The Place of the Intellectual: the Future and Its Enemies

Academic dawn is like no other beginning.   No other daybreak like it exists.  Alumni never forget it and forever pine away for that first light of college life – the anticipation of the first day of classes in early September.  It’s filled with possibilities – new friendships, new stories, parties, homecoming, new loves, new dreams.  It has a way of giving lift to the soul because the slate is wiped clean by the certainty of the semester to come – everything has to be forgotten, left behind and erased to begin anew, to carry on for the next fifteen weeks.  A new September, every September, is an aphrodisiac.  And everything that is to come in one’s life, whether it’s been dreamt, planned and scheduled, will give way to the glorious routine of strolling to class across a genteel campus, maples and pines waving in the breeze, students perpetually smiling – de rigueur – to show how hopeful they are, how eager they are for a professor’s  lecture.  There is a finality and a logic to this ongoing cycle, a neatness, a tidy composure and a comfort that permeates everything and is instantly obvious the minute one steps into a luxurious, modern classroom – cushioned seats that rock, adjustable arm rests, desks on wheels that can be moved to form circles or be put in lines, which no one does anymore in this new age of composed dialog.   For seventy five minutes, listening and doodling and thinking and drifting and wondering while the professor strains through a lecture, there is escape, there is release.  The lecture is a momentary stay against the confusing madness beyond the consecrated ivy; it’s predictable and welcomed, it pushes aside everything  – suffering, anxiety, sadness, and even memory.  All.  It pushes aside life.  Daily, with each class, faculty and students experience the almost infinite cycle of new dawns, daylights that come in waves with each course and that call attention to existence itself – and at a distance, from the comfort of well appointed abstractions and theories and criticisms.  Oh how beautiful it is to keep the world and its filth at an intellectual distance.  Academic dawn lightens the air and it excites.  It makes everyone eager on a college campus in September. Academic dawn is a drug; with it the foreseeable, the inevitable, is forestalled – so we like to think.

What today we can’t sidestep is the place of the professor, however, particularly because s/he is being averted by our culture.  The professor is experienced more as gatekeeper, rather then an expert on a subject. The professor creates requirements, hoops students must jump through in order to find their lives in a society dominated by a harsh, vertical economic system.

The professor is essentially an abstruse theorist that uses code words to explain the obvious, we’re told;  s/he builds intellectual edifices for the elite and has absolutely no relationship with the “common man,” an acerbic criticism that likewise places into question university education because it is overpriced and overrated, say critics.

The criticisms of the professor and the elite University that houses him or her has helped usher in an age where the professor, most commonly referred to as an intellectual, is not a person to emulate and listen to. These are extraordinary anti-intellectual times in America.  And why not?  In Boston, for instance, where there are over 60 colleges and universities and one can pass a Nobel laureate on the street quite easily, there is still extensive and daunting poverty; there is racial divide and gender divide.  Eight miles from Newark, rife with socio-economic and racial problems, is Columbia University.  Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and author of The End of Poverty, is there, yet the South Bronx, even closer then Newark, struggles with mere subsistence, as are other poor communities of color.

The divide between our problems and the intellectuals that study them is an abyss of massive proportions. This gap is implicit in every single problem we have — socio-economic, political, health and education. So it’s not surprising that America has become intensely anti-intellectual, preferring the misguided bravado of a wanna be cowboy like Rick Perry, instead of the softer reflective hand of a scholar such as President Obama.  We would rather engage destructive ideologies instead of reasoned argument framed by facts.  We have chosen a caustic path, a nihilistic path, rather then the path of deliberation based on compromise and negotiation.  We have successfully shunned the professor, the intellectual — but at what cost?  Where might we be heading?

There appears to be little respect for those individuals that quietly spend their time studying what we call life — the economy, social tensions and new developments, the media, culture(s), politics and the arts — and try to make sense of it all and speak it to us.

Power is best kept — and gained — if the citizenry has its eyes glued on  The Kardashians while ideological sound bites and name calling are squeezed in-between episodes.  Tea Party narrow minded conservatives.  Democratic big spenders.  Socialists.

