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On Anti-Intellectualism

Worth a read:  Richard Hofstadter and America’s New Wave of Anti-Intellectualism.

it is interesting to note how much of the conversation in contemporary America is not that different from the mid-20th century or so.

On quotable passage that struck me:

Gore Vidal defined an intellectual as “someone who can deal with abstractions.” Does the mediocrity of the job market mean that America no longer needs people who deal with abstractions? Only someone already painfully unable to deal with abstraction would draw such a suicidal conclusion.

Indeed.  It is one of the reasons our policy debates are so anemic.

(I will say his suggestion to call “liberal arts” the “liberty arts” struck me as kinda silly).

Related Posts:

About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I date the current resurgence in anti-intellectualism to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 “peasants with pitchforks” speech. He was considerably helped along the way by Rush Limbaugh, who once praised the late Tom Clancy as “our greatest American novelist,” and who is openly contemptuous of “intellectuals,” whom he seems to equate with child molesters.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    As I’ve suggested in my many posts on Visualcy, moving towards a post-literate society, one that relies more on visual communication, i.e. television, videos, images, charts, etc., has cognitive implications. Just as the transition from oral society to literate society lead to the development of abstract thought and non-agonistic modes of discourse, I think that the transition from literate to post-literate may result in a decline in abstract thought and more agonistic modes of discourse.

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  3. grumpy realist says:

    I consider an intellectual someone who plays with ideas and theories–and if presented with data showing his theory to be wrong—will think “hmmm, maybe my theory is wrong” rather than throwing out the data.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2

  4. DrDaveT says:

    I see a handful of trends that are exacerbating the problem. Some are probably self-limiting; others are not.

    1. The periodic oscillation of religious zeal (which goes back centuries) is near its peak in the US. All of these Great Revivals have an anti-intellectual component, because they are driven by emotion and are a response (in part) to real problems caused (in part) by the intellectuals of the previous down-cycle. Anyone who reads the rhetoric of the ‘scientific’ social revolution around 1900 will be rightly horrified at both the insane overconfidence in what ‘science’ can do and the blithe willingness to embark on programmes like eugenics on the basis of what we today would not call science at all.

    2. Part of what the current oscillation is rebelling against is Postmodernism, in which a substantial fraction of the paid intellectuals in the West abdicated, and started preaching that science is imperialism, knowledge is impossible, and all opinions are equal. This is, to a remarkable degree, exactly the position of the ancient Sophists, complete with similar bafflegab. No wonder ordinary people (and scientists!) lost faith in ‘intellectuals’.

    3. As a feedback mechanism, our democratic institutions do not serve us well when people in general favor irrationalism.

    4. As Dave Schuler notes, there may be a postliteracy thing going on. Grumpy old man that I am, I’m still not entirely sold on this — reading is still the key skill for a huge portion of our economy. I’m more worried by the No Child Permitted Ahead trend in education, which aims to make all students equally mediocre. Our economic progress and stature have historically been driven by the accomplishments of our outliers, not by the median accomplishment. In order to make sure that everyone can read a book, we’re getting rid of the parts of education that set students on a course to write books worth reading.

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  5. john personna says:

    Well, the worst examples of anti-intellectualism I can think of in recent years both come from Rick Santorum:

    “We will never have the elite smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do”

    “if you go to our schools and particularly our colleges and universities, they are indoctrinated in a sea of relativism and a sea of antagonism towards Christianity.”

    Those both define a value-network, a group of ideas that hang together for their own self-preservation. Basically education undermines insular fundamentalism, and so education and intellectualism is the enemy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

  6. john personna says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that those cycles of fundamentalism come on turns of centuries and millenniums.

    They may not have talked about the year 2000, but the “end times” sure got popular in that era.

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  7. Of course, political science is a hotbed of intellectual rigor.

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  8. john personna says:

    (When did “left behind” fiction peak? Pretty close to Y2K, right?)

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  9. john personna says:

    @DrDaveT:

    On #2, perhaps we need three divisions:

    - anti-intellectuals
    - intellectuals
    - charlatans

    The last a good word unfortunately out of use.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Jim Henley says:

    First, Steven inspired me to Storify a bunch of thoughts on this, with particular application to the Iraq War.

    Second, it’s become a bad joke that conservatives (mostly) used to rag on postmodernism for “preaching that science is imperialism, knowledge is impossible, and all opinions are equal” given that conservatism now rejects settled science on evolution and climate change, demeans science as a kind of “socialist imperialism” in service to the political aim of Big Government, increasingly resorts to “Were you there?” as a retort to the product of scientific endeavor – flatly implying that many kinds of scientific knowledge are indeed impossible – and, yes, considers the opinion of talk show hosts, megachurch pastors and (at best) engineers from unrelated fields as fully the equal of the most accepted conclusions of biologists, cosmologists and climate researchers.

