The Conundrum of a Democratic Snob

Steve Sailer fisks an article by associate professor of history that purports to explain that ancient Phoenicia did not exist, and is only thought to exist because, many centuries later, some grubby nationalists invented the idea of Phoenicia to further their grubby nationalism. What the grubby nationalists called Phoenicia, Dr. Josephine Quinn describes as “a disparate set of neighboring and often warring city-states, cut off from each other for the most part by deep river valleys.”

If we change the “river valleys” to “arms of the wine dark sea,” this would seem to sound a lot like ancient Greece, and everyone nowadays knows the Hellenes never existed. The Hellenes were invented by grubby nationalists inflamed by ouzo and irrational hatred for the Sultan.

But here is the line that jumped out at me. Dr. Quinn writes:

“Modern nationalism took history from the province of the wealthy gentleman amateur, as nationalism’s focus on literacy and organized education professionalized and democratized the past.”

Dr. Quinn is historicizing history, or putting history itself in an historical context. That’s all well and good, but she does it, as it is most often done, without answering the puzzling question “which historical context.” In whose account of history are we to place, say, a gentleman amateur like Edward Gibbon? Are we to read Gibbon with the understanding that he was writing in the context of the history as narrated by Karl Marx? Or Thucydides? Or George Bancroft?

And if we historicize Gibbon’s history by placing Gibbon in the context of history as narrated by Marx, oughtn’t we to historicize Marx’s history by placing it in some third context?

I’m sure you see the problem. Contextualizing is ultimately a swindle because, at the bottom of the heap, there must always be an Uncontextualized Contextualizer. That is to say, an historian who has not been reduced to a mouthpiece for the interests of his class or the prejudices of his age.

This brings me back to Dr. Quinn, about whom I know nothing besides what I can infer from her article. If the passions of some grubby nationalists conjured Phoenicia into existence, then it seems reasonable to ask about the passions that stir the (no doubt far from grubby) breast of Dr. Quinn.  What passions of heres have conjured Phoenicia out of existence? Such passions there must be, unless Dr. Quinn can explain how she has transcended her historical context in a way that wealthy gentlemen amateurs and grubby nationalists did not.

I’m a doubting Thomas when it comes to transcendent scholars peddling transcendent scholarship in which everyone before the day before yesterday was the tool of passion, interest, and prejudice. If we are going to reduce some scholars to their context, then we ought to reduce all scholars to their context.

So, what is the context of just about every academic writing today? By what passions, interests and prejudices are their ideas colored, conditioned, and deformed? As I said, I know nothing in particular about Dr. Quinn, but I do know a thing or two about university academics. Here, I suggest, is the context in which most of today’s transcendent scholars should be placed.

“I write as a lower middle-class careerist whose only real asset is my intellect, and who privately worries that the value of this asset might depreciate to zero before I’ve saved enough for retirement. Although my work is not onerous, my dominant emotion is resentment over insufficient esteem. I feel I have been systematically slighted by students, colleagues, administrators, my profession, and society at large. Deep down, I have a nagging fear that no one cares what I have to say, and even deeper down I have a nagging fear there is no reason they should care. In the course of climbing the university ladder, I lost the faith of my fathers, the friends of my childhood, and all feeling of being at home. I fear there will be no tears at my funeral, no flowers on my grave, and, cruelest cut of all, no citations when I’ve gone to that place where it will be impossible to return the compliment.

I sustain myself with a mix of hedonism, egotism, and humanitarianism. I’m a complete sucker for affordable luxuries that suggest tasteful old money, but still fall within the means of a lower middle-class careerist. I take a good deal of comfort in sneering at the vulgarity of people who have made more money with less intellect. In other words, I’m a snob—albeit a snob on a budget. And to further complicate matters, my humanitarianism makes me a democratic snob on a budget.

When I’m not worrying about the value of my intellect depreciating to zero, or chewing over my resentments, or staring into the void, I apply my intellect to the conundrum of a democratic snob on a budget.

My solution is to position myself as member of that tiny sliver of humanity who feels compassion for the whole of humanity, while at the same time sucking up to the people who have the power to do something about my wretched budget. Wine isn’t free, you know, and neither is a week’s vacation in France.”

