Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups

I’ve written much about the ingroup/outgroup aspect of human nature. It would be difficult to exaggerate its importance. If you’re not aware of it, you will never understand the species Homo sapiens.  The myriad forms of bigotry that have plagued mankind over the years, our countless wars, such furious animosities as those between the blues and greens of the circus, or those who believed that Christ had only one nature and those who insisted he had two, and such stunning scientific debacles as the Blank Slate – all were profoundly influenced if not directly caused by this aspect of human behavior. I’ve just read a brilliant description of how it works in practice in a book by Norman Podhoretz entitled Breaking Ranks. Podhoretz began as a leftist radical, and ended up as a conservative. He probably never realized exactly what it was he was describing. For all that, he succeeded in describing it beyond all praise.

Podhoretz edited Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. His milieu was that of New York intellectuals. Their ingroup was defined, not by race, religion, or ethnicity, but by ideology. He describes what was going on among them during the emergence of what became known as the “New Left” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. To read his book is to understand what George Orwell meant when he wrote, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” What Podhoretz describes is stunningly similar to what we see going on all around us today, imagining it is somehow historically unique. Consider, for example, the following passage, in which he describes what happened to those who committed thoughtcrime against the ideological shibboleths that defined his ingroup.

No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: One’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

Seeing others ruthlessly dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts. The “terror” in other words, could at its most effective penetrate into the privacy of a person’s mind. But even at its least effective it served to set a very stringent limit on criticism of the radical line on any given issue or at any given moment. A certain area of permissible discussion and disagreement was always staked out, but it was hard to know exactly where the boundaries were; one was always in danger of letting a remark slip across the border and unleashing the “terror” on one’s head. Better, then, not to take a chance. Of course, one could recant and be forgiven; or alternatively one could simply speak one’s mind and let the “terror” do its worst. Yet whatever one chose to do, the problem remained.

Sound familiar? It should. Here’s another bit that should sound just as familiar, recounting a conversation with Podhoretz’s erstwhile friend, Jason Epstein:

I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

Those were halcyon days! Today comparing a (Republican) President to Hitler isn’t even enough to evoke a yawn. Podhoretz’s Making It was decidedly politically incorrect for its day. Here’s what happened when he tried to get his manuscript published:

My agent read the manuscript and decided that she would rather forfeit a substantial commission and a client hitherto considered valuable than represent such a book. My publisher read the manuscript and decided that he would rather lose the substantial advance he had already paid me than put him imprint on such a book. They reacted, as I said at the time, the way their Victorian counterparts might have reacted to a work of sexual pornography. So did another publisher to whom the manuscript was then submitted by my new agent. Nor was the response much better among my friends. Lionel Trilling advised me not to publish it at all, warning that it would take me ten years to live it down. Jason Epstein agreed. No amount of money, he said, was worth what “they” would do to me when this book came out.

That’s how de-platforming worked in those days. I’m sure Milo Yiannopoulos would have a good idea how Podhoretz felt. Eventually, the book was published. Here’s how he describes the response of his ingroup, described as the “Inner Clan”:

In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e. the Family – ” was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

The Gleichschaltung of the equivalent of the MSM of the day proved to be a mere bagatelle. They fell into line as soon as they sensed which way the wind blew. As Podhoretz put it,

…most of them had become fellow travelers of the Movement and so obedient to the radical party line on all issues that they could not even recognize it as a line. (They thought it was the simple truth and self-evident to all reasonable minds.)

The situation in the universities in the 60’s was also uncannily similar to what we see among today’s “snowflakes.” It was worse in those days, though, because “the Youth” was practically deified.

For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively. But there was also a more positive pull in the idea that if so many of the “best” students were becoming radicals, then the new radicalism must surely be that “wave of the future” the Communist party had only seemed to be in the days of one’s own youth.

Podhoretz comments on the Vietnam War are a perfect example of how a policy that had once been open to rational discussion became a defining shibboleth of the ingroup, about which no “deviation” was allowed. The war was actually a legacy of JFK and originally almost universally supported by his liberal followers. He notes that, prior to about 1965,

…there would have been nothing especially outlandish in saying that the “intellectuals” or the “academic community” were an important constituent of the liberal consensus on foreign policy that had in some sense led to American military intervention into Vietnam.

However, beginning in the mid-60’s, there was a drastic shift in the direction of the ideological winds. Eventually, opposition to the war became one of the shibboleths that defined Podhoretz’s ingroup. Defying that shibboleth was heresy, and, then as now, heretics were cast into outer darkness:

In turning against the war, many of these liberal intellectuals no doubt thought that they were responding to the force of evidence and argument, and this may indeed have been the case with some. But I have always found it hard to believe that it was the case with most. In those days the argument over Vietnam in the universities was characterized less by the appeal to evidence and reason than by the shouting of slogans, the mounting of mass demonstrations, and threat and the occasional resort to physical force, and the actuality and ubiquitousness of rhetorical violence and verbal abuse.

…a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak.

Podhoretz noted that the language used against the outgroup became increasingly furious. He added,

Language like that was not meant to persuade, nor could it do so; it could, however, incite supporters and frighten opponents, and that is exactly what it did. Those already convinced were encouraged to believe that no other view deserved to be tolerated; those who still disagreed but who lacked either very powerful conviction or very great courage lapsed into prudent silence.

