Days of Intellectual Decline?

Matthew Phillips, writing over at Mondoweiss, says something very interesting about the nature of ideas and intellectuals in America in a piece examining comments made by Congressman Anthony Weiner on Israel at New York University. I’m not going to deal with the substance of Weiner’s comments, but rather this:

Consider the prominent American Zionists of the past century, those who were tasked with explaining their understanding of Israel to fellow Jews. From men as different in orientation as Louis Brandeis to Arthur Hertzberg, these men—whatever one might think of their views—were often deeply learned, approached Zionism seriously, and were informed in their understanding of Israel by some very broad, liberal values. Who are their most visible heirs today? Democrats like Anthony Weiner, Joe Lieberman and Alan Dershowitz? All three are not merely dishonest but dishonest in an easily demonstrable and clumsy way. More that, none, I would venture, are sincerely interested in Zionism, or concerned with the fate of the Israeli people—in fact, their careerism shines through everything they say; they have clearly played up their Zionist leanings for the sake of their constituents or their reputation. Of course, times have changed, and as Israel’s behavior in the world has gotten cruder its more sophisticated backers are perhaps no longer up to the task. But it really does not bode well for Israel that, as the Baird-Wiener “debate” further revealed, the historically important task of protecting Israel’s image in the U.S. has now fallen almost exclusively into the hands of careless and vulgar propagandists.

I do not know if popular ideas were always vulgar. I do know that intellectuals rarely influenced the world directly, but were “translated” for popular consumption by newspaper editors, commentators, and radio broadcasters — things that tend not to survive well. Books and essays by theologians and philosophers do. For example, while Sayyed Qutb did concoct many of the ideas that have been taken up by Islamist Revolutionaries, it would be inaccurate to state that Qutb is behind Revolutionary Islam, since his ideas were mashed together with others by many preachers (who put their own spin on Qutb, or who even made his ideas their own) and writers and editors. So, I have no idea whether the Zionism of Brandeis and Hertzberg were “popularized” by the careless and the vulgar.

Yet Phillips notes something interesting. There is a significant lack of intellectual rigor and thoughtfulness in American politics today. And there has been for some time. On the outer edges there is some, but what intellectual rigor there is on the left and right seems not to percolate to the center, where the right remains dominated by ignorance, fear and outrage, and the left by a tawdry spirituality and sentimentality for “justice” and “equality.” Politics has always been emotional, and there has always been a role for the polemicist, but it is as if all that political activity has become these days is identity politics and self-righteous assertions of virtue (“Yes We Can!” and “Change We Can Believe In!”). I’m not even sure I see real, live operative ideas anywhere anymore. All that seems to remain is the vulgar. And the violence of the state.

What I don’t know right now is how true that’s always been.