So on this path to nowhere, what is the place of the intellectual in America? What are the representations of the intellectual, to use the phrasing of my own intellectual father, Edward Said?

To find the answers to these questions — and to locate myself, as well as others labeled intellectuals, I once again turned to Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, published first in 1994, then again in 1996, by Vintage Books Edition. (The lecture can be heard here.)

In the Introduction to the print venture of the lectures, Said says that, “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.”  This initial statement may be one cause for the disenfranchisement of the intellectual; in this sense, the intellectual, both a public and a private figure, is subjected to the limitations posed on him for being the one who articulates “stereotypes” and “reductive categories.”  This is critical since we are in an age where reductions of reality are how media and politicians function; or, said better, perhaps, the function of both media and politics is to reduce all pictures of reality into stereotypes — then separating these into ideologies.

In other words, says Said, “The problem for the intellectual is not so much … mass society as a whole, but rather the insiders, experts, coteries, professionals who in the modes defined earlier this century … mold public opinion, make it conformist, encourage a reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power.”  This, then, automatically puts the intellectual in a challenging position since the “insiders”, the “band of all-knowing men in power” dislike criticism; it threatens their way of being, their methods.

Yet another reason why the intellectual is marginalized is that s/he relies on clever and insightful uses of language; it is the only means of expression in a culture that privileges writing above all other forms.  “Hence,” said Said, “my characterization of the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.”  The intellectual is easily exiled by the art and science of his or her methodology, the tools that must be used in order to describe and critique the reductive methods utilized by the mediating forces of a culture.

Thus, the intellectual lives in “a spirit of opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me (Said) because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighed against them.”  Said himself is a perfect example, as is Malcolm X.

For me, in my own case, this alienates me from many — if not most — in the academic community since the overall interest is not to stand in romantic opposition against forces that advocate for and create the means by which the status quo is maintained.  I am therefore narrativized into a secondary position — truly exiled from the academic world that has taken me years of toil to enter.  In pursuing the position of dissenter, the forces of the status quo push back harder and in subtle forms.  As Said says, the “inescapable reality” is that the intellectual “will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors.  It is a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.”

I’ve been dismissed, routinely passed over.  I live on the outer most edges of the academic community, literally and figuratively. But the experience of others pale by comparisons to my own.  And in this exile, students, hundreds of students from all walks of live, for that matter, reach out; their parents, too, on occasion send me notes of thanks or seek me out to thank me for what I say to their students.  This would seem that those outside the bastions of intellectual pursuit behind the hallow ivy know something that mediated constructions of power and reality forget or willfully leave out: the power of the intellectual as romantic dissenter that speaks truth to power is that s/he imbues others, mostly students, with different points of view that can help cast them into alternative versions of the accepted truths.

The central fact  … is … that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être, is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”

Traditionally, the academy has been experienced as an institution on the left — this could not be further from the truth. An intellectual persisting with the notion that all human beings “are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously” is routinely marginalized and exiled within the academy. Thus the intellectual is exiled from the society in which he lives — and the status quo wins and suffering and injustice persist.

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Gaza, Israel and the Memory of Edward Said

for the martyrs, Kassab and Ibrahim Shurrab

for the suffering, Mohammed Shurrab and his family

and for the future, Amer Shurrab, Adriana Qubaia, Mahmoud and Nisreen

Our world today is evidence that those who profess to speak for God or Allah or a personal Other focused on a single, supreme nature-transcending will have unequivocally erased this almighty power’s truths, a core reality found in Christianity, Islam and Judaism–humility, compassion and love.

At approximately 1PM on Friday the 16th, Mohammed Shurrab (60) and his two sons, Kassab , age 28 , and Ibrahim , age 18, fleeing the family farm in the village of Fukhari, southeast of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, were struck by a hail of bullets from a group of Israeli soldiers in a house about thirty yards away, according to Yasser Ahmad and Ashraf Khalil of the Los Angeles Times. (see also Day 22)

The Israelis issued a statement: “Given the difficult combat circumstances, complex battles and fighting in urban settings, uninvolved civilians are unfortunately exposed to danger.”

