Day 850: When Society Slaps Back At The Intelligentsia

originally published April 29, 2014

The dumbing-down mentality within our popular culture is so pervasive, even those at the bottom of the intellectual food chain are aware it’s happening. Lest you worry that this will turn into a kvetch-laden rant about the Grand Media Conspiracy, let me assure you that we are doing this to ourselves. We are collectively opting to pour more of our time into formulaic singing competitions like The Voice and American Idol than into listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the mysteries of the universe on Cosmos.

And that’s fine – I’m not here to place myself on a pedestal of intellectual lucidity and preach to the unwashed masses who while away their hours watching the lowbrow hijinks on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Hell, I’m one of those people; that show is deviously hilarious. And while I don’t believe it’s an obligation to devote one’s recreational boob-tubery solely to educational pursuits and high art, I think overall we can do a little better.

To be honest, I’m more concerned about dumbing-down as it applies to the greater threat of anti-intellectualism – a form of outright discrimination against those who over-emphasize their think-muscles. It’s frustrating to consider that Avril Lavigne’s insipid Kitty song is going to earn her more money than Sharon Jones will make off her brilliant new album, but when anti-intellectualism is allowed to become policy, we are in serious trouble.

So why the hate for intellectuals? Is it jealousy? Hypocrisy? A deep-seeded loathing for free-form jazz and prog-rock? The most sensible answer I could find was a disdain for the abject disconnect between the intellectual’s calculated ideal and the world of realistic application. To put it bluntly, unless the intellectual has gotten their hands dirty at some point, they don’t really know the whole story. It’s one thing to design an elaborate factory, tweaked to the last dusty micron to produce at maximum efficiency for an unheralded profit, but quite another to actually toil in that factory, and to experience how soul-sucking and physically exhausting that “brilliant design” can be.

A professor who screws up on the job, who spouts out bogus information or incomplete lessons, isn’t likely to get fired or even disciplined for this. Yet a doctor who accidentally slips with his scalpel is likely to be facing the double-barrels of a malpractice suit. Historian Paul Johnson wrote an entire book on the questionable leadership of intellectuals, pointing out numerous faulty policies they have championed.

For much of the world, intellectualism is an even greater threat, in particular to those in power who would prefer to stay there.

If you’re running a dictatorship, the intellectuals are probably going to be the ones who try to sell you on the wonders of democracy. When you don’t listen, they’re probably going to be the ones who start rallying together an underground movement to oppose (and eventually overthrow) you. They’re the ones you’ve got to get rid of first.

When the Khmer Rouge plopped their dictatorial butts down in Kampuchea in the late 70’s, it became policy to kill any potential opponent with more than an elementary school education. Juan Carlos Onganía’s regime in Argentina in the mid 60’s went after university faculties, banishing anyone with the brains to know whether or not Juan was altogether on the level. But that’s common sense, right? A typical corrupt dictator doesn’t want to be ousted by a smarter (and potentially more corrupt) agitator. So why the anti-intellectual bias in this part of the world, where we should know better?

The Pat Buchanan / David Horowitz types are happy to label schools and universities as intellectualist, despite the fact that both those men have at least two degrees apiece. The talking heads on the far right throw the word ‘intellectual’ at their political foes like it was an insult or a swear word. They breathe the word with an unveiled contempt, calling someone a ‘liberal intellectual’ with the same scowling tone they’d use if they were calling that person a ‘baby-smacking cunt-pickle’. This is what I’ll never understand – how questioning, critiquing and exploring alternatives is the equivalent to blasphemy and pedantry.

Physicist Alan Sokal decided to puncture a few holes in the academic balloon when he submitted a paper filled with inaccuracies and nonsensical conclusions to Duke University’s Social Texts journal, just to see if they’d print it. They did, of course – Sokal was careful to ensure that the paper was well-written and that it propped up the university’s prevailing preconceptions. I don’t see this as a big coup for the anti-intellectuals however; if anything it’s a clever piece of academic performance art, designed to remind us to keep questioning, even if the answers come from the intellectuals’ camp.

Economist Thomas Sowell makes a good point about the origins of anti-intellectualism in America: the original Americans were a bunch of rebels who had fled persecution and mistreatment at the hands of the educated upper class. One could argue that America was founded on anti-intellectualism – after all, it took hands-on skills to survive in the new world. But I tend to believe that a certain amount of intellectual brilliance was necessary to conclude that paying heaps of taxes to a kingdom in which they had no representation wasn’t right.

It seems as though a number of critics of intellectualism tend to differentiate between the intellectual and the person who can actually get stuff done, as though the two camps consist of independent circles on a Venn diagram. This is the problem that shows its ugly, pimply head wherever discrimination is present: the need to classify people or ideologies into easily-definable, rigid and intentionally hate-able group labels. The distinctions have never been that clear.

In 19th-century America, manual labor and a physical rural life were the norm, yet popular culture was markedly… smarter than it is today. People read Shakespeare and Homer for fun – I don’t mean the lawyers and the bankers and the professors… the classics were the joy-juice of the everyman and everywoman. But that was different; the ideal American back then was self-made, hard-working and chock full of life experience (not academic experience), yet he or she would still dig Shakespeare because the stories were great.

I grew up at the tail-end of the era in which being a ‘geek’ was an insult. We read our comic books, programmed lengthy BASIC games into our Apple IIe’s and went away to astronomy camp (hell yeah!), but we did so with the knowledge that we were the outcasts. Now geek is chic, and while the kids who score the highest on an exam are in no danger of earning the lion’s share of the popularity for it, being smart out loud isn’t quite as much of a social sin.

I may work a grunt-ish job in a room that stinks of printer toner, dusty old paper and the incurable B.O. of that one co-worker who can’t seem to navigate the intricacies of a deodorant stick, but dammit I’ll fight the fight against anti-intellectualism with everything I’ve got. Intellectuals may not have all the answers (or all the right experience), but they are deserving of praise, not scorn.

Oh, and people: please quit telling me to watch The Big Bang Theory. A show about nerdy people does not mean it’s an intelligently-written comedy.

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