Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Anti-Intellectualism in America: Concern or Hype?

The issue of anti-intellectualism evidently has a long history in this country, originally documented by author Richard Hofstadtler in his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter's book provides a unique insight into a historical malignancy that's still growing in this country(e.g. FOX News, plus talk radio) . The increasing dumbing down of the populace- fed by corporate-consumer swill and puff pieces that substitute for real news- combined with a metastasizing and narrow-minded fundamentalist religiosity, has served to spawn at least two generations of anti-intellectuals.

One of the best insights into hatred of the American intellectual is provided in the Hofstadtler account of how Adlai Stevenson was relentlessly skewered ca. the 1952 presidential campaign. (Cf. pp. 221-22). This included barbarous and savage verbal assaults by the media(p. 225). As Hofstadter notes (ibid.) Stevenson's wit was detested even more than his intellect. Of course, wit functions in the service of intellect, to amplify intellect's intent and render its goals more efficacious. Or to smooth the delivery of information related to weighty issues. For this Adlai was repeatedly slandered and referred to as a "comedian" or "clown" and portrayed in cartoons with a jester's cap and bells. The New York Daily News (cf. p. 227) once referred to him as "Adelaide" and charged that he "trilled his speeches in a fruity voice."

Thereby rendering an additional slur - one that directly ties intellectual display or wit with homosexuality. The same media reinforced this by the description of his followers as "typical Harvard lace-cuff liberals." At lower levels of society today, this pernicious virus can still be seen - in our public high schools. There, day in and day out "geeks", "dweebs" and "dorks" are relentlessly assaulted by feeble-minded "jocks" for openly displaying any intellect. Many are also accused of being "gay" simply because they prefer the life of the mind and books- to football, gang hijinks, mailbox 'baseball' or cow-tipping.

But where Hofstadter was really dead-on was in tying this inherent hatred of intellect to close-minded religiosity. As he points out (p. 133):

"There seems to be such a thing as the generically-prejudiced mind. Studies of political tolerance and ethnic prejudice have shown that zealous church-going and rigid religious faith are among the most important correlates of political and ethnic animosity."

No wonder little has changed.

These are points I've emphasized in the introductory chapters of my own recent books: 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook', and 'Dialectical Atheism'. In both books, I reference what Richard Dawkins once called "mind viruses" to show how this sort of phenomenon is spread. Of course, an anti-intellectual culture provides fertile soil for the virus. And we behold its infectious power as Christian (and other) fundamentalisms spread world wide- while more moderate forms of religion lose followers.

Part of the reason may also be loss of critical thinking functions. This is ramped up in a society brainwashed 24/7 by a deformed, consumption-driven news cycle and its assorted array of powder puff pieces - which thirty years ago wouldn't be accepted into the most rank tabloid.

This loss of critical thinking and the ability to see moral gray areas are part and parcel of the same phenomenon, As Hofstadter notes (p. 135):

"The fundamentalist mind will have nothing to do with all this: it is essentially Manichean, it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan) and can tolerate no ambiguities."

This point was thoroughly reinforced in a recent interview with Biologist Richard Dawkins who observed crisply (in regard to the audience for his latest book):

"No, I'm not really aiming it at creationists. I don't think they read books anyway, except for one book."

Which is an astute point. The average creationist-fundie is so wedded to his or her simplified outlook he or she can't be bothered to read anything outside it. Hence, I doubt the average fundamentalist reads one (other) book every five years, far less anything else (even newspapers). Why should they?

Thus there is a 'payoff' - albeit a regressive one- in being fundie. One can have the satisfaction of knowing he'll sit on the right side of his deity while all the heathens or infidels burn forever. So, he can watch as a spectator. Plus, in this life, he can walk around in the smug knowledge that all those outside his fundie orbit are "unsaved". The price, of course, is that he emerges as an untutored moron on most subjects - for which he simply adopts the words or others in his assorted jeremiads, e.g. against "Darwinian evolution".

No wonder then I have never ever encountered a single fundamentalist who's actually read The Origin of Species. Again, why should they when Genesis has all their answers? Hence, the anti-intellectual stance of the fundamentalist.

This is also perhaps why Bush & Co. - during their lawless reign, invented the term "axis of evil" in their advertising campaign to wage an endless war across the globe. By invoking this black-white term along with "crusade" and "evil doers" - they instantly transformed our side to the cause of the just and good. Everyone else "not on our side" , is fodder for "regime change" or at least being labeled as part of the "axis of evil". Simple black and white logic, not very different from the fundamentalist 'my way of the highway to Hell' syndrome. In each case, serious intellectual contemplation is junked, cut off at the pass.

The beauty of it is that the architects of this Manichean claptrap know from the get-go that millions of the weaker-minded will buy into it, like they buy into everything else they see or hear on TV. They've already been dumbed down and Pavlovian- trained as indiscriminate consumers by the ad-hocracy and corporatocracy.

So, what Hofstadter showed is that prejudice, religious mania and fundamentalism as well as absence of critical thinking are all of a piece in American Anti-Intellectualism. And further, that this hasn't changed in nearly forty-six years (from the time the first edition came out). All that's happened is that anti-intellectualism now assumes more varied and sophisticated guises. But it is seen at many more levels of the whole society, beyond even the business enclave Hofstadter pillories as well (Chapter IX, 'Business and Intellect').

Hofstadter, however, couldn't capture the spread of this mind hostility over time, because it effectively ceased scrutiny ca. 1962-63. Therefore, if one is to more clearly perceive the evolution of anti-intellectualism in the USA a new source must be added- after one has read Hofstadter. The ones I most heartily recommend as the optimum follow-up is 'Twilight of American Culture' by Morris Berman (W.W. Norton, 2000), and The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein.

Bauerlein's book is important because it reveals how a whole generation of youth (Generation Y'er, etc.) are being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance, and their addiction to digital crap via Twitter, Facebook, etc. Wasting time when they ought to be deverloping their minds by accessing the (written) works for politics, science, history, economics etc. (And no, as the author notes, getting your info online will not do. For one thing, you can't be sure how much of a book has been bowdlerized in its transfer to digital format)

Meanwhile, Berman's effort not only paints the warp and woof of our national dumbing down, in culture, media and everything else- but solutions to at least slow it. These are in his Chapter 4, 'The Monastic Option in the Twenty-First Century', wherein he recommends intellectuals of all stripes strive to preserve what was best in our culture - including all other works of art and science. And to do this in preparation for a new 'dark age' - which we can already see encroaching on the horizon. (Sarah Palin 2012 presidency anyone?)

An age already marked by deformed "laws" (e.g. 'Patriot Act')that permit government to access one's library reading records without having to disclose it was done. An age marked also by increasing 'synopsis' of books into computer format. Mere gutted shadows of the originals. And an age where students no longer earn their grades, but go to net sites to pay for homework assignments already down. Not realizing or appreciating this doesn't constitute learning.

Oh, and a large and growing segment of people who still accept the Earth is 6,000 years old and we all came from "Adam and Eve"

1 comment:

janidebar said...

You really nailed these fundy dopes, copernicus! I just checked your brother's blog and see his latest lunacy is accusing atheists of believing we all originated from "King Kong"! (E.g. apes). As anyone with an IQ over room temp. knows, evolution says nothing of the sort but that we evolved *with apes* from a common ancestor. I guess it's too complex for the simple minds of fundys to grasp.

Btw, is it Hofstadter or Hofstadler? I notice you have used 2 different spellings. Just wondering.

Very good blog article and shows exactly what's wrong in this country.