Then as now, there were those who liked to tickle the dragons tail with an occasional provocative remark. However, that required a fine sense of where the red lines were that couldn’t be crossed, and when a ritual kowtow was in order to appease the gatekeepers of the ingroup. Podhoretz provides us with an example of this behavior in the following remarks about Norman Mailer’s “tail tickling”:

But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

For more modern examples, see what I wrote in my last post about Steven Pinker’s unhinged ranting about Trump in his Enlightenment Now, a book that was supposed to be about “science” and “reason,” and an earlier one I wrote about Prof. Travis Pickering’s “violent agreement” with what Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz wrote about the “hunting hypothesis,” furiously attacking them and then repeating what they’d written earlier virtually word for word without attribution. Pickering was well aware that some of the ancient high priests of the Blank Slate were still around, and they still had plenty of clout when it came to casting out heretics, even if they were forced to throw in the towel on human nature. They have by no means forgotten how Ardrey and Lorenz shamed and humiliated them, and the good professor decided a bit of judicious virtue signaling would be prudent before repeating anything so closely associated with their legacy.

There are many other outstanding examples of how, then as now, the ingroup “sausage” was made. They demonstrate how intellectuals who pique themselves on their devotion to “science” and “reason” can be convinced after the fashion of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 that two plus two really does equal five.  Orwell was a remarkably prescient man. He also wrote, ““If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Now, as in the 60’s, that right is under attack. It is entirely possible that, in the long run, the attackers will win. Communism and Nazism were defeated in the 20th century. Today we take their defeat for granted, as if it were inevitable. It was not inevitable. Our future may well look a great deal more like Communism or Nazism than anything the heroes of the Enlightenment had in mind. If we would avoid such a future, we would do well to understand ourselves. That’s particularly true in the case of what a man named Ardrey once called the “Amity/Enmity Complex.”

4 thoughts on “Of Intellectuals, Ideology, and Ingroups”

  1. Great Blog,.

    I’m glad you mentioned Ardrey, I’ll throw in Lorenz and Morias, who I know you respect, in making my point; being that the outsider, the rebel, the individual is the only way one can create movement in thought and understanding.
    How amazing that nearly everyone thinks that they are at the center of a ‘group’, ‘religion’, ‘academic school’ etc who have the truth. There are basic logical impossibilities associated with this, not the least being that for the truth to have a currency all the members would have to have the same level of understanding, this would illuminate the need for a hierarchy, yet this never appears to be the case. More obviously it relies on everyone else being wrong, this doesn’t seem to be an impediment!
    If I could use religion to illustrate a very slight tangent on this point, Groups create a sense of ‘belief’, and they allow for a laziness re logic and thought. This is one of the things I particularly dislike re religion, it create a laziness of thought, it encourages the ‘authority’ model of thought and rewards groupthink and submission. As your blog states the small ‘t’ truth resides somewhere in the Group.
    How are we to counter these tendencies? I first came to this blog holding a tattered copy of Ardrey’s great breakthrough book, (for me) ‘The Territorial Imperative’. To be balanced I think that whilst it was a seminal work, we should be more interested in the genesis of its writer than the genius of his conclusions. The reasons I say that is when any individual of mediocre intelligence (myself for example) is freed from group thought, the ‘truth’ of many of the patterns and systems at play are there to be seen.
    I fear we can only progress at an individual level, my brief reentry into the twitterverse has shown me how any chance and changing others thoughts is zero. Firstly, they have to reach their own crisis of knowledge, disillusionment with ‘authority’ and ‘group’ and then hope to be pointed in the direction of the ‘Ardrey’ section in some second hand book shop by a grumpy old secondhand book seller.

  2. As far as ideas that matter because they’re true go, I think you’re right. We can only progress at an individual level, and progress is far more likely to come from outsiders than from denizens of ingroup echo chambers. Twitter has its uses, such as keeping track of what’s being published in areas that interest you, but not as a platform for promoting serious ideas in a coherent form.

  3. It’s interesting that we can see that to find any objective truth we have to, at a certain level, go alone.
    Now I know that the blank slate make your head explode, it gnaws at me, its wrong on so many levels, and it was in connection of the previous ‘go alone’ thought that it occurred to me another level of the absurdity. Mantagu is saying that all his thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions, behaviours etc are all totally determined by his social/cultural setting. How very small for such a man of such large ego!
    Re twitter, I find it a great source of non MSM news and analysis, also the ability to go to the source/person etc,. It’s also a fantastic source of evidence for ‘group’ thought/behaviour. Re the ability to have any ‘change’, well that is another story.
    Do you think these are strange times or are we just more able to see the absurdities due to the broader range of sources?

  4. I think you’re right about Twitter. It’s not the place for deep discussions, but occasionally people put up links to good content that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

    You might say these are strange times, in that they’re unprecedented. We’re seeing all the gains of European civilization and culture being gratuitously thrown away in the name of “morality.” Territories that were bitterly defended are being handed over to our ancient enemies, who don’t even need to bring along arms as they invade us. After handing them the keys to all we’ve built up, we seem in the process of committing suicide, if our birthrates are any indication. All this is being done in the name of “justice” and “universal brotherhood” and “human flourishing.”

    The sad thing is that it’s not really hard to understand what’s going on. We are blindly attempting to respond to our “moral sense” in an environment radically different from the one in which it evolved. It turns out that notions of equality and justice that would have promoted survival in a group of 150 hunter/gatherers accomplish almost exactly the opposite when we seek to apply them willy-nilly to the population of an entire planet. Instead of limiting the “code of amity” to our group or tribe, and applying the “code of enmity” to the next tribe over, we seek to apply the former to “all mankind,” and the latter to anyone who disagrees with us. In the process we furiously resist any attempt to promote the self-understanding of our species. It’s a perfect formula for self-destruction. We became smart, but not quite smart enough.

    It’s hard to say what the final outcome of this process will be. Technology is a wild card that can upset any prediction. Meanwhile, we are faced with the same alternative that every form of life has faced since the beginning – survive and be a part of the future, or die and go extinct.

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