32 thoughts on “The Conundrum of a Democratic Snob

  1. Bravo! That is exactly what the miasma of narcissism and resentment constantly mutters under its poisonous breath.

    I read Sailer’s blog-item earlier this morning. Quinn, whoever she is, strikes me as incredibly stupid and uneducated. I know of no one, from Herodotus to modern writers about the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, who has ever asserted that there was a nation calling itself Phoenicia or any other name. (And “Phoenicia,” of course, was a Greek coinage.) In the Bronze Age Levant, as in Greece, the political pattern was the sovereign city-kingdom, with a small surrounding territory, which might create colonies to the west in North Africa or Spain. The pattern survived the “Catastrophe” of 1100 BC and reappeared in historical times. As in Greece, however, the people of Sidon and Tyre, who thought of themselves as Sidonians and Tyrians, spoke dialects of the same language and recognized a general kinship. Carthage, an offshoot of Tyre, was certainly a self-conscious nation and later an empire in the Western Mediterranean.

    I was going to ask — whence come people like Quinn? But the answer is obvious: Graduate school.

    • Dr. Quinn is exploiting modern ignorance about the past, which may cause her readers to think that Phoenician ships sailed under a Phoenician flag, and Phoenicians all had social security numbers issued by the Phoenician Social Services Department. Phoenicia is entirely the invention of later historians, but it is a modern category that serves to highlight basic patterns in the past.

  2. @ JMSmith – Touché. I’m not convinced your “autobiographic confession” is not entirely not at least partly an autobiographic confession. As such, I don’t think it applies only to transcendent scholars. Much of it seems to apply to all scholars, particularly adjuncts. I have not lost the faith of my fathers, nor am I a humanitarian or a careerist, but I am a rootless cosmopolitan who does not feel at home in the world as a result of emigrating decades ago. I suspect there might be two people at most at my funeral partly because those closest to me are significantly older – although that could be hubristic on my part. I do feel slighted and disdained and prone to resentment that I do my best to subdue with hedonism and egoism definitely in the mix – but you omitted sour grapes which are worth their weight in gold. My solution is to position myself in the tiny sliver of humanity who gives a damn about cultural suicide and the wholesale rejection, by the very people charged with promulgating it, of the entire worthwhile intellectual and cultural inheritance of the West, not to mention beauty, art, intuition, poetry and religion. Your transcendent scholar is very much Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.

    • You’re right. I’m certainly part of my sample group. I don’t check all of the boxes in the “autobiographical confession,” but I check more than a few. You’re also right about the sour grapes, although I suspect some of those grapes are relatively sweet. But over the years I have been struck by the fact that acclaimed scholars have as much resentment as failed scholars, if not more. I once dined with a man who was one of the two best known geographers in the world, and his main topic of conversation was how overrated the other fellow was. I also try to keep my inner Cassandra on a leash. There can be something self-indulgent about running about screaming that “everything is going to Hell and I’m the only one who cares.”

      • ‘I also try to keep my inner Cassandra on a leash. There can be something self-indulgent about running about screaming that “everything is going to Hell and I’m the only one who cares.”’


      • Why should academics be so particularly prone to these insecurities? Perhaps it is that when a boy decides he wants to be an historian or a philosopher or a physicist, it’s because he’s heard about the exploits of great historians, philosophers, and physicists, and he wants to do that sort of thing. Nobody ever becomes an academic with expectations of mediocrity or even a very clear idea of what an undistinguished career in their field would consist of. (Having lived the life, I can tell you what a mediocre physicist does: teach introductory classes, sit in committees, write proposals that get rejected, co-author papers that no one reads. I still like it, and I suspect I wouldn’t fare well in the private sector job market.) So all but a very few intellectuals will feel like failures comparing to their initial ambitions. Some handle this better than others. The only other professions that I imagine being like this are professional sports and popular music, where everybody wants to be a star. Most careers have a clear standard of competence that one can be happy to meet and that does not involve world renown.

        I agree that this trick of historicizing/contextualizing is always used selectively. I’ll even admit that I use it selectively myself. I am particularly suspicious of contemporary historians, who seem distinctly uninhibited in their biases, confident that no one will dare to question them. I know what these biases are, and historical studies that seem to reinforce them I dismiss out of hand. I know that’s bad, confirmation bias and all, but life is short. I don’t have time to give a hearing to every UFO and recovered-past-life-memories nut; I take the risk of dismissing them all. Similarly, when a sociologist claims to prove that monogamy is unhealthy or a historian claims that European nations are illegitimate (never having “real” distinct bloodlines or cultures), I don’t bother learning more.

      • Bonald @ I think you’re right. A bricklayer’s apprentice aspires to lay bricks as well as the master bricklayer who taught him. A young scientist aspires to be Einstein. Call it the Curse of Extravagant Role Models. My experience with sports is that they kill illusions very fast. I knew I wasn’t going to the Olympics after two seasons of high school track. Illusions survive longest in activities that deal with symbols.

