La trahison des Xs

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Paul Krugman, "Why Economics Failed", 5/1/2014 (emphasis added):

Meanwhile, powerful political factions find that bad economic analysis serves their objectives. Most obviously, people whose real goal is dismantling the social safety net have found promoting deficit panic an effective way to push their agenda. And such people have been aided and abetted by what I’ve come to think of as the trahison des nerds — the willingness of some economists to come up with analyses that tell powerful people what they want to hear, whether it’s that slashing government spending is actually expansionary, because of confidence, or that government debt somehow has dire effects on economic growth even if interest rates stay low.

Krugman's phrase "trahison des nerds" is adapted from (La) Trahison des Clercs, about which Wiktionary explains:

From French: trahison (“treason”) + des (“of the”) (a contraction of de (“of”) + les (“the” (pl), “hoi”)) + clercs (“clerks”, “scholars”) = treason of the clerks; originally adopted from the title of the French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda’s 1927 book La Trahison des Clercs (whose first English translation bore the title The Betrayal of the Intellectuals).

Krugman's adaptation of Benda's phrase is very much in the spirit of the original, as described in the Benda's Wikipedia entry:

Benda is now mostly remembered for his short 1927 book La Trahison des Clercs, a work of considerable influence. The title of the English translation was The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, although "The Treason of the Learned" would have been more accurate.

This polemical essay argued that French and German intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century had often lost the ability to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism. […] Benda defended the measured and dispassionate outlook of classical civilization, and the internationalism of traditional Christianity.

A more immediate — and more puzzling — adaptation of the phrase was René Magritte's famous 1928-1929 painting La trahison des images:

Before looking up "La trahison des clercs", I don't think that I ever paid attention to the title of Magritte's painting, or thought about its relationship to Benda's book. And I'm not alone in this — the curator's notes at the painting's home in Los Angeles don't mention the connection, nor do the various relevant Wikipedia articles (though it comes up in the editors' "Talk" discussion of how to translate trahison des images into English).

Anyhow, a web search for {"trahison des" -clercs -images} turns up la trahison de médias, la trahison des CPAsLa trahison des archeologues, etc. — and  an earlier usage similar to Krugman's but from another region of the political spectrum: "La trahison des woncs".

It's not clear to me how many of these echoes of Benda's title  intend a strict analogy to Benda's argument about the relationship between intellectual investigation and political commitment, and how many just use la trahison des Xs to signal that they disapprove of what the Xs have done, or even that the Xs are behaving in a way that is not aligned with the Xs' natural interests (at least as defined by the source of their paychecks). These last two interpretations are in some sense opposite to Benda's point, which was that intellectuals betray their calling when they allow their politics to steer their analysis.

Krugman's usage is clearly Benda-esque. And maybe Magritte was thinking about the role of images in advertising, where he earned his living for a few years early in his career — but it's still not clear to me how the political/intellectual metaphor aligns with his painting.






  1. Dick Margulis said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 6:27 am

    Isn't Magritte just saying that the picture of a thing is not the thing (the caption) and that this is the (universal) treachery of images?

    [(myl) So I always thought. But Magritte did that painting shortly after he moved to Paris in 1927, when Benda's (at that time just-published) book was a very big deal in French intellectual circles. So I wonder whether Magritte had some more specific (and surrealist) analogy to Benda's argument in mind, for instance




    or maybe



  2. RP said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 6:51 am

    It seems to me that the main problem with "betrayal of the intellectuals" as a translation is that the reader might initially think the intellectuals are the object of the betrayal rather than the subject. "Treason of the intellectuals" or "treachery of the intellectuals" would make clear that the intellectuals were the guilty party rather than the victim, as well as "treason" probably being closer to the meaning of the French word (though "trahison" has a direct relationship to the verb "trahir", to betray, which English lacks).

  3. languagehat said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    But Magrite did that painting shortly after he moved to Paris in 1927, when Benda's (at that time just-published) book was a very big deal in French intellectual circles. So I wonder whether Magritte had some more specific (and surrealist) analogy to Benda's argument in mind

    Surely it's far more probable that he picked up a faddish phrase and ran with it, just as New Yorker cartoons are often incomprehensible unless you know what random events and soundbites were being bandied about the previous week.

    [(myl) Maybe. But it's also plausible that he participated in discussions of the meaning of Bendas work with André Breton and his other surrealist friends. And his way of talking in interviews like this one suggests someone who is familiar with manipulating ideas, not just imitating them.]

  4. MattF said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 8:11 am

    There could well be a political aspect to the title– Nowadays, we tend to see just absurdity and contradiction in Dada/Surrealist works while forgetting that the movement had a strong political flavor.

    [(myl) Indeed. I don't know what the attitude of the French left toward Benda's book in 1928 was, but I can imagine that it was complex.]

  5. RJB said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 9:25 am

    I've always interpreted the painting and title as emphasizing that we are too caught up in representations and labeling. Just because the painting looks like a pipe, it doesn't actually serve a pipe's function. Just because someone poses as a learned intellectual doesn't mean they are actually serving that function.

