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There was a time that the title of intellectual was of great reverence in society.
Now, as Raymond Williams writes in his “Keywords:
Until the middle twentieth century unfavorable uses of intellectuals, intellectualism, and intelligentsia were dominant in English, and it is clear that such uses persist.
It is easy to understand why. Many intellectuals today have become courtiers to power. They have become stenographers and apologists to the political and financial elites that have eroded away our rule of law, our environment, our middle class, and the institutions that we once looked to for guidance.
Today, our society determines who is an intellectual by how many functions or cocktail parties they attend. At these parties, they frequently rub elbows with the very elites whom they slavishly serve. They have forgotten what Julian Benda wrote in his “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” that intellectuals in the beginning must make a conscious choice; they could serve privilege and power or justice and truth.
There is a tiny minority of intellectuals left in this nation that have consistently answered the call to serve justice and truth. These intellectual minds will be targeted under Donald Trump’s administration.
If President-elect Trump takes the United States towards autocracy and fascism, intellectuals will surely be smeared and marginalized. This pattern is no different from other nations that have descended this path in the past.
In one example, during China’s Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were targeted by Mao’s communist government. Many were executed by the state, while others fled the country out of fear. China’s strategy was to silence those who could use their intellect to speak the truths that dare not be uttered to the rest of the citizenry, lest they mobilize and become a headache to the government.
Already, some conservatives and Trump supporters have created websites specifically to monitor college professors. They charge some of the academics listed of being “anti-American” and “unpatriotic.” They demand that the state continue to promote the theory of “Americanism” and purge these college professors from their posts in their respective universities.
As Noam Chomsky correctly reminds us, this is the language of totalitarianism. It propagates dogma that says that one must eliminate all critical thinking and bow at the altar of the state. That we as human beings are to slavishly serve the current or incoming administration is a betrayal of the very principles upon which this country was founded upon.
Why are the Trump supporters and the elites so frightened of principled intellectuals? It is as Leo Tolstoy described when he wrote of the three characteristics of all forms of prophecy:
First, it is entirely opposed to the general ideas of the people in the midst of whom it is uttered; second, all who hear it feel its truth; and thirdly, above all, it urges men to realize what it foretells.
Tolstoy’s quote is more applicable today than ever before, especially as it relates to anyone who is labeled an intellectual. True intellectuals, those that have been pushed to the margins of society by the elites who want their voices to be far away from the public square, are those that can best speak to the pain felt by the general population. That is why before and during a Trump administration, there are those that will attempt to silence intellectuals who will use their skills to rally the people to an agenda that is opposed by the elite.
To take up the mantle of the intellectual is to invite suffering. It is possible that in the pursuit of principle, an intellectual could lose his or her employment, they could be the subject of death threats, they could become victims of character assassination, or they could even be targeted by other intellectuals who are only interested in protecting their own prestige.
Over the course of a Trump presidency, we will see which path self-proclaimed intellectuals take. Some, preferring not to upset their employers or public opinion, will choose the path of careerism. Those that decide to take the path of an intellectual like Benda, for truth and justice, will be truly fulfilling their duties. These intellectuals will be an incremental part in providing guidance for various social movements to wrest back control from the very elites that are parasitically eating away at our society and our generation’s future.
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