      • @ JMSmith: I recently wrote in an article to be published by Gates of Vienna that the Gnostics had Sophia resenting The One. The One is the unlimited and Sophia exists – which means she is limited. She, by definition, is the least limited Being conceivable, but she resents the unlimited anyway. Limitations are frustrating. Resentment is potentially the fate of all self-conscious beings.

        I once told my wife that I regard Plato and Dostoevsky as my friends. She said friends do things for each other. What have you done for them? I replied – I have appreciated them. What point in writing if no one reads or appreciates the contribution? I dare go even further with Plato and claim to understand him in certain important respects; better than Aristotle who knew him personally, and better than many thinkers I otherwise like who regard Plato as a proto-positivist, analytic dunderhead.

      • I’d say a man has done me a favor by trying to understand me, a larger favor when he actually understands, and a very large favor when he understands, agrees, and appreciates something I have written. I don’t have to be conscious of the man for this to be true. It is certainly nice if he comes round to shake my hand, but a hand shake is pretty small potatoes compared to intellectual communion.

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  4. I have been discarding books from my house and from my office by the cartloads. Occasionally, I pick up a title before throwing it into the bin and I peruse it a bit, just to jog my memory. I speak of books that I acquired in graduate school and in my early years of teaching because “everyone said” that they were “brilliant — a must read.” What strikes me is how totally inane and insipid, how obvious and trivial, they all are. They are, I would say, useless now and they were already useless when they were issued, written in puffed up prose or in totally incomprehensible jargon. At best, they might lend themselves to kindling a hot fire on a cold night. The only one that I decided to keep was David Lehman’s expose of Paul DeMan and of Deconstruction generally speaking.

      • Well, yes, but my sixty-three years mean that it would be about a hundred miles long and extraordinarily heterogeneous. These are the books that I asked my “Western Heritage” students to read this semester: Hesiod’s Theogony; Homer’s Odyssey; Virgil’s Aeneid; the Beowulf epic; and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars — all of them in the Western heroic tradition. In the “Writing about Literature” course, I asked the students to read twenty poems each by Wordsworth and Coleridge and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

  5. I have had the same experience weeding my shelves. I have no desire to keep most of the new books, and a strong desire to wash my hands after handling some of them. I hugely enjoyed graduate school, but must confess that much of that enjoyment came from the praise that was heaped on B.S. This wasn’t universal, as there were more than few truly critical old birds roosting in the place, but quick wit and a glib tongue carried one a long way. A telling detail was that “brilliant” was used as a term of praise. As you know, “brilliant” was originally applied to an intellect that was showy but superficial.

  6. As I remember from my studies within the History Department of some University… there is an attempt to ignore the historicism and perceptions of each era. The same is to be said about Gibbon, after all, wasn’t he just trying to give the Catholic Church a black eye, the irony is that his entire premise has already been refuted by Augustine in the City of God centuries before.

    • There is a forgiving historicism and a damning historicism. The former passes over errors without comment, the later passes over truths without noticing.

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  8. Welcome back, Prof. Smith. I have been missing your educated insights. The recent “Teachers Strike” (when it’s illegal, you’ll call it a “walkout,” but it’s a strike) in Oklahoma has been taking up a lot of my personal leisure time of late. Y’know, if public school teachers in Oklahoma had a (collective) brain, they’d take it out and play with it. I’m not, at all, in favor of “public schooling,” past, present, or future, but that’s just me. I’m a “realist” at the same time, and understand which way the wind blows, so I completely understand the propensity of moderns to “get behind” and support these derelicts. I wonder if anyone’s “history” will ever recount what a half-witted and stupid bunch this was.

    • The philosopher Anthony Flew once noted that the suicide rate dropped whenever British social workers went on strike. Perhaps the this “walkout” will get the young people of Oklahoma a couple of IQ points.

  9. The problem, I think, is with the manner of contextualization.

    It shoud be understood that the contextualizer is the author himself. But placing a single author in the context of himself, or worse, within the context of another, that’s just deceptive.

    If you want to generate a context, you generate your own. You take a wide sampling of different author and use that to build your own context.

    And as always, keep in mind that an intellectual acting in bad faith can get any result he wants.

  10. I have been discarding books from my house and from my office by the cartloads.

    I have the most difficult time with this. It’s probably sentimentalism.

    • I felt that way for a long time — but now the effect on me of getting rid of tomes that I will never read again is cathartic.

