What is intellectualsm?

I think that women will probably soon be competing head to head with men in the marathon and in Ironman Triathlons. It's about as complicated and unscientific to explain as "the right way to catch fish," but the trends seem to show this, and Brits Paula Radcliff in the 26 miler and Chrissie Wellington in the 140.6 miler are both breaking through the glass pack (sorry).

Radcliff was a bit of an idol to me -- a guy -- when I got into running in 2002. Female athletics is interesting because the Michael-Jordan esq success is more definite. We don't  know how fast the men's marathoner could potentially run, or at the time we didn't know the limit of MJ's brilliance, but we can measure exactly the fewer and fewer men who are better than Radcliff and Wellington.

This has nothing to do with the following. 

I got into the summer Olympics sometime in the late 1990s or so and I noticed there was an area of sport called "athletics." This seemed odd, because the entire Olympic movement seems to have a lot to do with athleticism, and all of the competitors are called athletes. Why call some sports athletics and not call others athletics?

Well, English is weird. But this term "athletics" is reserved for a more narrow definition of Olympic sport: track, field and marathon. It's arbitrary, but I think it works.

Athletics is a weird term. And so is "intellectual."

What exactly is an intellectual. Are corporate CEOs not very smart? And doctors and lawyers? What about world class musicians, or engineers? Or very smart high school teachers. All of these professions attract mostly smart people; why not call these people intellectuals?

Well, the word appears to be reserved for one of two things. Broadly, you could call anythone who thinks creatively and expresses this verbally or in writing as an intellectual; certainly a world-class architect or say Albert Einstein would fit this. More narrowly, an intellectual (or, perhaps a social-sciences or public intellectual) may be someone who speaks or writes intelligently about important public issues. David Frum or Christopher Hitchens -- who don't appear to do anything but engage in a life-long dialectic -- may be under this narrow definition. They undertake no experiments and produce virtually zero original evidence. This isn't physics. They simply talk or write about society. 

So, I wondered for a long time why have a word to describe these people who don't do anything but write or talk to each other? Why not call them writers?

Here's my point. One day -- I think it was the summer of 2004 -- I thought of an idea I called the Simple Moral Imperative. If I wrote down a definition, I cannot find it, but as I recall it goes like this: when tackling an issue, focus only on the indisputable moral issues and achieve understanding and agreement there. Avoid unending debate by converting the unresolvable argument into one of certainties. So, if you're arguing a political issue, start with asking if genocide is occurring. If it is, you don't really need to argue any more. (Maybe you need to send guys with guns.)

So, what are David Frum and Christopher Hitchens? Perhaps they undertake a version of this. Perhaps theirs is a large, public, contribution to a centuries-old conversation in which difficult and "messy" issues are attacked by first identifying the Simple Moral Imperatives associated with each, thus converting a social science debate into a scientific one; converting messy issues of opinion into ones of unambiguous and universal morality. At least in this way they would be advancing intellectual knowledge and not chatting with big words.