Tag Archives: anti-intellectualism

The War on Elites

Anti-elitism has become a conventional explanation for what is motivating the electorate in 2016 .

Let’s think about that.

An online dictionary defines “elite” as “something prestigious or the best of the best. An example of elite is an Olympic athlete. Another definition is “The group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.”

The use of Olympic athletes as an example is particularly ironic; right now, millions of Americans are glued to televised Olympic competitions, and I’d bet a considerable amount of money that none of them is rooting for our teams to demonstrate less “elitism.”

In fact, I think there are two pervasive–and very different– American attitudes that get lumped–improperly– into the “anti-elitist” category.

Americans are increasingly critical of the misuse of money and power to the detriment of democratic processes that might otherwise ameliorate or solve our social problems. This attitude powered Bernie Sanders’ campaign; it explains the large following that Elizabeth Warren has amassed. It is not anti-elite, however; it is anti-corporatist, anti-oligarchy. It offers a critique of the current power structure that is likely to grow and eventually trigger policy changes that will improve the life prospects for poor and middle-class Americans.

The second attitude that is routinely lumped into the anti-elitist narrative is anti-intellectualism–an attitude that has long been America’s Achilles heel. Suspicion of “pointy-headed” intellectuals has ebbed and flowed through our country’s history; that attitude is responsible for a widespread rejection of science, the arts, and the humanities, among other negative consequences.

An article in Psychology Today addressed Americans’shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science have been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”…

Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”

When a society elevates anger over understanding, shows contempt for knowledge, dismisses the importance of competence, and prefers entertainment to substantive discussion, we wind up with political candidates like Donald Trump–and a government that no longer functions in the public interest.

A Not-So-Brave New World

So Trump took New Hampshire. A man who could hardly be more unfit for public office won a primary election held by one of America’s major parties.

This paragraph from a recent post on Political Animal pretty much sums up the situation–and the inability or unwillingness of the media to cover it accurately:

To make better predictions about electoral politics, traditional pundits need to look in the mirror and revise their assumptions about the electorate. Americans in both parties are afraid for their futures and fed with up the current system, the Republican Party has become far more extreme on the right than the Democratic Party on the left, and the GOP electorate specifically is far more demographically isolated and less interested in small-government conservatism and far more driven by racial animus, authoritarianism and cultural backlash than most centrist pundits care to admit.

Despite all the abuse aimed at the “lame stream media” and its perceived bias, most traditional media reporters and pundits have a deep-seated urge to be seen as “playing fair”—to focus on conflict, yes, but to avoid any impression that they are playing favorites. That determination leads to what has been called false equivalence: party A does something truly awful, and when party B does something wrong that most of us would consider far less troubling, the reporter paints them as equally wrongheaded. “They both do it.”

But they aren’t equivalent.

The truth is that today’s GOP bears virtually no resemblance to the party I worked for for 35 years.In 1980, I won a Republican Congressional primary; I was pro-choice, pro separation of church and state, pro public education. That would never happen today. Today’s Republican party is dominated by inflexible ideologues and proud know-nothings; it has become home to unashamed racists and would-be theocrats. The flaws of the Democrats—and there are many—pale in comparison.

There have been other times in America’s history when one or another party has “gone off the rails.” We can only hope that we are seeing the crest of this particular wave of paranoia and anti-intellectualism. (Kasich–arguably the only sane Republican candidate– did come in second.) But we can’t defeat the forces of fear and reaction unless we name them for what they are—unless we stop pretending that this is just another instance of “politics as usual.”

It isn’t. It’s ugly and it’s very, very dangerous.

The Death of Thoughtfulness?

A Minnesota colleague whose insights I respect, has an academic blog. Recently, he shared a post in which he summarized an aspect of contemporary life that keeps many of us up at night; he titled it “The Death of Thoughtfulness.”

