24 June 2010

An Intellectual attempts to explain Anti-Intellectualism

In a column that deplores the President's apparent lack of passion when dealing with problems from the Gulf oil spill to foreign policy, Richard Cohen comments that the quality that had once seemed most important and admirable about Obama -- his intellect -- no longer earns him respect. Cohen isn't the first writer to note a surge of anti-intellectualism in the country, particularly after Obama's election. The trend, most noticeable among Republicans and radio-driven conservatives, has earned scorn from liberals and libertarians alike. But Cohen seems to perceive something those critics haven't. The other anti-anti-intellectuals see the obvious: reactionary anti-intellectualism objects to the alleged hegemony of a "cultural elite" that might include politicians, academics, entertainers and scientists, depending on who's throwing a fit at the moment. There are a number of ideological and psychological factors behind this "anti-elitist" antipathy toward intellectuals, but Cohen finds them all irrelevant. For this week, at least, he theorizes that the anti-intellectualism of the moment was provoked not by the perceived ascendancy of a "cultural elite," but by the clever hucksters of corporate boardrooms.

A world of smart guys has turned against us. Everyone at Goldman Sachs is smart, but they seem to have the amorality mocked by the songwriter Tom Lehrer in his sendup of the celebrated American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun ... The oil industry is full of smart people and so is the mortgage industry. Smart people seem to have brought us nothing but trouble. Smarts without values is dangerous — threatening, scary, virtually un-American.

Cohen's analysis looks like wishful thinking to me. There remains a widespread hostility to Wall Street and to bailed-out corporations, but it isn't anti-intellectual in nature. If Americans despise intellectuals, it's not because the intellectuals have tricked or conned them, and if they're angry at corporations it's not because CEOs are too smart, but because they're slick, tricky or downright immoral. But one thing a CEO doesn't do, the thing that really riles up the anti-intellectual element, is "tell us how to live." Yes, a sociologist or Cultural Studies professor can show us that corporations do "tell us how to live" through their various marketing strategies, but the whole point of those strategies is to avoid making it look like you're being told what to do. In any event, being told what to buy isn't the same as being told how to live, and the latter is what rankles the radio-controlled rabble. I really doubt whether Joe the Plumber feels condescended to when CEOs explain themselves on Capitol Hill in the same way I presume he feels when some politician or academic or actor tells him that he ought to change his ways or challenges his traditional values and prejudices. More likely, he and those like him feel like they're on the same side as the CEO against the "cultural elite" that supposedly wants to limit their aspirations and control every aspect of their lives except those that God wants controlled. If they end up resenting CEOs, it's probably not because those executives are too smart, but because they're too successful in a way that proves to the suspicious that they cheated in becoming "too big to fail."

I can see what Cohen is trying to do here. He's a liberal (albeit of the kind that enjoys insulting foreign governments about their human rights records; he thinks that Obama doesn't do enough of that) who'd like to turn the anti-intellectual tide against the corporate elite and their presumed champions in the Republican Party. Putting it another way, he'd like to steer today's populism in its historically proper direction. But he admits in this same column that Republicans have only benefited from anti-intellectualism.

This is why a succession of arch-conservative eccentrics have succeeded. Their values are obvious, often shockingly so. We know what they want, just not how they are ever going to get it. Experience has become a handicap and inexperience a virtue. Smart is out. Dumb is in.

To point anti-intellectual populism in its proper direction, Cohen suggests, liberals need to assert their values with passion. Obama is too dispassionate about things for the nation's good, he fears. He doesn't show "that indispensable wince" when pragmatism forces him to deviate from what Cohen hopes are his core principles. To save his Presidency, the columnist argues, "It is not necessary that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven't a clue."

Speak for yourself, Mr. Cohen. I'm not going to defend the President just now, but I must note that Cohen's column demonstrates a certain cluelessness about an important sociocultural trend that might account for his mystified perception of the Obama administration, which therefore shouldn't be attributed to the general population. In other words, Obama may still be a mystery to many people, including some who voted for him, but Cohen's cluelessness may be his own problem, not theirs.


Anonymous said...

I believe you are correct to an extent, but I also believe that anti-intellectuals also suffer from a certain amount of intellectual laziness.

Intellectuals use "big" words they don't understand. Show them studies full of mathematical probabilities and equations they don't understand. Talk about theories they don't understand. And rather than educating themselves so they can understand, they simply resent and hate.

History abounds with examples. DaVinci comes to mind. The church didn't oppose DaVinci because he was telling them how to live. They opposed him because he used scientific fact to prove their beliefs wrong.

I believe the same still holds true. Those on the right, especially those of the religious right, oppose intellectuals because it casts shadows on their entire belief system. For them, it is much easier to "believe" than to learn.

Take a good look at their "idols", the radio talk show hosts. Out of the major 4 (Rush, Beck, O'Riley and Hannity) 3 of them either dropped out of college or were drummed out. Only Bill O'Riley actually managed to make it through four years of college and his degree is in theology.

I would wager that a lot of resentment from these people lies in the fact that they are, intellectually speaking, losers. And they hate having to face the realization that they are losers so they drum up anti-intellectual feelings in their repective audiences.

Samuel Wilson said...

You're probably closer to the truth than Cohen was. I think the sort of people you describe feel that they can get by fine without all the extra information and resent the suggestion that they need to know it and deal with it. Also, Most anti-intellectuals today wouldn't identify with the Inquisition because in their minds the "cultural elite" has the power and is forcing its secular humanism (or environmentalist paganism) down people's throats the same way the Inquisition used to force its dogma down the throats of heretics. And in their mind any challenge to their traditions is "telling them how to live." What they forget is that democracy always requires us to let a majority tell us how to live, within certain constitutional limits. On the other hand, their idea of democracy is that the majority shouldn't have to do something just because the experts or the intellectuals say so. Every political system is a mixed blessing like that.