Fighting Back Against Anti-intellectualism

We shouldn't rely on intellectuals to eradicate anti-intellectualism

Posted Jun 28, 2015

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
Source: Photo by Gage Skidmore

My last post, Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America, spotlighted the problem of anti-reason in American society, pointing out that it is widespread and doing much harm. A few days after the piece was posted, as if on cue, Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal annouced his presidential candidacy, declaring that he wants to be "president of the greatest country in the world—the United States of America." Notorious for his anti-science policies, Jindal told his audience that "Christianity is under assault in America" and claimed to speak for the "millions of Americans who believe in God and are not ashamed to say so."

Indeed, for Jindal to say he is unashamed of his religion would be quite an understatement, considering he recently sponsored a public prayer rally to simultaneously promote his faith and his political ambitions. The race to the intellectual bottom, it seems, runs in unison with the race for the White House. 

If I weren't such a rationalist I might interpret these events as the universe speaking to me, telling me to supplement my post about rampant anti-intellectualism with another that discusses solutions to the problem. I reject such cosmic speculation, of course, but I'm thinking that a discussion of solutions might be a good idea anyway. If the Jindal candidacy validates my claims about American anti-intellectualism, it also calls out the need for a dialogue about how to address the problem.

Oftentimes when this issue is raised, a one-word solution is offered: education. Such a reply is understandable, but it’s also far too simplistic. If we are to truly conquer the formidable problem of anti-intellectualism, we need to take it much more seriously. We need to make an earnest effort to understand its underlying causes and what drives it. These and related issues are discussed in my latest book Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, but I’ll briefly cover some key points here.

First, let's rebut a common misperception about anti-intellectualism: that the only real opponents to anti-intellectualism are intellectuals. In fact, contrary to this elitist view, ordinary working men and working women are quite capable of recognizing the political idiocy, fear-based messaging, emotional manipulation, religious pandering, and other irrational tactics and actions that are commonplace in our anti-intellectual culture. In fact, especially in a democracy, the fight against anti-reason can ultimately be won only at the grassroots, via a general population that recognizes it, rejects it, and demands more rational public policy that reflects real human interests.

With this in mind, the primary role for intellectuals and activists in the fight against anti-intellectualism is simply to raise awareness among ordinary people of the existence of the problem and its cultural and political consequences. If it seems to average citizens that the system is rigged, serving large institutional interests rather than real humans, they need to realize that anti-intellectualism is a major reason why.

With awareness raised as such, the public will more often be on guard against anti-intellectualism and thus less vulnerable to it. Moreover, steps can then be taken to significantly curtail anti-intellectualism by confronting its main sources, four of which I'll discuss briefly below: (1.) the government; (2.) the corporate sector; (3) fundamentalist religion; and, very importantly, (4) ourselves.

The government promotes anti-intellectualism in numerous ways, but most notably through the utilization of fear and the glorification of patriotism and militarism. These phenomena have been used to instill obedience, secure power, and launch aggression throughout history, and certainly are not unique to America. What is uniquely American, compared to most other developed societies, is the degree to which our population seems to accept nationalistic notions of superiority. There are reasons for this, including the leadership role that the country has played politically, economically, and militarily for many years—a history that allows the government to easily stroke the collective ego and fuel the idea of American exceptionalism.

A more rational society would take pride in the positives that can be drawn from America’s history without becoming intoxicated with an irrational sense of superiority and righteousness, while also accepting the sobering negatives with some sense of objectivity and maturity. Unfortunately, by even making such a suggestion, I would immediately be labeled un-American by many self-described patriots.

The corporate sector promotes anti-intellectualism in even more ways than the government, for corporations are more multi-faceted and pervasive in everyday American life. The entire corporate sector, from large media companies to manufacturers and retailers, profits immensely from excessive consumption being a key characteristic of the American lifestyle, so this trait is propagated in the media and throughout the culture. Large military contractors, meanwhile, take great interest in promoting overzealous nationalism and patriotism, as well as fear of foreign enemies, because such sentiments facilitate large military budgets. The corporate sector also realizes that an entertained and poorly informed population is much less likely to engage in political activity that might oppose corporate-friendly public policy. Distracted citizens will passively allow large corporate interests to dominate government. As such, anti-intellectualism is the magic weapon that the corporate sector has used to maintain control.

A more rational society would understand corporations for what they are (and what they were once recognized as): self-interested institutions that are extremely wealthy, powerful, and amoral at best and immoral at worst—institutions that by their very nature must be controlled by real humans if there is to be any hope for rational, human-centered public policy. Instead, largely due to anti-intellectualism promoted via corporate influence, too many Americans actually believe, incorrectly, that restraining corporate power is un-American.

Fundamentalist religion is so obviously anti-intellectual that I won’t use much space discussing it here. Suffice it to say that a more rational society would have a smaller segment of the population believing that the universe is less than 10,000 years old, that evolution is a hoax, that climate change can be ignored because the Bible promises men dominion over the earth, and other anti-science notions.

And that leaves us with the last major source of anti-intellectualism: ourselves. Though humans are capable of reasoning, it is important to remember that rational thought is not our default setting. Instead, we are by our nature emotional and impulsive, frequently lazy, and interested in many activities other than critical thinking. To overlook this human reality when considering issues of anti-intellectualism—what it really is, how it affects society, and what can be done about it—would be a grave error.

Though space is limited here, the above groundwork points to where the analysis goes. First, note that three of the sources mentioned above—government, corporations, and religious fundamentalism—involve institutional power, whereas the last factor points inward at human vulnerabilities. What this tells us is that these various institutions, in pursuing their self-interest, will almost inevitably promote anti-reason, and that human audiences on the receiving end will be susceptible to it. Knowing this, it's little wonder that the political arena resembles a clown car, education policy gets lip service but little more, mindless consumption defines the culture, and the nation is in a state of fear that translates to a state of permanent war. 

This is not a promising situation, but there is hope. It lies in the fact that, under the right circumstances, humans are indeed capable of reason. That doesn't mean we must exalt reason to some quasi-religious status, but we should recognize its importance in modern life, especially in the crafting of public policy. But for reason to flourish, it is absolutely essential that the institutional interests that naturally promote anti-reason be properly controlled.

Also, but very importantly, we should realize that reason alone will not be humanity’s salvation. Rational thinking can be applied to any situation—moral or immoral—and this is why values are also critical in combating anti-intellectualism and promoting progressive, human-centered public policy. And as anyone opposed to anti-intellectualism knows, the best modern values are rooted not in ancient texts, but in human experience, accumulated knowledge, and natural human altruistic inclinations. 

Read much more on these subjects in David Niose’s latest book, Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason.

Follow on Twitter: @ahadave

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