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November 6th, 2006

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12:53 am - Anti-Intellectualism
I had a fascinating discussion with Aaron today, where one of the topics was anti-intellectualism in the US. On the one hand, a distrust of higher learning and high culture has to some degree been present since the founding of the US, it goes along with the nation's Puritan heritage, combined with the early distrust of Europe and things European. However, it has gotten far worse in the last half of the 20th century.

I am hardly a fan of the 1950s, and generally consider it to have been a vile and deeply repressed and repressive era. However, one striking thing emerges when you look at popular culture in the 1950s – the general level of interest in and exposure to various bits of both science and high culture. Picasso, Freud, Einstein, and others were referred to regularly in movies, magazines, and popular novels of the era. The average media consumer was assumed to be to at least some degree interested in science, high culture, and current intellectual pursuits and achievements. Hitchcock movies are full of such references and they were wildly popular in this era. Consider wildly popular movies today – do you see any references to Stephen Hawking's theories, modern art, 20th century music, or anything similar. In fact, it's fairly clear that attempts to do so would swiftly relegate such a film to an art-house only audience.

So, I attempted to consider why this all changed. Clearly the changes happened somewhere between the 1950s and the 1980s (by which time they were all complete). I can see two obvious sources that likely worked together to make intellectual pursuits suspect in the US.

First consider Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare he created. Perhaps as an unconscious defense against the fact of his own deeply closeted homosexuality, McCarthy created an image of the "pinko", the communist sympathizing, effeminate, intellectual who was likely from the East or West Coast and probably Jewish, in short, everything that McCarthy wasn't. This image associating effeminacy, high culture, and dubious politics continues to this day, with all of the simultaneously laughable and terrifying right-wing portrayals of the "liberal media" and "liberal academics". So, suddenly intellectual pursuits are more suspect than they previously were, in addition to the previous associations with effeminacy (which were redoubled), they are now also associated with disloyalty and treason for many conservatives. However, one cannot place more than perhaps half the blame for this problem on conservatives.

Consider the 1960s. One of the central issues of the counter-culture was a distrust of authority, especially traditional authority. Naturally, this included politicians, but is also included scientists, and the art and literature of the West. While neopaganism flourished in the counter-culture, the New Age movement (which as I discuss in this post, effectively began in the late Victorian era) became far more popular. Eastern and (especially) pseudo-Eastern philosophy, art, and spirituality was suddenly the latest thing, while both traditional and contemporary Western art and literature became suspect because it was the work of the oppressors, or simply of "The Man". Simultaneously, both science and technology became objects of fear and distrust because they became associated with war, death, and perhaps most damning of all, Western Culture.

While I can see absolutely no good having come from the legacy of McCarthyism, the counter-culture derived spread of knowledge about other cultures, especially Eastern ones is obviously a good thing, but it has in part come at the expense of interest in a widespread interest in contemporary art and culture. Instead, far too many conservatives consider an interest in contemporary art and literature to be both unmanly and potentially disloyal and far too many liberals consider an interest in modern western art, literature, science, or technology to be evidence of sympathy with the oppressors. With pressure on both left and right that has been going on for more than 40 years, we now have a profoundly anti-intellectual culture where the mainstream public are assumed to have no interest in art, science, technology (beyond the latest flashy consumer gadgets), or literature. This trend is continuing to worsen, the percentage of Americans who "during the previous twelve months, they had read any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school)." declined by 7% from 1992 to 2002, which parallels similar decreases in past decades. Americans aren't reading fiction, they aren't reading non-fiction. Also, distrust in science and technology seems at an all-time high, both among conservatives (primarily fundys) and among progressives, with creationism, crackpot pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine, and similarly dubious endeavors being given equal weight as actual peer-reviewed research. I have no idea what to do about this, but I think I know what caused this overall trend, and perhaps that might be a useful step in reversing it.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 10:43 am (UTC)
Anti-intellectualism in the US started long before the 50s. There was anti-intellectualism here before there was a US. Calvinism and to an extent Protestanism as a whole is a very anti-intellectual theology: everyone has equal access to God, and therefore to the Truth; anyone who says they have better access or knows more is automatically suspect.

It wouldn't surprise me at all in the recent upswing in anti-intellectualism comes from the rise of religious fundamentalism. The fundamentalists certainly seemed to be at the forefront of the anti-politically correct movement, and in the general attack on academia.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 07:23 pm (UTC)
Anti-intellectualism in the US started long before the 50s.

Most definitely, but I think it became considerably worse after the combined attacks of the 50s & 60s.

