23 November 2011
American anti-intellectualism wasn't born yesterday
When a Democrat like Paul Begala calls the Republicans "the stupid party," it can be dismissed as a partisan smear. When a Republican like Kathleen Parker grudgingly agrees with Begala, then it becomes worth discussing. The two pundits have something else in common: short-term historical memory. Lamenting what she calls the "Palinization" of the GOP, Parker idealizes a time when William F. Buckley supposedly set an intellectual standard and enforced it by reading the John Birch Society out of the conservative establishment. Begala looks back to roughly the same period, and notes that, while the self-conscious intellectual Democrat Adlai Stevenson lost two presidential elections, his purported pedantry "didn't cause conservatives in the '50s and '60s to spurn ideas and denigrate intellect." Both writers choose to see Buckley, who held no political office, as the face of the Republican party in his time -- and both may or may not have chosen to forget that, during the peak of Buckley's influence, a nearly-equally influential book was written by the historian Richard Hofstadter describing Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and identifying it in the present day with right-wing Republicanism. Hofstadter recognized that a degree of anti-intellectualism was inherent in populist movements, since populism suspects all elites. Unconsciously or not, Begala channels Hofstadter by blaming modern GOP stupidity on "populist anti-intellectualism." But Begala doesn't seem to realize, or at least doesn't acknowledge in his Newsweek column, that the trend he decries is not a new thing. But if anti-intellectualism seems louder and more strident now, the climate-change debates, as Parker acknowledges, are probably to blame. On that issue, at least, Parker finds her fellow Republicans most embarrassing. She's less inclined to trace this to populist tendencies, however, than to blame it on religion. "The big tent fashioned by Ronald Reagan has become bilious with the hot air of religious fervor," she writes, "Scientific skepticism, the engine that propels intellectual inquiry, has morphed into skepticism of science fueled by religious certitude," -- what she describes as a belief that "only God controls climate." I'm inclined to believe that capitalist ideology fuels climate-change denialism more than religion, but I'll concede that religious fervor and entrepreneurialism are somewhat alike in emphasis and effect. Both are essentially faith-based, as has been proven about entrepreneurialism by the collapse of faith in debt around the world. If a historian can prove a dumbing-down of capitalism over the last fifty years, or a retreat from analysis in favor of faith -- and I suspect that it wouldn't be hard -- Begala and Parker might be vindicated in their belief that stupidity in America is stronger than ever.