Friday, October 31, 2008

Save the bears

Photo: Grizzly bear

It occurs to me that there is little point in being an intellectual if you don't have power. Who wants to sit around reading Shakespeare -- or Marx -- only in order to privately congratulate himself on his taste and his great deep soul, his "living for the gods" as Marcus Aurelius said? And then only to go out into the world and talk to people who probably can't spell Shakespeare (then again, neither could he, consistently)?

This topic came up last night as we sat watching a television program about the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, and about how evil developers and people are encroaching on the bears' habitat and cutting down the white pine trees they need to survive, and so on. There were on the program the usual array of talking, turtleneck-sweatered heads, with Ph.D at the bottom of the screen beside their names, all gently mourning this state of affairs and trying to feel their way toward a new era when bears and people can co-exist. One lady's earrings swung delicately as she spoke. One of the guys had an earring, too.

We turned to each other and asked "why is public television so left-wing?" And why, too, are universities and big media newsrooms equally so? (It's funny. When I was growing up, the soft-spoken Bear Lady with the swinging earrings would have seemed to me simply a normal part of life, a normal part of an evening's television watching. Of course, her information was the truth and her point of view correct. Now I look at her and see someone indoctrinated. Someone who, like all the rest of us, may at times be wrong.)

At first I entertained the thought that the left's predominance on PBS must have something to do with money, with public television being funded more by taxes than by advertising, and so largely immune to the danger of disgusted and bored viewers turning off the propaganda machine and taking their consumer dollars elsewhere. To NASCAR broadcasts, for instance. But even free money doesn't explain why that money attracts left-wing people. Universities and newsrooms don't necessarily operate only through the the public dole, and yet they attract the left, too.

This is not the first time that I have puzzled over the topic. Once I even tried to put it into fiction, probably without much success. The more I consider it the more I think it must be that the left-leaning intellectual has an awfully bleak day-to-day existence unless he has power, or at least the hope of power, even on a small scale. The university professor, or even the high school or the fifth grade teacher, with his captive audience of goggling and impressionable young people; the journalist with his pulpit in print; the Ph.D. clutching his degree in white pine and grizzly bear symbiosis, the highlight of whose life may very well have been an interview with a crew from public television, filming a special on the menace of development near Yellowstone National Park. All these people would have nothing much practical to do with all the learning and passions they have amassed, unless they find the power to impose their views on other people. Teaching the young to "how to think" -- writing editorials on proper thinking and feeling, on the truth -- stopping development. All these, at least, are actions. Doing them is better than sitting quietly at home after a day at work, reading, or worse, writing great and important books and dissertations that most people will never look at.

The lust for power is a human trait and I am sure right-wing people want power, too. But there is a difference. Right-wingers may run for office and start businesses and publish books, but right-wing ideology does not seek power over the individual and his private choices in the way the progressive left does. Right-wing ideology seeks to leave people alone to sink or swim, which is exactly what the left excoriates about it. This makes the right evil, cold, and compassion-less.

But free people, left alone to sink or swim, are also free to ignore intellectuals, and this normal state is what threatens to strip intellectuals of their chance at power. Right-wing intellectuals can afford not to care, since the right by and large has no roster of collective actions it wants all of us to do for the general good. The left has an endless roster of such actions, and so to left-wing intellectuals, being ignored, being powerless, not only bleakens life -- as it does, a little, for all eggheads who bite their tongues when in the company of good people who can't spell Shakespeare -- it's also morally outrageous. The answer, to them, is proved so simple. They've seen the light. They've become left. So can others. Get power. Teach. Editorialize. Stop development. Make a documentary. Save the bears.

And so they congregate particularly in places of small-scale power, where they can revel in funded but unelected authority, in pulpits and captive audiences and the young. Of course they flatter themselves that it's just such selfless, open-minded, thought-provoking, and artistic professions which naturally attract compassionate, deep people who want to save the planet and touch the future ("I teach," as the refrigerator magnet almost purrs). They would never say, "I've cast my lot with an intellectual attitude that is meaningless unless it lets me mold other people." No more would a right-wing person say, "I've cast my lot with an intellectual attitude that is meaningless unless it lets my company log in Yellowstone and persecute mother bears."

This election and all the commentary about it has led me to wonder, among other things, if the Founding Fathers were not a most unusual group of history's intellectuals, a group which deliberately sought to give away or fence off power, especially the coercive power of the state which they formed. Perhaps that's why they annoy modern left-wing intellectuals so much. What fool gives away the only solid pleasure an egghead has, and to the people? Barack Obama's radio interview from 2001, in which he speaks of the Constitution's "negative rights" and its dreadful failure to indicate the powers the government has over the individual, reminded me of exactly what my professors from a rinky-dink community college used to say twenty-five years ago. I remember one Ph.D. in particular who used to praise the Mexican constitution, because it was who-knew-how-many-thousand pages long and spelled out exactly what you can and can't do, unlike our own feckless one which runs to at most three or four pages and explains practically nothing.

We students were all too dumb to call him on this nonsense, but as I've gotten older I've reassured myself that at least he, and intellectuals like him, remain ensconced in universities where they do their thing to nineteen-year-olds and then the nineteen-year-olds move on. Now I'm not so sure. My deeply ignorant, I might say life-ignorant old professor is now hideously close to the presidency, really. Oh, he isn't Barack. But he may as well be. It's the ideology that is campaigning, and it doesn't change for decades. And it amazes me that so many Americans who would roll their eyes in boredom at this if they were trapped in a little white drywall classroom, with homework coming, love it when they see it up on a stage strutting in a great baritone voice.

But then, I was in love with it too. Power as aphrodisiac, or, being overpowered as aphrodisiac. Yes, sometimes, even among audiences which are not yet captive.

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