      • I, too, have been weeding my library. I’m getting close to retirement, and I don’t want my family to be saddled with the responsibility of disposing of it someday. But I have to confess that for me it’s been more painful than cathartic. I procured many of these items at great expense and trouble from the other side of the world, and I always imagined that, when I retired, I would donate them to some library which would gratefully receive them. But I’m beginning to realize that it will be difficult or impossible to find homes for many (or most) of them. Libraries are running out of space and funds, and balk at accepting more materials. If young people read at all (which most don’t seem to do seriously), they will skim something terse and electronic. I’ve been contacted by former professors who a well on in years and trying to get rid of their libraries. They attempt to persuade me to take some of their precious tomes, or find a library that will accept them.
        For me, this is all very depressing. If it were merely a format change, then it would be easier to accept, but I feel that we’re losing a lot with the demise of print culture. In the first place, a printed book–an old fashioned codex–invites deep, absorbed reading in a way that an e-book does not. You can lend print books to friends. Can’t do that with Kindle editions. Now I know a few avid e-book readers (and I have collected a few Kindle editions myself). But I would be willing to bet that most e-book readers developed their reading habits with print, and then just changed formats. Our students can’t seem to keep their noses out of their phones, and of course they’re reading something. But it’s mostly just tidbits, nothing longer than will fit on one screen, and nothing that would draw them in.

  11. @Bonald: My sense, for what it is worth, is that the recent cohorts of humanities PhDs have no notion of excellence, but only a notion of what an external observer would call institutional conformity, to which they wish eagerly to assimilate. You might say that they base their hopes of being meaningful on a delusion of adequacy that is tightly intertwined with their conviction that conformity is the basis of (that vulgar word) success. Their very great problem is that the tenets of the reigning conformity deny the existence of meaning — because context is everything, to the extent that it obliterates meaning, and every one of them thinks of herself as JM’s contextless contextualizer.

    I offer an observation about my department that I suspect is (O, Dreadful Word!) meaningful. Said department has, over the last decade, both by senior faculty retirement and affirmative-action based replacement-hiring, thoroughly transformed itself. When I started nearly twenty years ago, the atmosphere of the English faculty was — utterly snobbish, exactly in the way that JM describes, of course — but otherwise capable of sociability and, on occasion, friendliness. There was a good deal of fraternizing “on duty,” so to speak. People joked with one another and talked about Henry James in the common area. The new hires exhibit the following behavior: They arrive at work and lock themselves in their offices. There is no evidence that sociability is something that they desire. There is no evidence that any of them could talk about Henry James, whether in the common area or anywhere else. It would all be race-class-gender. Many of them not only lock themselves in their offices as soon as they arrive; they also plaster over their office windows with curtains or posters or anything that blocks an exterior view of the interior. The behave at work like the jealous monks in Tarkovsky’s film of Andrei Rublev.

    There was an end-of-the-semester festivity organized for the graduating English-majors. Few faculty were present. I saw that one of the new assistant professors was in her office. I knocked on the door and said, “We’re socializing with the students.” She replied, “I’m busy.” It appeared as though she was writing something — an article for publication, I presume, which no one would ever read. Her tone was distinctly hostile.

    This pervasive attitude explains why I no longer socialize with my “colleagues,” except for Richard Cocks, who belongs anyway to a different faculty, but prefer the company of the rogues at Old City Hall, my favorite bar. (Richard is also a regular.) The proprietor, Larry, calls his regulars “characters,” which I hope we are, if only in the most modest and delusorily adequate way. No one who locks himself like a jealous monk in his office and responds to social invitations with hostility can ever hope to be a character, or even to “have” character. Or, in all likelihood, attract a mate. But perhaps, in mutuality, there will be cross-citation and some type of weird offspring.

    • I’m surprised that the young faculty don’t want to socialize. In every department, including my own, there is a tendency for faculty or research groups to close off from one another. This tendency should be fought. Graduate students especially need an intellectual community; only interacting with their advisor is bad for all sorts of reasons. I started a weekly lunch of the astronomy faculty and students in my department just to address this. There’s always the issue of exerting the energy to keep interactions going, but not even wanting them would make me suspect some very bad attitudes or sour relationships in a department.

    • My department has undergone a similar atomization. Several factors seem to have caused this. First, we became more diverse, which of course means more divided, and so have less and less in common. I would not be surprised to learn that half, maybe three quarters, of my colleagues have never read a single book or article that I have read. Second, the information revolution allows us to sit in our offices and interact with people who have read some of the books and articles we have read. Third, the rising generation is very professional, very ambitious, and very trusting in “the system.” They love Big Brother.

      • I have an aversion to sitting in my office. I prefer to sit outside my office in one of the chairs in the common area — precisely so as to indicate openness to social activity, as rarely as that occurs. I would rather be a dilettante than a professional. I hate Big Brother.

  12. She’s “woke” ie she not suffering from false consciousness ie she is one of the elect ie she has undergone gnosis.


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