The Danger of Intellectuals
[T]here are, indeed, few things that are more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government during the last decades. The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough to “think the unthinkable,” but that they do not think.
-Hannah Arendt, "On Violence"
Hannah Arendt’s warning about the power of educated elites in government is one of the most counter-intuitive claims made by an irreverently paradoxical thinker. It is also, given her writing about the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, jarring to see Arendt call ivy-league graduates with Ph.D.s both dangerous and thoughtless. And yet Arendt is clear that one of the great dangers facing our time is the prestige and power accorded to intellectuals in matters of government.
Arendt issues her warning in the introduction to her essay “On Violence.” It comes amidst her discussion of the truth of Lenin’s prediction that the 20th century would be a “century of wars” and a “century of violence.”
And it follows her claim that even though the technical development of weapons have made war unjustifiable, war nevertheless continues for the “simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.” It is “under these circumstances” of extraordinary violence, Arendt writes, that the entry of social scientists and intellectuals into government is so profoundly frightening.
Whereas most political thinkers believe that in violent times we should welcome educated and rational “scientifically minded brain trusters” in government, Arendt is skeptical. Her reasoning is that these social scientists calculate, they do not think. She explains what she means writing that,
“Instead of indulging in such old-fashioned, uncomputerizable activity, [scientifically minded brain trusters] reckon with the consequences of certain hypothetically assumed constellations without, however, being able to test their hypotheses against actual occurrences.”
She has in mind those consultants, talking heads, and commentators in and out of government who create logically convincing hypothetical constructions of future events. This could be the claim, heard so often today, that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb they will use it or that Al Qaeda and terrorism threatens the existence or freedoms of the United States. For Arendt, such claims always begin the same way, with a hypothesis. They state a possible outcome of a series of events. They then discuss and dismiss alternative possibilities. Finally, this hypothesis turns “immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a “fact,” which then gives birth to a whole string of similar non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten.” In other words, we move from the speculative possibility that Iran would use nuclear weapons or that terrorism is a meaningful threat to the United States to the conclusion that these outcomes are facts. The danger of intellectuals in politics is that they have a unique facility with ideas and arguments that are quite capable of so enrapturing their own minds with the power of their arguments that they lose sight of reality.
When Arendt speaks about the danger of intellectuals in government she has in mind the example of the Vietnam War. In her essay “Lying and Politics”—a response to the Pentagon Papers—she hammers at the same theme of the danger intellectuals pose to politics. The Pentagon Papers were written by and written about “professional ‘problem solvers,’” who were “drawn into government from the universities and the various think tanks, some of them equipped with game theories and systems analyses, thus prepared, as they thought, to solve all the ‘problems’ of foreign policy.” The John F. Kennedy administration is famous, very much as is the Presidency of Barack Obama, for luring the “best and the brightest” into government service. We need to understand Arendt’s claim that of why such problem solvers are dangerous.
These “problem solvers,” she argues, were men of “self-confidence, who ‘seem rarely to doubt their ability to prevail.’” They were “not just intelligent, but prided themselves on being ‘rational,’ and they were indeed to a rather frightening degree above ‘sentimentality’ and in love with ‘theory,’ the world of sheer mental effort.” They were men so familiar with theories and the manipulation of facts to fit logical argumentation, that they could massage facts to fit their theories. “They were eager to find formulas, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language, that would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them.” They sought to transform the contingency of facts into the logical coherence of a lawful and pseudo-scientific narrative. But since the political world is not like the natural world of science, the temptation to fit facts to reality meant that they became practiced in self-deception. That is why the “hard and stubborn facts, which so many intelligence analysts were paid so much to collect, were ignored.”
For Arendt, the “best-guarded secret of the Pentagon papers” is the “relation, or, rather, nonrelation, between facts and decision” which was prepared by the intellectual “defactualization” enabled by the problem solvers. “No reality and no common sense,” Arendt writes, “could penetrate the minds of the problem-solvers.”
Arendt’s suspicion of intellectuals in politics long predates her concern about the Vietnam War, and began with her personal experience of German intellectuals in the 1930s. She was shocked by how many of her friends and how many educated and brilliant German professors, lawyers, and bureaucrats—including but not limited to her mentor and lover Martin Heidegger—were able to justify and rationalize their complicity in the administration of the Third Reich, often by the argument that their participation was a lesser evil.
Similarly, she was struck by the reaction to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which intellectuals constructed elaborate critiques of her book and her argument that had nothing at all to do with the facts of what she had written. In both instances, Arendt became aware of the intellectual facility for massaging facts to fit theories and thus the remoteness from reality that can infect those who live too easily in the life of the mind.
The Iraq War under George W. Bush and the war on terrorism waged under Bush and President Barack Obama are, today, clear examples of situations in which now two U.S. administrations have convinced themselves of the need for military action and unparalleled surveillance of citizens under indisputably false pretenses. Iraq, contrary to assertions that were made by a policy of elite of brain-trusters, had no connection with the 9/11 attacks and had no nuclear weapons.
Similarly, terrorism today does not pose a threat to the existence or the freedom of the United States. What terrorism threatens is the continued existence of the U.S. as the world superpower. What we are fighting for is not our survival, but our continued predominance and power. Some might argue that the fight for continued world dominance is worth the costs of our privacy and liberty; others may disagree. But we should at the very least be honest about what we are fighting for and what the costs of that fight are.
We see a similar flight from fact to theory in the Trayvon Martin case. Shameless commentators on the right continue to insist that race played no role in the altercation, ignoring the fact of racism and the clear racial profiling in this case. But similarly hysterical leftist commentators insist that Zimmerman killed Martin primarily because of his race. Let’s stipulate that George Zimmerman followed Martin in some part because of his race. But let’s also recognize that he killed Martin—at least according to the weight of the testimony—from below after a struggle. We do not know who started the struggle, but there was a struggle and it is quite likely that the smaller and armed Zimmerman feared for his safety. Yes, race was involved. Yes racism persists. Yes we should be angry about these sad facts and should work to change the simply unethical environment in which many impoverished youths are raised and educated. But it is not true that Martin was killed primarily because of his race. It is also likely that the only reason Zimmerman was put on trial for murder was to satisfy the clamor of those advancing their theory, the facts be damned.
If Arendt is justifiably wary of intellectuals in politics, she recognizes their importance as well. The Pentagon papers, which describe the follies of problem-solvers, were written by the very same problem solvers in an unprecedented act of self-criticism. “We should not forget that we owe it to the problem-solvers’ efforts at impartial self-examination, rare among such people, that the actors’ attempts at hiding their role behind a screen of self-protective secrecy were frustrated.” At their best, intellectuals and problems-solvers are also possessed of a “basic integrity” that compels them to admit when their theoretical fantasies have failed. Such admissions frequently come too late, long after the violence and damage has been done. And yet, the fidelity to the facts that fires the best of intellectual and scientific inquiry is, in the end, the only protection we have against the self-same intellectual propensity to self-deception.