Friday, July 23, 2004

I listened to a young woman ask Rush one day about all the immoral behavior among twenty-somethings.  She thought he ought to upbraid parents for not dutifully teaching youngsters about good morals.  But Rush disagreed and went on a fifteen minute rant about how public school teachers are ruining the nation's youngsters.  Hmpf!  A few months later, I was making calls to Dean supporters to announce Dean's visit on Jeff Smith's behalf.  I told one woman I called that he taught at Wash. U., and she said, "So he's smart; that's good."  With that much encouragement, I mentioned his being co-valedictorian at Ladue High School and Phi Beta Kappa.  "Better and better," the woman said.
I thought about these different attitudes toward education as I read the chapter on anti-intellectualism in What's the Matter with Kansas?" "Anti-intellectualism  is one of the grand unifying themes" of what Thomas Frank calls the "backlash"--hatred of liberalism among socially conservative lower classes.  He says that Rush Limbaugh considers himself a "symbol of 'middle America's growing rejection of the elites,' by which he means 'professionals' and 'experts' including 'the medical elites, the sociology elites, the education elites, the legal elites, the science elites ... and the ideas this bunch promotes through the media.'"  That statement, by the way, offers a clue as to how conservatives could possibly see the media as liberal.  Every article on what this or that research study shows--and, therefore, how we ought to change our attitudes because of what THEY say!--is further proof of liberal bossiness.
How did this happen, this scorn for what David Brooks calls "'Resume` Gods'"?  Frank offers a short history lesson on the subject:
Anti-intellectualism in its present form can be dated back to the thirties, when President Roosevelt turned a flock of college professors loose on the economic structure of the nation.  Intellectuals designed the New Deal's regulatory apparatus, they set up Social Security, they did studies and wrote reports, all of which was regarded by the business community of the time as inexcusable and arrogant meddling with the rights of private property.
A second anti-intellectual efflorescence came in the fifties, when U.S. senator Joe McCarthy led his Republican rebels in unearthing a leftist conspiracy that involved not some radicalized proletariat but instead an assortment of spoiled ingrates born to the highest-ranking families and educated at the finest universities:  condescending intellectuals like Alger Hiss, the upper-class, Harvard-educated New Dealer who may well have been a Soviet spy.  Whittaker Chambers wrote that when he made his famous accusation against Hiss, he exposed a "jagged fissure" running "between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think, and speak for them.  ...
This was a fairly novel suggestion at the time.  The intellectuals were the ones betraying capitalism, while the working class--once the object of conservative dread--was standing tall for the American way.  Thanks to endless repetition in the decades since then, however, this vision has become common sense, something we all know instinctively.

Frank pretends we dislike intellectuals "instinctively", but he made me wonder:  Do people in most cultures tend to mistrust those who are obviously intelligent?  The Chinese and Japanese don't seem to.  Is scorn of eggheads just an American eccentricity?  If so, call me un-American because I respect people who are more intelligent than I, especially if they use their smarts for the common good--as Jeff Smith and Howard Dean do.


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