Bill O'Reilly Is an Intellectual; So Is Rush Limbaugh

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Yet they behave as if it's a term of disparagement.

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When used as a noun, the definition of "intellectual" is simple enough: a person who relies on their intellect, or mental labor, for work or leisure.

On Bill O'Reilly's TV show, the host recently mentioned a critique of Fox News by David Frum and wondered what motivated it. Bernard Goldberg, author of a book alleging widespread liberal media bias, offered the following hypothesis: "As far as what the beef is, I think there are two kinds of conservatives out there. David Frum fits into a category of either intellectual conservative or something close to that," he said. "And I think that group -- not all of the people who are intellectuals feel that way, but many do -- they don't like the riff raff, who they see as the riff raff. They don't like the Tea Party people, for instance, because they think they're dumb. Now here's the beef, Bill. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be if you're an intellectual and the riff raff have more influence on the culture and on politics than you and your intellectual pals?"

I want to address this notion that it's coherent to divide professional writers, pundits, and media personalities into the categories "intellectual" and "non-intellectual." Because it isn't.

Take Bill O'Reilly, who as an honors student in college majored in history and wrote for the school newspaper. In addition to his early media gigs, he was briefly a teacher and earned a master's of public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He's also authored 10 books, including a historical account of Lincoln's assassination. This isn't to say that O'Reilly's arguments are particularly rigorous, or that his books are particularly good. He isn't an intellectual who produces good work. But as surely as Mary-Kate Olsen is an actress, O'Reilly is an intellectual.

As is Rush Limbaugh. All the man produces are ideas and arguments -- do they not flow from his intellect? Again, they aren't particularly good ideas. Indeed, he is something of a fraud. But as surely as it was journalists at Dateline NBC who put incendiary devices in those GM trucks, Rush Limbaugh is an intellectual who misleadingly generates explosions in public discourse. 

Like O'Reilly and Limbaugh, Bernard Goldberg is an intellectual too. For goodness' sake, he is famous almost entirely due to a book he wrote advancing a theory of media bias. He just happens to be a self-hating intellectual, someone who uses the term as if it is disparaging without ever explaining why. He's drawing on a stereotype, a connotation. It's tempting to say that "we all know what he means" when he calls Frum an intellectual. Tempting, but ultimately false. He is misusing the term precisely because putting things more accurately would rob him of his point.

A real critique of Frum requires an understanding of his ideas and a logical rebuttal of them. Instead Goldberg uses the "i" word, because it is vague enough to hide the fact that he has nothing persuasive to say. Most attacks on intellectuals share that flaw. It's one thing for a "man of action" to disparage the excessively cerebral, but these days, if you hear someone attacking intellectuals, more often than not they are one.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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