Only yesterday to be called an "intellectual' was a compliment. But intellectuals no longer carry much weight in politics, in cultural salons, book clubs or the wider world of ideas. Like professors whose faculty-lounge infighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small, intellectuals are often noisy because they have nothing to say.
George Wallace carried four Southern states in 1968, but he's mostly remembered for his memorable description of snobbish East Coast liberals as "pointy-headed intellectuals" who "can't park a bicycle straight." David Halberstam's "best and the brightest" turned out to be neither. French intellectuals who held sway over college students in the middle of the 20th century were eventually unmasked as highly intelligent but not very smart.
Jean Paul Sartre completely misread how communism exploited the workers he wanted to protect. Woody Allen once joked that if the robust debates in Commentary and Dissent magazines were merged into one intellectual journal they could call it Dissentary. Witty, if unfair.
Some intellectual debates, however, are more important than others, and there's one today that goes straight to the heart of an important matter. Few intellectuals celebrate Karl Marx as they once did, but many continue to criticize "oppressive" Western values, defend Islamism and look for every opportunity to scorn America -- and Israel. They're influential and deserve to be exposed for propounding meretricious reasoning.
Many of them give cover to the cruder forms of anti-Semitism; Helen Thomas, though certainly no intellectual, probably felt empowered to say that the Jews ought to get out of Palestine and go back to Poland and Germany because so many academics stop just short of expressing themselves that way.
When Rodger Claire sought publishers for his new book about the story behind Israel's successful bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in 1981, every European publisher, including those in Britain, France, Italy and Spain, passed on the rights to the book. He said his agents were told that European readers shied away from anything that put Israel in a positive light.
"Furthermore, it can be easily argued that Europe's so-called intelligentsia has long been mildly anti-Semitic, drawing from a strain of mistrusting the Jews which dates back to the Middle Ages," he told Frontpage magazine. Many of these so-called intelligentsia joined the chorus to find Alfred Dreyfus guilty of treason in France in the 1890s because he was a Jew.
By the 1970s, some of the French intellectuals who were blinded by Marxism finally began to question their political prejudices. In his book "The Flight of the Intellectuals," Paul Berman praises the "New Philosophers" of France, who finally asked "why, in the face of ever-growing overwhelming mountains of evidence over the course of the 20th century, so many intelligent people in the Western countries had kept on deluding themselves about the Soviet Union, and then about communist China, Cuba and other such regimes."
After the Berlin Wall fell, no proper intellectual would defend "Third Worldism," but prominent leftist intellectuals smoothly replaced "Western imperialism with "the forces of globalization." The overriding anti-Western values remained intact with the belief that financial success is inherently made at the expense of the poor and that personal prosperity grows only from greed.
Berman's special targets are intellectuals who are highly regarded despite their blurring of the distinctions between Islam and Islamism, "between religion and the modern totalitarian ideology." Such Muslims are passed off as "moderate" and "modernizing although they indulge in 'the racism of the anti-racists'." He includes Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Islamic "scholar" whose grandfather founded the fanatical "Muslim Brotherhood, which he has not rejected.
Ramadan, who was praised in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for providing a comfort zone for Euro-Islam accommodation, expresses his high-mindedness by suggesting a moratorium on the "honor killing" of women by stoning. A moratorium, note, not a cessation.
Berman reserves his harshest criticism for intellectuals contemptuous of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian woman whose documentary, with Theodore van Gogh, on behalf of the rights of Muslim women brought down threats and intimidation. She fled to America after van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist fanatic, and she lives here with full-time bodyguards.
Muslim intellectuals who defended Salman Rushdie when he was targeted for death show no sympathy for Hirsi Ali. If she had been "short, squat and squinting" instead of good-looking, sneered Timothy Garton Ash, she would not have developed such a devoted following in the West. He prefers Jamal al-Bana, who isn't so attractive but defends Palestinian suicide bombers and admires the Sept. 11 terrorists for their courage in opposing "barbaric capitalism."
"In a modern political world shaped by the rise of the Islamists," Berman writes, "even some of the most attractive thinkers tend, if they have come under an Islamist influence, to have a soft spot for suicide terrorism." And a soft spot for anti-Semitism." We've been forewarned.