“The Treason of the Healers” (MUST-READ/SHARE)

The Treason of the Healers

In 1927, the French intellectual Julien Benda publishedLa Trahison des Clercswhich has been translated to English asThe Betrayal(and sometimes theTreason)of the Intellectuals. The book is a searing indictment of the role played by intellectuals from both sides of the First World War in fanning the flames of that devastating conflict which raised the threshold of man’s capacity for murder and destruction to theretofore unimaginable levels. For Benda, the great and unpardonable sin of the intellectuals in both Germany and France was to abandon the imperative to generate “disinterested” knowledge, and to instead lend their talents and prestige to tasks of promoting home-borne chauvinism on one hand, and the systematic denigration of the enemy’s culture and citizens on the other. 

The rise of the figure of the intellectual, as we understand it today, is intimately linked to two interlocking historical processes from the last third of the 19th century: the rapid secularization of society and the rise of the daily newspaper. 

In effect, as citizens began to leave the church and its leaders behind, they redirected their desire for transcendence toward the daily press and its new secular “clerics.” These new spiritual leaders, in turn, had to decide, as had their predecessors in ancient Israel, Greece and Rome before them, how to exercise their newfound power. 

Was it their job to shore up the positive spirit of the collective in the age of the nation-state? Or was it to reveal to their parishioner-readers the stark truths of their time? 

Given the enormous stakes in the matter, the second option was, for Benda, the only morally acceptable one.

As the twentieth century advanced, the turn-of-the-century writer was gradually supplanted at the apex of the new social communion by the man of science, and especially, by the figure of the physician. Given the exigencies of the scientific method, an adherence to a disinterested search for knowledge should have, if anything, become even more important for such people than it had been for the “lettered” objects of Benda’s ire. 

However, it did not take long to discover that the newly ascendant men of science were just as prone as Benda’s treasonous writers to abuse the institutional powers conferred on them by society and the state in order to pursue narrowly subscribed, and often deeply inhumane, campaigns of bullying and/or human experimentation. 

There was, of course the long campaign of intellectual terror waged by Lysenko and his acolytes in the Soviet Union and the large-scale buy-in—much bigger than is still generally acknowledged or admitted—by German physicians of the genocidal program of “Nazi medicine” during the 30s and 40s. And here at home, we have more than enough disgusting cases of medical abuse (forced lobotomies, the Tuskegee Study, MK Ultra, Oxycontin to name just a few) to keep a forensic journalist or historian of medical crime busy for a lifetime.

But when it comes to acknowledging this, things are much the way they are when it comes to acknowledging the serial crimes of the US empire. It is—as Harold Pinter said in addressing this last matter in his Nobel speech—as if, “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.” 

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