    Third, this is all excuse-making in a game of political-economy musical chairs. Status quo apologists used to say US-style capitalism worked for everyone. As working-class incomes began to stagnate or decline they said “Of course, you need an education.” As income begins to stagnate and wealth declines for even most people with college degrees, they now say, “Well of course your education can’t be in some useless field.” Like, you know, “useless fields” that graduated people into productive and well-remunerated jobs for decades.

    Law school was once acknowledged as a “practical” course but – oh look at that – suddenly unemployment is high and downward wage pressure strong for lawyers, so of course we ridicule people for “foolishly” majoring in law rather than something “useful.” Now the apologists blather on about STEM and “learning to code.” The latter particularly is vulnerable to offshoring, and the former doesn’t actually have super-high rates of job vacancies. Within a decade, we’ll be told to laugh at the dreamy fools who majored in silly stuff like “butterfly proteins” and “countable infinities” and “programs any Laotian can write for dollars a day” instead of something practical like, well, what will be left? Accounting? Business Communications?

    Anti-intellectualism is just how our oligarchs and their mouthpieces defend and further the concentration of wealth, in a couple of ways. They ridicule the victims of their economic management as somehow responsible for being on the losing end of it. And they delegitimize and defund their most eloquent critics. Don’t fall for the spiel.

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    @john personna:

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that those cycles of fundamentalism come on turns of centuries and millenniums.

    That would be an interesting observation if it were true, but it isn’t. Right around 1900 was a lull in religious fervor. The reaction came later, much of it not until the 1950s (though Chesterton and others were ahead of the curve).

    The various “Great Awakenings” in the US happened around 1730-40, 1800 (there you go), and 1850-60.

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  12. @john personna: Indeed, a colleague of mine studies millenarian movements (although internationally, not in the US).

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  13. Woody says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I’d add the increasingly popular view that efficiency is an end in itself (much like money, whoch is itself an efficiency).

    ROI is now the sole evaluation of business (Tim Cook notwithstanding).

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  14. @Let’s Be Free: Indeed. Thanks for the validation.

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  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    The problem I have with the notion that we are becoming post-literate is that I’m being paid a frankly absurd amount of money to write 500 page books for teenagers. Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins are making quite a bit more doing the same, and guys like Andrew Smith are creating actual literary Major Works for the same audience. When millions of teenagers in the midst of an economic downturn are not only willing but excited to spend $18 for a 500 page book, I don’t see illiteracy there.

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  16. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, I’d add that kids today are shunning vocal communication (phone calls) in favor of texting and Tweeting, both of which require not just reading and writing but editing.

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  17. john personna says:

    @DrDaveT:

    There seems to be a bit of a 1900 cluster on this doomsday list

    (My recollection was probably based on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Halley’s Comet incidents in 1910)

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  18. grumpy realist says:

    Actually, it’s not just conservatives who can’t stand post-modernists–scientists can’t either. (As is seen by Sokal’s mischievous spoofing of the whole area by sending a paper filled with gobbledygook to one of their journals and getting it published.)

    Me, I blame it on the French and the lovely rolling sonorities one can so easily write in that language. Throw in enough verbs in the imperfect subjunctive and you, too, can pretend that you are Racine!

    The average French intellectual, however, knows better than to take people like Lacan seriously.

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  19. Pinky says:

    On the other hand…the article was written by a scholar of the works of John Mellencamp.

    There’s a difference between being anti-intellect and anti-intellectual. The former is opposed to increasing knowledge; the latter is opposed to those who claim to be the custodians of knowledge. Just like I’ve known many people who are anti-environmentalist, but I’ve never met anyone who’s anti-environment. And, incidentally, is Santorum wrong? Does anyone see the current gatekeepers rushing toward the conservative movement? It’s easy to make fun of his statement, but it matches with the facts.

    I don’t recall where I read it, but someone smart said that the scientific revolution taught us the wrong lesson. It should have taught us to be humble, because firmly-held beliefs, even those thought to be proven, can eventually be shown to be wrong. Instead it taught us to be proud, led us to thinking that a small group of experts can know what’s best. Anti-intellectualism at its best stands up against the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of learning, and if it takes the post-modernists and Mellencamp scholars down a notch, so be it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 15

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @Pinky:

    The Right doesn’t just reject intellectuals, it rejects reality. So-called conservatives want schools to stop teaching evolution. That’s not a rejection of elites, it’s an open embrace of ignorance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  21. @Pinky:

    On the other hand…the article was written by a scholar of the works of John Mellencamp.

    Yes, I noticed that (and wondered how long before someone commented). But let’s ask: so what? What if at the end his bio said he was a physicist? Would that change you mind? What if he wrote about an artist you found to be serious?

