from mark Kingwell's "What Are Intellectuals for? A Modest Proposal in Dialogue Form"
A: I'm not sure any really great thinker can deny the temptation [to rule], even if they should always resist it. An intellectual looks at society and thinks: "I could do better than that, for crying out loud."
Q: But not without some violence. And that would make them, and society, worse. Also, they're probably wrong. The basic building blocks of politics are people, not ideas. Of course ideas are in the mix, sometimes with real power, but it really all comes down to the mysteries of human desire. What do the miserable creatures want? They hardly know themselves.
A: That's it. The whole "crooked timber of humanity" business. No such thing as an ideal state, or even a very rational one, when you're dealing with the humans. They're pretty hopeless.
Q: So philosophers, or intellectuals, should not aspire to rule.
[... T]here's no way out, no transcendence possible. But what you can do is hold on to an awareness of that fact. Frye once more, capturing the larger stakes of critical intellectual engagement: "Democracy is a mixture of majority rule and minority right, and the minority which most clearly has a right is the minority of those who try to resist a passive response, and thereby risk the resentment of those who regard them as trying to be undemocratically superior." Hence anti-intellectualism, which is really a resentment against assumed claims of elite status. Who do you think you are, being critical?
Q: Yeah, that sounds familiar.
A: But the real issue is the interior tension, not the external hostility. Frye nails it: "I am speaking however not so much of two groups of people as of two mental attitudes, both of which may exist in the same mind. The prison of illusion holds all of us; the first important step is to be aware of it as illusion and as a prison."
Q: I do like that--it sounds right. But if that's the first important step, what's the second?
A: Now we finally get to the fourth type. The second step is: make yourself indigestible.
Q: Uh ...
A: So the best public intellectuals can hope for themselves is to be good citizens, and to engage the semi-conscious majority with as much self-awareness, wit, and eloquence as they can muster. But they cannot expect to be thanked for this, nor should they take refuge in the soft tyranny of "non-material advantages." Especially in an age when there is no such thing as real public discourse, they will always be in danger of being consumed by the system they inhabit. More insidiously, they may find themselves doing the consuming, calculating the costs and benefits of their buy-ins of the mind, their mental self-cannibalizing. At that point, the best strategy--the only alternative--is to be as indigestible as possible.
Q: But come on, this is important! Don't you worry that we live in an age where irony is out of fashion, lost equally on militants who don't care about reason and on those autistic narcissists who spend all their time checking email on their phones?
A: Yes. Yes, I do. But you have to keep trying, and by any means necessary. Because if you give up, the system will eat you alive. It might do that anyway, but you can at least make it hurt a bit going down. Do you know Michael Foot? A British politician. He said this about intellectual engagement, in a campaign speech for an election his party went on to lose: "We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves."
A: Yes. Never worry about those on top--they will always find a way to take care of themselves. And never try to be on top yourself--you won't like it there. No, worry about those stuck at the bottom, speak and provide for them as best you can. There's no other point to being here.