Thursday, June 18, 2009

Down with Pointy-Headed Intellectuals!

Here are some observations near the end of a great little book Idiot America by Charles Pierce, which I talked about the other day. The argument at this point in the book is that the Iraq war was a war of idiot America. Not only were the worst kind of whoppers swallowed whole by a gullible and ignorant public, but people in the government and out of it, who actually knew what was going on, were systematically cut out of the process or ignored.
In the months and years after September 11, the worst possible thing was to know what you were talking about. People who knew too much were dangerous; on this the country largely agreed. It was a huge and expensive demonstration of Hofstader's* argument: The case against the intellect is founded on a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly and diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be oppose to practice. It is pitted against democracy since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. . . . Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect is lost.
So what we're talking about here is all the sneers and jokes and hostility you have probably heard about "pointy-headed intellectuals" in their "ivory towers." I'm sure you've heard all these criticisms in various guises. How if you're too smart, you're out of touch with reality, you're impractical, you're automatically a snob, too good for regular people.

Why is it, do you think, that to be elected to office in America, somebody has to be a "regular" person, i.e., one of the "people," which often enough means being unlettered and ignorant, if not actually dumb as a frigging post? I submit to you Exhibits A and B: the two senators from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe.

Richard Hofstader, American historian, in his seminal book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) shows how the hostility to pointy-headed intellectuals is a facet of the American character almost. It goes far back into our history.
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