The Not-So-New Intellectual

How much more epochal can one man become? Ibram X. Kendi is pushing that proposition to ever increasing atmospheres. But his white-enabled wings may be getting too close to the sun.

To be fair to the highly celebrated author of How to Be an Antiracist, I, too, would be, as the kids say, “feeling myself” if my sociological self-help tract was featured in DEI trainings at every stock market listed corporation. Aristotle could never claim that kind of fame. The Nicomachean Ethics wasn’t included in the employee handbook at the Athens Kwik Stop. Even John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Civil Government wasn’t passed around during tea coffee breaks in Paul Revere’s smithy. Meanwhile, one of the biggest commercial colossuses in the world is donating Kendi’s antiracist screed to public schools. No word on if Jeff Bezos will slip the bestseller in the seat-back pocket of Blue Origin’s first tourist spacecraft.

So what’s Kendi doing with all this newfound fame, including a posh sinecure heading whatever the Center for Antiracist Research is? Perhaps he’s using steady book royalties to fund scholarships for urban-trapped blacks? Or maybe starting midnight basketball programs for inner-city street gangs to peacefully settle territorial feuds?

Ha! Providing direct material support is sooooo neoliberal. Kendi’s got a more ambitious plan: make the professional managerial class feel more enlightened. “American elites like being told how racist America is; it makes them feel morally superior,” wrote Ed West. In that task, Kendi is the tribune of high-perch America.

So how best to transmit a message directly to the overclass’s auditory cortex? Pen an essay in The Atlantic, of course! Which is exactly what Kendi did. “The Crisis of the Intellectuals,” our brave racism eradicator pretends to discover a flaw in the normal objective deduction approach to learning and synthesizing information.

Kendi frames the predicament like so: “As I tried to write my book, I struggled over what it means to be an intellectual. Or to be more precise: I struggled because what I wanted to write and the way in which I wanted to write it diverged from traditional notions of what it means to be an intellectual.”

What, pray tell, are the so-called “traditional notions of what it means to be an intellectual?” Kendi’s got an answer, which thankfully doesn’t cost $20,000. Like all pop-ponderer, our hard head-worker fashions an easy dichotomy: “The intellectual has been traditionally framed as measured, objective, ideologically neutral, and apolitical, superior to ordinary people who allow emotion, subjectivity, ideology, and their own lived experiences to cloud their reason.”

Cold, calculating Gadgrinds versus good-hearted Sissy Jupe—but in intellectual form! Kendi probably doesn’t grasp that reference. It’s Charles Dickens, after all, who was white, enterprising, English, and, despite his reformist beliefs, didn’t self-flagellate with anti-racist pamphlets. But the bisection is the same: callous rationalism against warm, living, breathing experience. The former, Kendi asserts, has corrupted the intellectual discipline by making it less attuned to real, flesh-filled adversity.

But blessed be us, the cavalry has come, Kendi assures us, in the form of a new, less staid, more empathetic intellectual—the activist intellectual. The nerd and wamb have combined like Megazord. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s these praxis-prone boffins who are leading the anti-racist fight. “Their work was more in line with that of medical researchers seeking a cure to a disease ravaging their community than with philosophers theorizing on a social disease for theory’s sake from a safe remove,” he writes, reiterating his classification cleave.

Inspiring, no? Up until George Floyd became our modern St. Peter, crucified on that Minneapolis street, all intellectuals toiling away in their sterile university offices cared only about describing the world, not changing it. Or wait. Did Michael Brown being gunned down inspire the intelligentsia sea change? Maybe it was Trayvon Martin’s senseless killing that defibrillated the heart in our cognitive class.

No matter. Change has come. Not with Martin Luther King, Jr. Not with Barack Obama. Not even with the Jewish serio-comic writers who imagined Wakanda. Change in our understanding of what it means to be an intellectual has come with Ibram Xolani Kendi.

So pencils down! Fists up! Take the revolution out of the white papers and unleash it on the streets! Ideas are best not in an inkwell but bottled up with petrol, lit aflame, and lobbed at a police station.

By this point, it should be obvious that Kendi, despite his shelves upon shelves of elite accolades, is terribly read, and not a great arguer to boot. Only dilettantes who’ve read Wikipedia as a primary source actually believe the academia-intellectual-brainwork world is full of sharp thoughts and droopy muscles. The activisation of academia has been afoot for nearly half a century, if not longer. A conservative cottage industry has cropped up to combat the leftist-assembly-line many universities have become. Another offshoot of the right’s complaints department is aimed at “judicial activism,” which goes back to the days of Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Kendi pictures himself a pioneer, animating theorists to do something about injustice instead of simply naming it. But thinkers long before him had the same objective, including Karl Marx (“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various way. The point, however, is to change it.”) and Emerson. (“[T]he transformation of genius into practical power.”) Kendi’s no ornithologist, so naturally he hasn’t heard of the Owl of Minerva either.

Kendi’s thesis isn’t so much a straw in the wind as a strawman—a strawman composed of the very same self-puffery he decries ineffectual navel-gazing. Yes, there’s too much palaver in our overly digitized lives. There’s so much modeling and testing and writing and expostulation in academia that a replication crisis has arisen. More so, the very concept of pure objective thought has not only been abused in the past, e.g. eugenics and phrenology, but is always tainted by flawed human subjectivity.

None of that detracts from the need for solid intellectual foundations. That Kendi thinks he stumbled upon an errant wrinkle in the West’s brain is ignorant and laughable. Then again, Kendi wasn’t the sharpest student in school. That he’s ascended to the commanding heights of our cerebral class disproves his niche theories about America being incorrigibly racist.

There you have it: a simple syllogism disproving Kendi’s entire oeuvre, children’s book and all. His professional success contrasted against America’s violently anti-black history means Uncle Sam is no longer Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

And we have Kendi’s not-so-novel activist-erudition to thank! He didn’t even have to do any of the required reading assignments.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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