As we watch an increasingly bizarre Presidential campaign–dominated on the Right by authoritarian know-nothings to whom the term “thoughtful” would never be applied and on the Left by voters impatient with complexity —his essay seems especially pertinent.

The post was lengthy, and I encourage readers to click through, but these paragraphs seemed to me to capture the essence of his—and my—concern:

The world is not black and white but it  is lived in shades of gray.  Solutions to America’s or world problems are not as simple as just send in the marines, cut taxes, or carpet bomb.  There are no silver bullets to fix the economy, bring about world peace, or eliminate poverty.  We live in a complex world with complex problems and understanding both and possible solutions require thoughtfulness about recognizing the limits of any one idea or policy proposal.

Yet simple-minded dogmatism is what sells.  Recently I attended a conference  of student college journals.  One of the speakers was a representative from a major media news service.  When one of the students asked how they could get more media attention for their journal the response from the news service was simple: Take a point of view and press it no matter what, even if extreme.  The advice was that to be successful you had to have a simple, clear perspective and argue it to the extreme.  It was not about being thoughtful or making clear careful distinctions–just take a position and advocate it, facts be damned.

The question we face—and by “we” I mean the whole world, including but not limited to the United States—is whether polities dominated by people demanding bumper-sticker solutions to complex and often highly technical problems can recapture what my colleague calls “thoughtfulness” and I would label intellectual humility.

When a United States Senator brandishes a snowball and claims it refutes climate change, when a candidate for the highest office in the land blithely promises to “carpet bomb” nations with which we are adverse, when outrage and pompous machismo are said to be signs of strength while considered, rational approaches to policy are sneeringly dismissed as evidence of weakness….we’re in trouble.

Big trouble.

A Perverse Idea Whose Time Has Definitely Not Come

I think I’ve written before about how profoundly stupid this is. But I may have neglected to mention that it is also perverse.

And I was shocked to see a Brookings Institute “report” seemingly endorsing it.

“It” is Income-Sharing Agreements (aka “indentured servitude”), currently being promoted by former Indiana Governor and current Purdue President Mitch Daniels as a private-sector remedy for the growing burden of student loan debt.

Income Share Agreements are an innovative tool that will, as I have argued elsewhere, allow students to finance college by selling “shares” in their future earnings. Graduates pay back in proportion to the pecuniary value they get from their degree. If the degree proves worthless, the students will pay little or nothing. If the degree is immensely valuable, then the students will pay back a lot. Either way, the payments are, by construction, affordable.

This is a great idea, if your definition of “education” is job training.

How many “investors” are going to finance that philosophy major’s education? How about the student pursuing a degree in English literature? Or romance languages? or basic scientific research that doesn’t promise a quick payoff, as opposed to training in   technologies that generate prompt turnarounds to satisfy consumerism?

Even for students in more “promising” fields, the plan doesn’t eliminate debt; it simply changes the identity of the creditor and the schedule of repayment.

Ultimately, this is one more step on the road to devaluing scholarly inquiry–one more bit of evidence (as if the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates wasn’t evidence enough) of the triumph of American anti-intellectualism.

If it can’t be monetized, it evidently isn’t worth knowing.

Reason and Its Rejection

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself–that is my doctrine.

To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.

Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.


A friend recently sent me these and several other quotes from Thomas Paine, and I was struck–once again– by how far we Americans have come from the insights of the Enlightenment and the basic, foundational principles and values that motivated so many of this country’s founders.

Last night, there was another debate among people aspiring to occupy the Oval Office, and anyone trying to evaluate their fitness for that position had to be appalled.

When did we lose sight of the essential role of reason in human affairs? When did we allow fear to overcome logic, distrust of “the other” to trump recognition of our common humanity? When did expertise and intellect become suspect, nuance and ambiguity a threat, moderation and intellectual modesty evidence of cowardice?

And the million-dollar question: can Americans recapture reason and sanity? Or is our country going to spectacularly self-destruct?