Why I Am Not The Khmer Rouge

Recently I wrote an article abstract on the Social Science Research Network that people rather liked. The paper, which as of right now does not exist (to the disappointment of the many people who emailed me asking for a PDF) is entitled “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?” and is summarized as follows:

In this paper, I take the position that a large portion of contemporary academic work is an appalling waste of human intelligence that cannot be justified under any mainstream normative ethics. Part I builds a four-step argument for why this is the case, while Part II responds to arguments for the contrary position offered in Cass Sunstein’s “In Defense of Law Reviews.” First, in Part I(A), I make the case that there is a large crisis of suffering in the world today. (Part I does not take me very long.) In Part I(B), I assess various theories of “the role of the intellectual,” concluding that the only role for the intellectual is for the intellectual to cease to exist. In Part I(C), I assess the contemporary state of the academy, showing that, contrary to the theory advanced in Part I(B), many intellectuals insist on continuing to exist. In Part I(D), I propose a new path forward, whereby present-day intellectuals take on a useful social function by spreading truths that help to alleviate the crisis of suffering outlined in Part I(A).

This managed to attract the attention of Charles Murray (of Bell Curve infamy), who called it “the best academic abstract I have read in years” though said he suspected the full paper was “leftist pap.” One interesting aspect of the Murray response is that nothing in the abstract advocates or suggests any kind of leftist politics, other than the suggestion that human beings ought to oppose the existence of suffering. And if the contemporary right believes “suffering is bad” to be some kind of soupy left-wing precept, this doesn’t do much to undermine the left’s view that conservatism is a philosophy of unqualified pitiless evil.

One response to the abstract I found surprising was the allegation that my thesis paralled the fundamental beliefs of Pol Pot. This was mentioned on Twitter and in some online comments. The Khmer Rouge were known for the mass extermination of all perceived “intellectuals,” eventually taking it to the extreme of murdering anyone wearing glasses. (With certain exceptions, of course; Pol Pot had been known to occasionally sport a pair of spectacles.) But despite the infamous Khmer contempt for intellectualism, the comparison did rather surprise me. Is it worth pointing out the difference between responding to a problem by advocating self-improvement and responding to a problem by exterminating everybody involved? Evidently it is. Stalin and I could both think Russia needs industrializing, but the difference between his plan for getting it done and my own would be several million corpses.

Perhaps, though, it is worth heeding the caution. Anti-intellectualism is just prejudice against nerds. The problem with the Khmers was not just their bloody policy solution, but their hatred of professors to begin with. Perhaps. But I think there’s hating professors, and there’s hating professors. The Khmers viewed all learning with suspicion; they were at wore with knowledge itself. I, on the other hand, love knowledge, and think the academy is largely its enemy. I don’t want to eliminate learning, what I want to eliminate is intellectualism, i.e. useless pontificating. I believe that if knowledge is not put toward a purpose, then it’s no more valuable than my counting the number of bubbles on a piece of bubble wrap.

This was missed, not just by the the “Pol Pot”-shouting nutcases but by a lot of the abstract’s viewers, that I was attempting to reorient the pursuit of knowledge rather than getting rid of it. A lot of people said “Why did you write this paper if you hate academic papers?” (And I did make a couple of self-deprecating jokes about that supposed irony myself.) But those people didn’t read what I wrote; there was no irony or hypocrisy. I advocated that knowledge should be made with “useful social functions” in mind, oriented toward the relief of suffering. So if I believe that by writing something exhorting my colleagues to start being useful, I will be improving our chances of reducing suffering, then I am clearly justified in writing the paper even under my own theory. Of course, people thought that by saying intellectuals should cease to exist I meant scholars should cease to exist, but this precisely proves the point that they are incapable of imagining a world in which scholarship is not mere intellectualism, and they cannot disentangle wisdom from intellectualism.