    When I teach MBA and EMBA students, I show them the Magritte image, followed by a parody showing a performance scorecard with the caption "This is not performance." Now I realize I should call it something like "La Trahison Des Measures", and add yet another X to pile. I tell my students that just because a measure poses as performance, it doesn't actually make anything better–and probably provides only a misleading picture of the performance it purports to represent. I suppose I could still call it La Trahison des Clercs (in the sense of comptable).

    If you want to see how an accounting professor brings philosophy to les clercs–from Plato's Allegory of the Cave to postmodernism–I've just posted my essays on SSRN: What Counts and What Gets Counted.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 9:49 am

    I'm not sure whether to think that swapping in "nerds" is purely jocular or implies some judgment that "les nerds" and "les clercs" are mutually exclusive categories, with economists falling into the former (perhaps because these days not doing anything involving too much math is a necessary condition for being a full member of the clerisy/intelligentsia?).

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    Also, fwiw and without prejudice to where Benda may have been situated on the left-right axis of French political discourse of his own time, he (and the "trahison des clercs" notion) have been popular in more recent times in more right-wing circles at least in Anglophone nations, perhaps because the "clercs" in Anglophone nations have in recent times typically been more left-wing than the general population. So it is presumably No Accident that the currently-in-print English translation of the book that is the top option when you check amazon is put out by an identifiably right-of-center publisher (Transaction) with an introduction by an identifiably right-of-center writer (Roger Kimball).

    Perhaps corpus linguistics would enable a quantitative study of left-right valence (and its evolution over time) of usage of the phrase or snowclonish variants ("trahison des X") although I don't have the time to experiment with it myself right now.

    [(myl) I've noticed the current right-leaning slant interest in Benda's book, but it's worth noting that his criticism was originally directly at people like Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès, who were definitely on the (nationalist) right in the 1920s. So I'd be curious to know what attitude leftists like Breton took towards Benda at that time.]

  8. Rube said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    I also find it interesting that Krugman said "because of confidence" instead of "because confidence".

  9. D.O. said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    "La trahison des Xs" would be a great title for an invective against algebra or math in general. Or maybe against generalizations in general.

  10. NSBK said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    I feel like the pipe image caption could have been extended: "This is not a pipe, because this is a caption labelling an image of a pipe". At that point it may be the caption itself which is doing the betrayal, though, instead of the image. I'm not sure.

  11. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    Magritte is very literary. Not only by incorporating words into images, but also in alluding to titles of books in his own titles: Elective Affinities (Goethe), or The Human Condition (Malraux). Benda's book was well known enough to create a snowclone. Borges cites Benda's book in "Pierre Menard."

  12. John Lawler said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    Neither France or anything French comes into it, but I am reminded in this context of Archibald MacLeish's 1940 essay "The Irresponsibles", which witheringly portrays the intellectuals who'd ignored or abetted the rise of Fascism: "They had their work to do; they had their book to finish."

  13. David B Solnit said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Not exactly on topic I know, but am I the only one wondering why Wictionary offers "hoi" (presumably the Greek plural article, as in hoi polloi) as a translation of French les?

  14. Carl Offner said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 12:25 am

    D.O.: That's actually what I first thought when I read the title.

  15. Rube said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 7:21 am

    "The Treason of the Nerds" would also make a great title for a gritty reboot of "The Revenge of the Nerds".

  16. ThomasH said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    Magritte: Cesi n'est pas une pipe
    Alfred Korzybski: The map is not the territory (1931)

  17. hector said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    "Benda's point, which was that intellectuals betray their calling when they allow their politics to steer their analysis."

    I haven't read Benda's book, but from the Wikipedia excerpt you give, it sounds like the treason consists of their kowtowing to authority, not their politics as such. If the politics of the powerful were different, so would theirs be.

    There's never any shortage of intellectuals who are willing to tell the powerful what they want to hear, who become, in effect, courtiers. What steers their analysis is not their politics, but their career advancement.

    This is a very human trait — to want to say what others will approve of, but in an intellectual, supposedly devoted to the pursuit of truth, it is a betrayal.

    [(myl) Yes, maybe I should have said "When they let their funders' politics steer their analysis". Or "their funders' interests".

    But I don't think this matters. It's true that making stuff up to please the rich and powerful is morally more objectionable than slanting a supposedly-empirical analysis to support one's own preconceptions. In terms of the effect on the search for the truth, however, both sources of bias are equally destructive.]

  18. Douglas Bagnall said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

    For what its worth, my English copy (Norton 1969) is The Treason of the Intellectuals. The translator, Richard Aldington, includes a note explaining his title (mainly the Clercs/Intellectuals thing) in which he uses Treason. Presumably the earlier edition had the same note with Betrayal in its place.

  19. Jack Marshall said,

    May 4, 2014 @ 4:55 am

    It would be prudent (and honest) to note that Krugman is a striking and disgraceful example of the phenomenon that he derides, providing cover for irresponsible and cowardly elected officials who ignore deficits with the dubious intellectual cover he provides by claiming that the burgeoning debt doesn't matter.

    The tell is his slanderous and objectively absurd ( and nakedly partisan as well) contention that concerns over the debt is just a cover for Snidely Whiplash desires to eliminate the safety nets, rather than responsible governing. It is exactly like the claim by the other extreme of the spectrum that global warming concerns are really part of a plot to force capitalism to cripple itself.

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