    Why is this a reason to get snide about the column? How does it change the rightness or wrongness of his position?

    because firmly-held beliefs, even those thought to be proven, can eventually be shown to be wrong.

    If you think that the scientifically minded (or even the intellectually-minded) don’t understand this fact, then I would suggest that you really don’t understand the concepts.

    Anti-intellectualism at its best stands up against the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of learning, and if it takes the post-modernists and Mellencamp scholars down a notch, so be it.

    To be honest, this just sounds likes a snarky non sequitur.

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  22. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If you think that the scientifically minded (or even the intellectually-minded) don’t understand this fact, then I would suggest that you really don’t understand the concepts.

    Sorry, Steven, I have to call you on this one. I’ve read far too many articles by scientists that say things along the lines of “We used to be stupid enough to believe X, but we now know that Y”, where Y is either some feature of a model not directly verifiable by observation, or is an axiom of a particular school of inquiry. I also know too many physicists who think the point of physics is to discover the true nature of reality (as opposed to good predictive models of reality), and who put e.g. General Relativity into the category of “now known to be true”.

    And it was even worse before Kuhn deflated the worst of the gas bags, bless him. It’s not hard to see why the postmodernists thought he was on their side.

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  23. Jim Henley says:

    @Pinky: Masciotra is a libertarian, so I’m sure he’s got all sorts of iffy ideas, but there’s no reason why one shouldn’t be “a scholar of the works of John Mellencamp.” It’s hilarious that you write as if it’s self-evidently true that that’s a bad thing.

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  24. @DrDaveT: Do some people get overly wedded to their views and theories? Of course. But is that behaving scientifically? No.

    Also note: I was directly responding to a specific claim by Pinky: ” the scientific revolution taught us the wrong lesson”

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  25. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    And, incidentally, is Santorum wrong?

    Santorum: “We will never have the elite smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do”
    “if you go to our schools and particularly our colleges and universities, they are indoctrinated in a sea of relativism and a sea of antagonism towards Christianity.”

    Well, where in those statements is Santorum right? Santorum He is a member of the elite me mocks, and he definitely wants like-mided social conservatives to have the power to tell people what to do, how to live a good Catholic/Christian life (even as his wife is availing herself of a late-term abortion in a tragic circumstance.)
    Indoctrination with respect our universities? Coming from a strong Catholic, that’s damned funny.

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  26. john personna says:

    @Pinky:

    Do intellectuals believe in or accept “gatekeepers?”

    Seems to me that is a way to stand outside and declare your own “otherness.”

    While intellectuals, recognizing no such authorities have great battles of ideas.

    Santorum wants to play that “otherness” to insulate his tribe from the whole of science and learning, which is horrific.

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  27. anjin-san says:

    I’ve never met anyone who’s anti-environment.

    Yet the world is somehow horribly polluted…

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  28. anjin-san says:

    @Pinky

    the latter is opposed to those who claim to be the custodians of knowledge.

    But apparently you are in charge of deciding which musical works are worthy of serous study.

    On the other hand…the article was written by a scholar of the works of John Mellencamp.

    Another day, another perfectly good irony meter blow to hell.

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  29. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Do some people get overly wedded to their views and theories? Of course. But is that behaving scientifically? No.

    That’s nice, but your original claim was

    If you think that the scientifically minded (or even the intellectually-minded) don’t understand this fact, then I would suggest that you really don’t understand the concepts.

    I pointed out that, in fact, many of the scientifically-minded and/or intellectual do NOT, as it happens, “understand this fact”. I nevertheless think I’m pretty “clear on the concepts”, and that you are simply wrong here. It happens.

    If you had merely made a claim about what counts as “behaving scientifically”, I would not have commented. I might even have agreed. But you made two much broader claims, one a (false) claim about what scientifically-minded people and intellectuals all understand, and one impugning the thought of anyone who disagrees with that claim. Since you went out of your way to insult people who disagree with you, I decided to call you on it.

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  30. john personna says:

    @DrDaveT:

    No one ever said that science was able to transcend the human condition. Humans behave badly, and against rules, in every institution we cherish .. marriage, banking, medicine, you name it.

    It’s not a good argument in any one of those domains that bad actors damn the effort.

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  31. john personna says:

    Put differently, if Steven had said “the marriage minded,” I hope you would not immediately think of adulterers.

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  32. @DrDaveT:

    Part of what the current oscillation is rebelling against is Postmodernism, in which a substantial fraction of the paid intellectuals in the West abdicated, and started preaching that science is imperialism, knowledge is impossible, and all opinions are equal.

    Postmodernism is one of those “bogeyman” words lots of people use without actually knowing the definition of. It’s really just the assertion that meaning is not intrinsic and thus can only be understood as existing within a particular context. Indeed, things many conservative claim to endorse, like the originalist judicial theory, are a form of postmodernism; it asserts that the meaning of a particular law is dependent on the context in which it originated, and that the meaning of the words must be construed based on that context rather than any modern understanding of the words.