Kassab died after staggering out of their Land Rover. He lay on the street for 20 hours. Ibrahim bled to death waiting for help.  Mohammed, a desperate father, could do nothing as his cell phone battery died. In the face of great suffering, no one had the compassion to assist the wounded, the suffering. Thus is war. Thus is violence.

Some of us learned of this tragedy by email because Mohammed’s other son, Amer,  is a Middlebury College graduate, ‘08.5. The original email was followed by a desperate string, anguished and outraged, and a Shurrab Family Group quickly formed on Facebook. We could do nothing.

I sat in my living room staring out at the gusts of snow. It was gray and freezing and the wind blew hard. I felt totally useless and alone. I thought of my three sons and what I might do should I ever be called the way Mohammed Shurrab has been–and I wept. I was paralyzed by the events in Gaza and the violence in our world.

I longed for the humane voice of Edward Said, how he is always able to make sense of things like this. I pulled him off my bookshelf, something I do frequently with some writers dear to me because they go head first into matters of the heart.

We find ourselves in the era of mass societies that dominate by “a powerfully centralizing culture and a complex incorporative economy,” says the remarkable Edward Said in his “Movement and Migrations” chapter in Culture and Imperialism. In 1993, following the French urban sociologist Paul Virilio, Said suggested that this form of domination is unstable. Powerfully centralizing cultures and complex incorporative economies are unstable and create instability everywhere. Yet instability is believed to be a means to an end, the control of economies, resources and production.

The fundamental premise of terrorism, also instability, is likewise the foundation of mass societies. They feed each other–and there is no end in sight. Make no mistake, Hamas will survive, this is already clear.

“Israel has succeeded in killing everything except the will of the people,” said Taher al-Nunu, the main (Hamas) government spokesman. “They said they were going to dismantle the resistance and demolish the rockets, but after this historic victory, the government is steadfast, we are working and they were not able to stop the rockets.”

“I think Hamas is stronger now and will be stronger in the future because of this war,” said Eyad el-Sarraj, a psychiatrist here who is an opponent of Hamas. “This war has deepened the people’s feeling that it is impossible to have peace with Israel, a country that promotes death and destruction.”

Iraq, Afghanistan, the global deterioration of economies and the tragic horror that is Gaza’s occupation by Israel all point to the notion that “insecurity induced by mounting crises” leads to destruction, violence and war. The innocent die, wounds fester, hatred builds. “Insecurity induced by mounting crises” builds identities reliant on an Other who is hostile.

Israel’s identity is defined by having scripted the ideals of freedom and justice for Western civilization, yet Jews now find themselves withholding these rights–for security reasons, forced to withhold them, many Jews believe–from Palestinians.

Hamas and Hezbollah have identities defined as the maligned Other, even the absent Other that is always already determined by armed aggression. Tragically and ironically, the Prophet Mohammed–and the Qur’an–teach respect for the world’s incontrovertible order, preaching a message that is intensely democratic. The Prophet, “The True,” “The Upright,” and “The Trustworthy One,” withstood severe criticism and ridicule, relentless persecution, and physical abuse and incarceration, and insisted that in the sight of Allah all people are equal.

We are in the era of mass disintegration. Israel’s occupation of Gaza is an example–and hopefully a last breath–of a global pattern attempting to occupy and inhabit all “normally uninhabitable,” the institutions integral to a culture–“hospitals, universities, theatres, factories, churches, empty buildings”; in essence, the occupation of language, speech, consciousness. (The first instance or example is the Presidency of George W. Bush, especially his first election; the second is 9/11 and the repression of Afghanistan; and the Third is Israel’s occupation of Gaza.) Israel’s occupation of Gaza is modern colonization, the “central militaristic prerogative” of mass societies. And the media accommodates, as it has in Iraq.

