The Treason of the Intellectuals

One hundred and fifty well-known intellectuals from the English-speaking world, a majority of them from the left, have published an open letter in Harper’s Magazine railing against intolerance, censorship, obscurantism. They have aimed their guns not only against the enemy on the right, but also against their counterparts on the left. And they have touched a nerve in American academic and cultural circles, where a dictatorship seems to prevail against those who disagree with what is deemed politically correct.

The vicious response that the signatories have received from those who are situated to the left of the left confirms their fears.

It is amazing to see that this centuries-old liberal democracy is being partially subverted by those who should be upholding the humanistic values at the heart of civilization. Hardly a day goes by without the dismissal of journalists or professors, the silencing of writers or speakers, withdrawn invitations, and intimidation campaigns of the Stalinist lineage in America’s cultural and academic life. The recent resignation of Baris Weiss, an op-ed page editor from the New York Times, highlights the powerful effects that this “illiberal environment,” as she calls it, is having on major institutions.

In the 1920s, the French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda published a famous book, La Trahison des Clercs (literally “The Treason of the Clerics” but translated in English as The Treason of the Intellectuals), protesting what he saw as the perversion of the role of the intellectual. He did not use the word “cleric” in an ecclesiastical sense but as a synonym for a learned person. He saw that, departing from the great French intellectual tradition, this illustrious lineage was moving away from the search for truth, beauty and reason, in order to embrace totalitarian ideologies.

Benda wrote as fascism and communism were emerging in Europe and haunting many of the leading minds of his time. It is impossible not to remember, a century later, his desperate allegation when one observes that the American cultural left has imposed a collectivist discourse in which the worth of the individual is gradually being eroded in favor of groups usually defined not so much by their merits, but by how they fit into the victimhood culture in which we increasingly seem to live and which apportions blame for past evils or present failures on anyone who does not belong to, or claim to belong to, the brotherhood of offended persons.

In this ideological construct, the truth is irrelevant and the United States is a mirror of Nazi Germany, instead of a society where black, brown and yellow folks, and both sexes (or their variants), still enjoy a greater chance of social advancement and justice than in any European or Latin American democracy. (This preeminence is not to ignore the injustices and the many imperfections of the system, but to put them in a more adequate perspective.)

In the 1970s the excesses of the left produced a renaissance of two rights. One was rather liberal (in the classical sense) and the other, heavily influenced by the evangelical movement, was intolerant in matters of personal conduct and choice, although reasonably open in economic matters. In the new millennium, the rampant excesses of political correctness—along with factors such as the temporary dislocations of globalization and immigration—caused a right-wing populist reaction. That is why it is so ironic that this fascist left that knocks down statues and censors, or hits, those who do not think alike hates Trump. In many ways it can be said that she created him.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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