Re-reading Julien Benda’s La trahison des clercs

What do student debt, originalist interpretation of the American Constitution, TV drug advertisements, and wars of choice have in common? Separately and in various combinations they are doing serious damage to contemporary American society.

Citizens who feel the impact of these trends try to understand them, and often they ask for relief. But who will take the lead to help them? Not the political parties, internally gridlocked or beholden to special interests. Not faith-based organizations that are either losing followers or focusing inwardly on narrow issues. Not charitable foundations that assist people in need but cannot engage in effective advocacy.

Yet, we do have alternative voices that potentially could speak out on the most urgent issues of the day and lead us to a better place. These are the large non-profit organizations that recruit, educate and nurture “the best and brightest” in American society: the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of Engineering Societies, and hundreds of others.

Members of these association practice and teach; they lead agencies and write legislation at all levels of government. They have their own communication channels but also plenty of access to popular media. They matter!

Thinking about these associations, their stature, human capital, and access to power, I asked myself: can they lead? Will they lead? These questions about today’s professionals and intellectuals and thei rorganizations motivated me to read Julien Benda, an author who had similar concerns in his own time. Hs classic 1927 book, La trahison des clercs, ineptly translated into English as The betrayal of the intellectuals, was wudely read in the United States. If Julien Benda came back from the great beyond, what might he say about the position and roles of les clercs in contemporary America?

If he dialoged with legal scholars and judges he might ask: how can you discern the Founders’ “original intent” when you rule on issues, conditions, and organizations that did not exist in the 18th century? If he saw drug advertisements on TV or heard about the massive numbers of opiod pills delivered to pharmacies in sparsely populated, impoverished counties, he might inquire: what were the venerable American Medical Association and American Pharmacists Association doing while Big Pharma prospered and communities were torn apart?

Benda might be impressed with the first-rate research that members of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are doing on the treatment of war zone traumas. He might wonder, however, why this work focuses on improving the ability of military personnel to withstand those traumas rather than on avoiding military intervention, especially wars of choice, in the first place.

What is Beda attended a large academic conference, for example, the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association?  He would surely hear discussions about the plight of contingent faculty and about threats to academic freedom. He might ask why American universities protect academic freedom for some, but not all, teaching and research faculty. In fact, he might ask why this much valued form of protection is denied to the most vulnerable members of the academy.

In the disparity between the associations’ potential for influence and leadership and their current performance Benda might recognize the same moral failure that he decried in the 1920s, the same tendency of les clercs to protect individual or tribal interests at the expense of the common good. Of the professionals and intellectuals of his own time Benda wrote: “[The have forgotten that] the morality of an act is its disinterestedness …[they have accepted instead] that the morality of an act is measured by its adaptation to its end.”

Example of such “adaptations” are all around us. Many individuals and institutions have adapted their research interests and projects to a vaguely defined but all-encompassing end goal of national security. Others have adapted their ideological or personal preferences of wealthy donors, without asking questions about those donors’ desired end goals.

What can we do today? Like Julien Benda, we can identify and acknowledge corruption among our clercs, whether they work within or outside of the academy. But we can and should do more, mobilizing resources and membership organizations on a scale that would have been unthinkable in the early 1900s.

Depending on their mission and the expertise of their members, groups of professional and scholarly associations are already quite adept at identifying critical issues and providing data and recommendations to policy makers. As the next step, they can and should lead their members in the rediscovery of the morality of disinterestedness.  

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