intellectual calls those simplistic questions.

In fact, so many intellectuals resist explaining themselves as clearly as they can—preferring the obfuscation of jargon, and to write in academic formats—that it suggests genuine, existential doubts about what and how much they really have to say, and even their professions. Do they know what they are good for, and why anyone else should care? Confidence does not always mean a reason to feel confident, and of course many poor amateurs with ideas convert credentials into popular books or platforms. But the lack of confidence to speak clearly and speak out oftentimes suggests the construction of elaborate and preposterous facades to distract—from what? Perhaps, from foundations that no one looks forward to testing. Perhaps from a Potemkin village, or a show city for no one to really live in. Perhaps also a construction project that is continually built, ripped down, and rebuilt so that its architects and laborers have eternal work.

Those who work, in some sense, to build civilization would not be afraid to say so, or at least to take pride in their part of it. Otherwise, people will rightly suspect this is not their business, at all. Creators who have a promise to fulfill, and a humanistic reason to act, would not be reluctant to explain how and why.