The alternative to state aggression is a liberation of speech in critical spaces, the integral institutions, and represented by contemporary movements “as a consequence of decolonization (migrant workers, refugees, Gastarbeiter) or of major demographic and political shifts (Blacks, immigrants, urban squatters, students, popular insurrections, etc.). These constitute a real alternative to the authority of the state.” One of the most impressive “crowd-activated” sites is the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine. This is why Hamas and Hezbullah will thrive. We approach difference and tensions with aggression, where the opposite approach is calling out. We can hear the screams of the suffering, the innocent buried in rubble, bodies decomposing. Our inhumanity is extraordinary.

At least in Gaza, right now, Hamas represents something unique, a “freedom” from the usual “exchange”; that is, Hamas represents a firm antidote to Israeli domination. Israel’s Gaza operation is not meant to stop Hamas’s rockets; it’s meant to shore up a doctrine on which Israel thinks its safety must be still based–immediate response to any signs of a punitive raid, by Hezbullah or Hamas, armed by Iran.

“Those people compelled by the system to play subordinate or imprisoning roles within it emerge as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute the totalitarian compulsions of the world market,” says Said. “Not everything can be bought off.” This is the war cry of Islamic Fundamentalism, a notion that has fallen on deaf ears. At the heart of Islam–the Prophet Mohammed is the example–is resistance to threats to its existence, even expansion (see: The World’s Fastest Growing Religions)

The problem is that we in the post-modern West fail to understand that in many parts of the world–Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, some parts of the Arab world and Africa–people, governments and religious leaders are still trying to come to terms with Modernity. There are people and cultures in the world struggling with a singular notion, how are we to modernize?

“The major task, then, is to match the new economic and sociopolitical dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale,” says Said.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism are interrelated, philosophically and geographically. We have to begin here, in this singular fact.

Islam is derived from the root s-l-m, which means primarily “peace” but in a secondary meaning, “surrender”; its full connotation is “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God,” that is a surrender to the totality that are humility, compassion and love. Adherence to humility, compassion and love enables creative and virtuous actions. We can’t have peace without this.

Judaism affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) and pronounced it to be good. Judaism is a faith of a people, and one of its features is faith in a people–in the significance of the role the Jews have played and will play in human history. This faith calls for the preservation of the identity of the Jews as a distinct people.

The only way to make sense of Christianity–and to make sense of Jesus’ extraordinary admonitions as to how people should live–is to see them as cut from the understanding of the God who loves human beings absolutely, without pausing to calculate their worth or due. We are to give others our cloak as well as our coat if they need it. Because God has given us what we need. We are to go with others the second mile.

Humility, compassion and love–Islam, Judaism and Christianity are one in these principles.

But given the hostile conditions of our world, we can only seek–and find–these principles in the margins, in the shadows, in-between boundaries and lines of demarcation that are always already blurred, stretched, even erased, for better and for worse.

Says Said, reminding us,

Yet it is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarceration today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed counter, original, spare, strange. From this perspective also, one can see ‘the complete consort dancing together’ contrapuntally.

Historically then it’s not surprising that a new era is upon us, a new stage marked by the inauguration of a Black man of mixed race–and who has come to be following the compelling history of a movement totally dependent upon non-violent resignation and protest. President Barack Obama offers “something unique” and “even against his will,” represents “freedom [from the age old forms] of exchange.”

People forced to play subordinate roles always emerge “as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute totalitarian compulsions.” Barack Obama represents this historical reality.  There is no other way to look at it.  This is why in the last week or so there has been such an uncomprimising allegiance to history. Today, we finally have soul in the White House.

Israel’s occupation of Gaza–and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s, as well as Iran’s, hostilities–represent an anti-historical approach based on the violent dislocation of language, speech and consciousness. This has always failed.

Enough. Enough is enough! We can suffer no more like this. Let’s then join Karen Armstrong and sign a Charter for Compassion instead and help make religion a force for harmony.