Self-Examining “Left Intellectual” Winning and Progressing

Left Intellectual

Excepted from Tired of Winning: D.C. think tanks, NYC magazines & the search for public intellect in The Point by Jon Baskin:

The project was political primarily in the sense that it pointed in a direction, indicated by the magazine’s title. “Civilization is the dream of advance,” read a note from the editors in the first issue. We were not merely going to report on progress; we were going to make it.

It was exhilarating to try and live this way. It invested what might seem like trivial everyday decisions with a world-historical import. At least that’s how it felt to me for a little while. Eventually, I began to notice in myself a tension that also existed at the heart of the project of n+1, and of many of the other little magazines. My aesthetic and cultural tastes, the reflection of a lifetime of economic privilege and elite education, did not always, or often, match the direction the magazines were trying to take me politically. This had not troubled me before, because I had never considered that—as the little magazines echoed Fredric Jameson in asserting, or at least implying—“everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” But now I had come to see that politics were not just an activity that people engaged in at certain times: when they voted, or protested, or wrote newsletters for think tanks. It was something that could be said to infuse every aspect of one’s experience, from which big-box store you shopped at for your year’s supply of toilet paper, to what restaurants you chose to eat at, to who you chose to sleep with. This was what it meant not just to engage in politics but to “have a politics”—a phrase I probably heard for the first time at that n+1 party, and that was often brandished as if it legitimated one’s entire way of life. What it meant for everything to be in the last analysis political, I came to see, was that everything I did ought to be disciplined by my politics. But what if it wasn’t? Should I then revise my politics, or myself?

I was coming to appreciate an old problem for the “intellectual of the left.” This problem is so old, and has been addressed unsuccessfully by so many very smart people, that we are probably justified in considering it to be irresolvable. To state it as simply as possible, the left intellectual typically advocates for a world that would not include many of the privileges or sensibilities (partly a product of the privileges) on which her status as an intellectual depends. These privileges may be, and often are, economic, but this is not their only or their most consequential form. Their chief form is cultural. The intellectual of the left is almost always a person of remarkably high education, not just in the sense of having fancy credentials, which many rich people who are not cultural elites also have, but also on account of their appetite for forms of art and argument that many they claim to speak for do not understand and would not agree with if they did. They write long, complicated articles for magazines that those with lesser educations, or who do not share their cultural sensibilities, would never read. They claim to speak for the underclasses, and yet they give voice to hardly anyone who has not emancipated themselves culturally from these classes in their pages.

This is one part of a series by The Point, and all are worth a read, but the process of self examining is a worthy and healthy one. When done correctly it should raise more questions that answers, and challenge thoughts that may have rutted from constant sameness. Regardless where you fall on the political spectrum, honest thought, or at the least the effort to be honest in thought, should be a common meeting place all of us should be endeavoring towards.

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7 thoughts on “Self-Examining “Left Intellectual” Winning and Progressing

  1. I look forward to reading the linked article sometime soon.

    I think that in the context of which you are speaking, I agree with you – but I also think that one failing of intellectuals (self-very-much-included) can be an overabundance of self-examination as well. It is possible to paralyze oneself through too much analysis and second-guessing, even if that self-examination is otherwise very well done. Moderation needs to be part of the package, I guess is what I’m saying, no new thought there :D.

    Do you know the comedy TV show The Good Place? The character of Chidi is a very effective – and actually rather nuanced – portrayal of someone who works so hard on self-examination that he doesn’t actually manage to act for the good, or at least that was his tragic flaw while still alive. (The show takes place in the afterlife.) Quite reminiscent of Kierkegaard in some ways, though we see Chidi’s post-death journey unfold and obviously know nothing of Kierkegaard’s…

    (Aside from that, there’s a lot to be interested in as the show twists and turns for anyone who cares about theology…. plus it’s pretty darn funny.)

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    • “paralysis by analysis” is definitely a concern. I am guilty of that myself sometimes, as I tend to either be too impulsive or too over thinking without much of a happy medium. In this particular article I think the Author did a nice job of working through his own background to draw a line to how he came to some of his questioning, then moved forward from there. To me the process of such evaluation is important, do you have a purpose and goal in doing it, to stay out of the “paralysis” trap, or worse devolving into self-loathing or self-congratulating. Brings me back to the word I used here, honesty. Being honest with yourself isn’t easy, and should be recognized.

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    • I probably engage too much in self-examination, too. I used to think admitting that was a form of humble-bragging. After all, who wouldn’t like to be thought as introspective? But the more I think of it, self-examination can be a real failing, if done excessively. It can degrade to a sort of moral “paralysis” such as Andrew refers to, or it can degrade to a form of solipsism. (To be sure, I hope it’s clear that I’m directing that accusation of solipsism to myself and not anyone here.)

      I’ve heard of “The Good Place,” but haven’t seen it. I might give it a try.

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