It wouldn't surprise me at all in the recent upswing in anti-intellectualism comes from the rise of religious fundamentalism.

That's definitely much of the problem, but these days anti-intellectualism is also widespread among progressives who are most certainly not fundamentalists or inclined to agree with their agendas.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 02:55 pm (UTC)
I (we) have some thoughts on this, thanks to a late night with Skye and Sven. We should do dinner sometime. I'm booked next Saturday, however, unless you all want to come over for caffeine & food and meet Skye.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
I suppose in their own way intellectualists can be extremists. And extremists tend to get press :P. Most people aren't interested in radical change, and some intellectualists (won't name any names here >:P) advocate changes which most "reasonable" people view as flat out evil, based on ethics of moderation. In pursuing technology, maybe it is wise to be cautious; so much as it may be unpleasant for intellectuals and fundamentalists alike to be reigned in by the hesitancy of the unconvinced, at least the balance prevents drastic measures in either direction... we don't slide back into the dark ages, nor do we risk all by reckless technological progress.

Of course, if the very premise which the balancing majority follows is in conflict with the natural system, no about of "balance" is going to save us.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC)
I think there are lots of reasons for the rise of American anti-intellectualism, but there's one big one that most intellectuals don't care to look at: themselves. Most "intellectuals" regard working class and religious people with derision and contempt. Anti-intellectualism is merely the chickens coming home to roost. The reason so many people took umbrage at Kerry's "mis-speaking" is because they know that it was very close to the truth about the way members of the intellectual elite think about the military.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC)
When faced with a culture where the majority of mainstream people have no interest art, literature, science or technology beyond the latest gadget, or rarely even read a book. and such attitudes become exceedingly understandable.

My primary point though is that 50 years ago mainstream attitudes were different, and I see no evidence that the attitudes of intellectuals towards mainstream culture have grown worse in this time. It's also worth noting that the neocons who created the vileness that is the "Project For the New American Century" are also intellectuals. They very clearly have utter contempt for most Americans, including the mass of fundys who support their efforts and yet this has not turned the fundys against the neocons. So, I do not see little evidence that such attitudes are the result of the actions of the intellectuals, but are far more a result of efforts by both conservatives and progressives to dismiss intellectual pursuits as suspect.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 08:11 pm (UTC)
I think, in many ways, a modern person is more engaged on many fronts, intellectually, culturally, politically, emotionally. The word is a challenging place. And one of the things that makes it challenging is the crashing waves of extremism, often led by a vanguard of intellectual or pseudo-intellectual accusation. I think, at the end of the day, the average mind is simply tired. In my view, people used to popularly embrace the causes and ideas of the day because a) the culture was more homogeous, and b) they could be excused with an entirely superficial understanding of their ideological bedrock.

Nowadays, there is less gentility, more skepticism, less security, more relativism, less agreement, more polemicism.

I wouldn't say we're living in an anti-intellectual era per se, but simply an extremely rude era which does not excuse intellectual interest as an arena for rudeness.

I don't think comparisons of specific media are the helpful... Harlequin romances, vaudeville, dime detective novels, and country cookbooks are hardly "intellectual" in the sense of challenging. Nowadays, people own more computers, are more likely to attend college, are more willing to challenge educated "experts" and conventional wisdom, and at least realize that Islam is a monotheistic religion (as a child, the media gave me the impression that Muslims worshipped some foreign devil god named Allah).

Kids these days know that in space no one can hear you scream, oil comes from dinosaurs, and humans are alleged to have descended from apes.

In part, our lack of appreciation for Shakespeare, Stephen Hawking, and Thomas Jefferson can be traced directly back to the 1950s era of intellectual idolotry. Information was confused with understanding, and statistics with learning, and the result is the current situation with the SAT and the ACT and the TEKKS and TACS and all the rest. The meatiest parts of our education have been replaced by test preparation.

The reason the American essay is in decline is because rapid communications have reduced the daily need for it and American education has abandoned the cultural treasure of our language in favor of "standards" devised by technocrats. The reason science education has declined is because of the vocational emphasis of high school and university education. That is, chemistry, biology and the like have become specializations, and hence outside practical use to the average person.
[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 10:20 pm (UTC)
Aha! I'm not the only one who noticed that people are getting stupider!
Because I can speak, read, and write the English language well, I got through school with nearly straight A's without much effort. In generations past, I would have barely passed my clases (I've looked at courses taken 100 years ago compared to the college prep stuff I took. Their stuff was MUCH harder).

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