“There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil,” Bill Gates wrote this summer. That’s quite an endorsement—and it gave a jolt of fame to Smil, a professor emeritus of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba. In a world of specialized intellectuals, Smil is an ambitious and astonishing polymath who swings for fences. His nearly three dozen books have analyzed the world’s biggest challenges—the future of energy, food production, and manufacturing—with nuance and detail. They’re among the most data-heavy books you’ll find, with a remarkable way of framing basic facts. (Sample nugget: Humans will consume 17 percent of what the biosphere produces this year.)
His conclusions are often bleak. He argues, for instance, that the demise of US manufacturing dooms the country not just intellectually but creatively, because innovation is tied to the process of making things. (And, unfortunately, he has the figures to back that up.) WIRED got Smil’s take on the problems facing America and the world.
The economist Thomas Sowell has just released a new book entitledIntellectuals and Race. The American Spectator sat down with him recently for a lengthy interview. In this first part of the interview, we discuss some of the causes of differences between ethnic groups, and how intellectuals in the early 20th century viewed race versus intellectuals today. Read part 1 here: Thomas Sowell and the Intellectuals.
Dr. Dalrymple is a writer and medical doctor that has practiced in third-world countries, worked in prisons and inner-city hospitals, and has generally seen a good bit of life’s tragedies “at the bottom.” His more famous book was titled, Life at the Bottom—The Worldview That Makes the Underclass. (2001)
In Our Culture…, a collection of essays, the author writes of the necessity of maintaining boundaries if humanity isn’t going to descend into barbarism. He blames, in part, the modern intellectual’s attitude that being “unconventional” or “breaking taboos” are considered high virtues; and they are what is rewarded within the inner circles…without ever questioning the consequences of the unconventional. In the preface he says, “And the prestige that intellectuals confer upon antinomianism [heretic Christian view that one is released by grace from the obligation of observing moral law] soon communicates itself to nonintellectuals. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient—the very people most in need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement.” In other words, the selling that all morality is relative in meaning and application, has broad negative implications.
I don’t know that Hitchens and Taranto answered the question, but Hitchens’ takedown of Noam Chomsky is fun to read. (Some of the commenters disagree.) Also, it seems to me that, in general, intellectuals are quite sensitive about not being at the center of all things important. Or worse, being ignored completely. I don’t think that’s necessarily anti-intellectualism. Rather, if they have nothing to offer except nonsense, then their irrelevance is deserved.
The biography, Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey (1967) by Calvin Tomkins is, first of all, brief. The biography part is only sixty-eight pages long, including the introduction by CBS commentator, Eric Severeid. The balance of the book includes many of Hoffer’s aphorisms and photographs of him. A burly man, Hoffer, born July 25, 1902 died on May 21, 1983, writing eleven books during his lifetime. Two other books about Hoffer exist: One called Hoffer’s America by James D Koerner and the other Eric Hoffer by James Thomas Baker, both of which are difficult to find, but then the Tomkins book was difficult to locate. Given the content of his writing—his deep understanding of fanaticism, mass movements, and “change,” it’s a wonder that there hasn’t been a resurgence in interest in his work—it’s as applicable today as it was when he was popular in the ’60s.
Tony Judt, a British Jew educated at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, was a renowned scholar, historian, teacher, and intellectual. And he wrote this lucid memoir while dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He had to dictate much of the book, and the early descriptions of being a prisoner in his own body were straightforward and chilling: