19 February 2010

Two Kinds of Anti-Intellectualism

Who's nailin' Palin? This week one answer is George Will the conservative columnist, who wrote an article about the Alaskan predicting that the Republican party would lose in a landslide if it nominated her for the Presidency in 2012. Will has nothing against her personally, but like other concerned conservatives, he worries about her lack of "seasoning" and her dalliance with populist politics. He abhors populism because it's based on "resentment," is characterized by "whininess," and is anti-intellectual at a time when the GOP has "become ruinously weak among highly educated whites."

Will fancies himself an intellectual, philosophical conservative. There are such creatures and even as a Republican propagandist he's been willing to defy orthodoxy occasionally. It's possible that his complaint against anti-intellectual populism is an indirect attack on anti-intellectual tendencies in the conservative movement. Will might in fact define those tendencies as "populist" because they're anti-intellectual. But those tendencies shouldn't really surprise him. The populist rabble simply aren't sophisticated enough to distinguish between two kinds of anti-intellectualism within the movement, one of which Will himself practices. The column under discussion has an example of this:

America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism. But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness.

For Will, implicitly, there are two kinds of intellectuals. His own kind are those whose sincere, objective reasoning will lead them to conservative conclusions about the limits of human nature and government action. The other kind are academics, with the characteristics described in the excerpt. The conservative intellectual is realistic, Will claims, in a way the academic isn't. He is modest in admitting the limits of his knowledge in a way the academic, presumably, isn't. And he is less grating -- or so the conservative thinks. But as an intellectual, it disappoints Will that the populist can't seem to make the distinction between the good intellectual and the malevolent academic. In part, he has himself to blame. To the extent that he, like all American conservatives, persistently questions the ability of intelligent people to plan economic growth, he can't help but throw intellect itself into question for his populist readers. What good is all that booklearnin' if Will himself writes that it doesn't work any better than the blind or invisibly guided Market? Why should a populist trust anyone to make decisions for him solely because that person is smarter than he is? How could Will answer that question without sounding like a dreaded elitist, and why should it surprise him if they treat him like one if he, as a Republican, has taught them to dread intellectual elites? That's why I find his discomfiture at Palin's popularity amusing. The phenomenon is a monster of his own creation -- or at least he shares in the blame.

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