Today's masters of the universe are less likely to work on Wall Street and more likely to work in Silicon Valley.
[Trigger warning: I did not say mistress of the universe, because that has a slightly different connotation.]
But, a high tech oligarch is not, for all of his success, a master of the marketplace of ideas. He might yearn to be an intellectual. He might believe that his ill-formed and ill-informed opinions are transcendent truths. Yet, the minute he enters the marketplace of ideas, its denizens look at him and tell themselves: fresh meat.
Rich beyond imagination, far too young to understand anything beyond his business, the oligarch is a target for those who are convinced that they know, better than he, what to do with his money.
It is a truth rarely acknowledged, but a very rich man, a man who has mastered the art of making money, will want to crown his achievement by becoming an intellectual. He might be looking for new worlds to conquer. He might think that, if he knows everything there is not know about bits and bytes, he is therefore so smart that he can easily master the world of philosophy. He knows all there is to know about artificial intelligence, thus he believes that his real intelligence can master the world. He will be especially susceptible to anyone who tells him that reality is what he thinks it is and that he can change reality if he thinks differently.
It happens when some postmodern Socrates, a seducer of minds, plays off his vanity and tells him that he should put his great ideas to better use… by saving mankind. As it will happen, the great ideas turn out to be those of Socrates… but the high tech master of the universe will not know it. He will believe, because that is how these seductions work, that he has come upon these opinions all by himself.
It’s not enough for him to be rich and famous. It’s not enough to be a powerhouse in Silicon Valley. This man believes that he can only find fulfillment by pretending to be knowledgeable about public policy issues.
In the end he will consign a large portion or his massive fortune to crackpot leftist causes, to people who revile him, to people who think he’s a greedy warmongering imperialist, to people who want to tear down the free enterprise system that has allowed him to amass his fortune. Just because you are rich does not mean that you cannot be had. Especially when you are playing in a marketplace you do not understand.
Like I say, send this man off into the marketplace of ideas and he becomes: fresh meat. Everyone wants his fair share of the man’s fortune.
How many of the tech oligarchs of Silicon Valley want nothing more than to be intellectuals? Surely, they are not craving more money. They have too much already. No, they want to be great thinkers, great minds. They want to be philosopher-kings, members of what Plato called the guardian class.
They want to be intellectuals. Tom Wolfe offered an interesting commencement address about the modern intellectual at Boston University in 2000.
One notes that what is now called an intellectual used to be called a man of letters. The difference is easy to understand. A man of letters did something more than just thinking. He wrote. Often he wrote well. He wrote serious books and articles.
An intellectual may or may not write. He may or may not know very much of anything. His occupation is to think, to be thoughtful, to reflect, to ruminate….
If you care to know why he does not write, the answer is simple. He has nothing to say. And besides, he cannot write worth a damn. Anything that appears in the papers under his name has been written by someone else.
But, the point is not to learn how to write. The point is to identify oneself as an intellectual… someone whose existence has a value that supersedes his contribution to world commerce.
Tom Wolfe thinks that these intellectuals wear ideas like fashion accessories. Believing in the settled science of global warming is like carrying a Louis Vuitton purse or wearing an Hermes tie.
Wolfe told the BU class of 2000:
We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion — and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.
Of course, there is another angle to this, one that I have happily trotted out from time to time. Being an intellectual means belonging to a cult, to a pseudo-religion, to what I have called the Church of the Liberal Pieties.
The true believing intellectual considers himself too sophisticated to belong to a religion. He latches on to and repeats the big ideas that he thinks will make him seem, not just like a machine to produce earn money, but like a sophisticated thinker, someone who belongs in the company of the angels.
Intellectuals and wanna-be intellectuals see themselves as members of a higher social class, an elite group of aristocrats, people who do not need to rub elbows or shoulders with the lowlifes who constitute the middle class. Because, these wanna-be masters of the marketplace of ideas look down on the values of people who believe in hard work and who do not glory in intellectual decadence.
Tom Wolfe said:
The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world … at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie — the middle class… They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush, and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?
We writers spent the entire twentieth century tearing down the bourgeoisie! … We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the twentieth century, a creature that did not exist until 1898 — and that creature is known as “the intellectual.”
Note how Wolfe defined the intellectual, as an identification:
We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.
An intellectual, as opposed to those who have contributed intellectual achievements, becomes morally indignant about a public policy issue he knows nothing about. At first, intellectuals were artists, a movie actors, even a former vice president who presented himself as an authority on global warming. Didn't Shelley declare that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? In fact, he did, but we are also constrained to note that these same Romantic poets where cheering on the French Revolutionaries.
They thought that they were saving the world. You were saving humanity. Today's intellectuals have latched on to a nature cult, the one that is trying to perform just the right sacrifices to save the earth. Anyone who disputes the opinion does not deserve to have his opinions heard. By definition, the less you know the less tolerant you are of those who would dare disagree.
Among those who belong to this coterie are Hollywood actors and actresses. One recalls last Sunday's Oscar night when we were harangued on matters of great public importance by people who knew nothing about said matters.
Here is what Wolfe said in 2000:
One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today’s actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of “intellectual.” No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity.”
But, how did we get from poets and actors and celebrities to high tech oligarchs? How did Sheryl Sandberg become an ideologue, claiming to be a leader of the feminist movement? Why did Mark Zuckerberg declare himself to be a leader in the fight for gender equality, i.e. gender neuterdom?
Why would accomplished business leaders want to take over the marketplace of ideas? As it happens, people who attain to such a oversized success and obscene wealth often do so by having monopolies. They do not succeed in the free market; they do not believe in the free market; they made their fortunes by cornering the market. What dangers do they face? At the least, they are endangered by the opinions of other people. They are threatened by the free press. They do not want anyone to ask any questions about how they earned their fortunes. They join forces with the media elites and the intelligentsia in order to buy off the potential opposition. They are not just offering money and power. By pretending to be intellectuals themselves they are offering prestige and status to those who work with words and ideas. What could be more flattering?