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  33. @Pinky:

    And, incidentally, is Santorum wrong?

    In my case, at least, it was not any of my professors that instilled anti-religious belief in me (as the subject never came up in any of my classes), but rather making the mistake of joining Campus Crusade for Christ for a semester. It was my first exposure to people like Santorum and my visceral disgust with them became the “hanging thread” that started the unraveling of the sweater of my theism.

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  34. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I feel really bad about your CCC experience–but have heard many other say similar things. Ironically, Bill Bright (how’s that for irony?) intended the young disciples of CCC to be the vanguard of a more intellectually-oriented and robust fundamentalist/evangelicalism. They were going to form the brain trust, if you will, of Evangelicalism. Funny how things like this go wrong, isn’t it? Bill Buckley had the same problem with one of his early batches of interns at NR.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  35. @DrDaveT:

    about what scientifically-minded people and intellectuals all understand

    A general claim of this type cannot be invalidated because counter-examples can be named.

    To repeat john personna:

    No one ever said that science was able to transcend the human condition. Humans behave badly, and against rules, in every institution we cherish .. marriage, banking, medicine, you name it.

    It’s not a good argument in any one of those domains that bad actors damn the effort.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  36. @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker:

    Well, it’s a bell that can’t be unrung at this point. Once you start thinking about what parts of Christian dogma are obviously wrong, you very quickly start wondering if any of it is obviously right. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  37. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:

    I’ve known many people who are anti-environmentalist, but I’ve never met anyone who’s anti-environment.

    I mean…to the extent that everyone requires an environment of some sort…maybe. But you cannot really be serious.
    You think the heads of coal companies cutting the tops off mountains are pro-environment?
    You think Sarah Palin ranting about drill-baby-drill is pro-environment?
    You think the Koch Brothers who release about 200,000 tons of CO2 annually and have committed pollution violations in 6 different states are pro-environment?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  38. CB says:

    @anjin-san:

    Silly anjin, youre supposed to categorize people by what they say, not what they do.

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  39. wr says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Now you’ve done it. Don’t you realize that “post-Modernism,” like “Socialism,” “Fascism,” and “Obama” is simply a word that means “stuff I’m scared of because I don’t understand it”? Or, since it’s used as a cudgel by the scions of the Right to keep its dimmer followers in check, “things you should be scared of because you don’t understand it.”

    It’s pretty uppity to supply an actual definition when all the right wants is another word for Satan.

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  40. wr says:

    @CB: “Silly anjin, youre supposed to categorize people by what they say, not what they do.”

    Which is why there’s no such thing as racism anymore.

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  41. grewgills says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    I didn’t have much problem with post-modernism as a tool for linguistic or literary criticism and like some of the theater and other art it inspired. It was when my wife went to grad school and I encountered groups of educated intellectuals wedded to post-modernism well beyond it’s usefulness that I became more disenchanted with its practice. Too often in practice it is simply lazy criticism of anything disagreed with.

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  42. Jim Henley says:

    For a period from the late 80s through the early 90s, the New Criterion – Motto: We are a fustier neocon culture journal than the American Scholar! – was a genuinely interesting magazine. They hated postmodernism and despised “the academy” and all its anti-American, relativist, situationist shibboleths.

    So of course what made the New Criterion interesting was: deconstruction! They applied the methods of post-structuralism to the works of the (broadly defined) Left. They teased out the aporias (what went unsaid); they situated the authors within their social context; the foregrounded the ideological fanservice in the narratives of progressive novelists and the rhetoric of radical poets. As I learned more literary criticism, I saw the humor in a magazine dedicated to the proposition that Penn Warren and Brooks’s New Criticism was “all ye know, and all ye need to know” about responding to literary works analyzing like Bigtime Dukies. But it was fun.

    For awhile. Then the Cold War ended and all they had to go on was Clinton hate, which simply will not sustain a culture mag, if what you’re interested in is culture.

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  43. DrDaveT says:

    @john personna:

    No one ever said that science was able to transcend the human condition.

    Well, except when they did. I take it you’ve never read much Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer, or other early 20th century English liberal agnostic thinkers? They (and their followers even moreso) said exactly that, on many occasions.

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  44. john personna says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I have not directly read Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. I would hope that they emphasized that the disciple can (indeed, obviously has) transcend the human condition. As opposed to every actor personally transcending.

    Merely the invention of vaccines transcended the human condition.

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  45. grumpy realist says:

    @wr: Well, having read some of the post-Modernists in the original (in all respects–a paper by Lacan in French came across my desk while i was in Japan—don’t ask) I have to say If I’m going to have to wade through rotundities and circumlocutions of the French philosophers, I’d much rather read Rabelais. He, at least, is great fun to read.

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