Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Anti-Intellectual Politics

There's a notion in the US and increasingly abroad (see this article by Michael Kimmelman in today's New York Times on France's new president) that there's something noble or endearing or perhaps merely more honest about politicians who naturally relate to the "average person" (or however one must phrase that imagined stationary segment of the population this week so that it doesn't do double duty as a condescending term [see: irony]). This quality is praised (and is certainly cultivated by spinmeisters) as if it were some indication of true empathy that will prevent a leader from turning his/her back on the average person once in power.

In this era of sound-bite campaigning, this feigned quality most frequently exhibits itself in the form of anti-intellectualism: hence campaigners use folksy terms and nicknames or reference some low-brow local attraction or go bowling or drinking in a pub, so they're hopefully seen by the voters as just like them and, above all, not too smart. You're allowed to be smart. Street smarts or "common" sense are OK, but being "intellectual" is a problem.

Indeed, "intellectual" has come to connote "too smart," suggesting you're out of touch with the values of (again, who? average people? common people? those making less than 100,000 a year? what term works here that isn't as insulting as it is supposedly worth emulating?) the majority? of voters. Further, being anti-intellectual rallies the press to your supposedly populist side (it doesn't take an intellectual to understand the press' interest in keeping everyone a champion of the lowest common denominator; just watch the commercials that follow their reports on the campaigns).

It's time someone calls this charade what it is, though.

But let's start with a few clarifications. There is a significant difference between being intellectual and being an intellectualist. Intellectualism (like Islamism or Christianism) is an extreme. (Just as anti-intellectualism is.) Any "ism," by definition, is a fundamentalist point of view and an overindulgence, IMHO. I wouldn't want an intellectualist (someone who sees intellectualism as the absolute truth/way [i.e., someone who thinks learning is more important than doing]) to be president. Likewise, however, I wouldn't want an anti-intellectualist to be president (again, that is). I would, however, hope that we as a nation agree that it's a good idea to elect the brightest among us to serve as our leaders. I would hope that we want to elect someone with intellect. Someone smarter than our enemies. Someone who can figure out how to get us out of jams. Someone who's curious enough to read a report that lands on his/her desk describing how a terrorist group is determined to strike within our borders, for just one example.

In fact, for me that is the essential and laudable aspect of being intellectual: an insatiable curiosity. Without curiosity, a leader is likely to be too lazy to plan appropriately (like, oh, say, to handle an insurgence in a country you just invaded) or check in with his/her staff to ensure they're doing their jobs or ready for an emergency (like, oh, say, a hurricane). In this sense, being curious simply means you're driven to keep learning; you'll use study, reflection, and speculation to solve problems or plan for events. That happens to be the definition of being intellectual as well.

So here is where this popular anti-intellectual stance reveals itself to be fraud. The current President's poor popularity ratings are the direct result of his lack of curiosity, his lack of using enough reflection and/or speculation to be adequately prepared to expect the insurgency in Iraq or handle the aftermath of Katrina. In other words, the President's popularity ratings indicate Americans don't really want an incurious leader. They do want an intellectual leader. (They just don't want to elect someone they think won't relate to them once they're in power.)

In terms of what's happened to Obama this past week, let's not confuse the two issues. Whether Obama will be able to relate to the "average" people of Pennsylvania if he's elected is certainly a valid question. Whether or not he's too intellectual to be president is a moronic interpretation of this question. Personally, I think his years of working to help underprivileged citizens of Chicago, despite the call of high-profile law firms, is a good indication of whether Obama will forget the needs of "average" people once he's in office.

Labels: intellectualism, Obama, politics


Blogger Molly Stevens said...

My Winkleman radar went off this morning when I read the Kimmelman article. I knew you were going to address this.

There seems to be a fear in acknowledging differences between people. If one acknowledges difference, one may be indicted as a classist, racist or sexist. The line is sometimes fine, but, not in this "bitter" case.

There are differences between people. And this is good.

I'm almost to the point where I can embrace the fact that I'm a snob.

4/15/2008 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

These people don't bowl. The pins don't lie.

So no one is fooled right?

So then what are we left with? A bunch of people with such low self esteem that a visit from a prospective candidate will influence their vote because they just want to belong?

Or a bunch of bitter cynics who know that nothing will change so you might as well vote for the black guy, because when the food riots start maybe people can just shoot willy nilly without worrying about race.

4/15/2008 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I don’t watch TV, so I’m not swayed by Obama’s oratorical skills. I am impressed by what I have read, his responses seem both considered and human, that he is expressing himself in public, and what you see is what you get.

I read the transcript which included the "bitter" remark, it is the truth. Yes it is difficult to extend a generalization totally, that it might have been phrased differently, but it is the truth that for the last how many years a once proud class of working people have been left to drift into service jobs at WalMart.

A person like Obama comes along once in a lifetime, he is the first 21st century politician.

4/15/2008 10:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good part of the problem is that Obama is perceived (rightfully) as eloquent. It's his strength, his way of transfiguring and uniting his audience. The "bitterness" comment was graceless and ill-conceived. The content, while correct on some levels, was not conveyed in his usual lofty inclusive manner. Given that the Republicans and MSM have already started tagging him as elitist, that particular gaffe was stupid. We also don't expect stupid from such a bright man. As Howard Dean can testify, one "mistake" can destroy a campaign.

4/15/2008 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

People don't want an intellectual candidate if "intellectual" implies passive. Senators rarely win presidential elections because they philosophize and compromise more than they decide and act. Gore and especially Kerry over-intellectualized themselves to death. But that's what a legislator is paid to do. A similar thing could have been said about Bob Dole in 1996.

On the other hand the president runs the Executive branch. People want their chief executives to be assertive and decisive. Unfortunately executives must simplify reality in order to make decisions. The trick is to find the line between simplification and over-simplification.

This doesn't mean people want a stupid, incurious, unempathetic or unsympathetic president. All your points are valid ones, Edward. But a president is above all an executive, and must know how to get stuff done without too much hand-wringing. At the end of the day, America is a country of getting stuff done, and people will elect the person who seems like they'll get the most stuff done with the least angst. But at the same time nobody wants any important parts of the problem to be ignored, which is where the challenges begin.

Obama is popular because he has a clear and focused message unencumbered by doubt. So he's a good candidate. Whether his solutions are the ones America at large wants is a different point, and will be decided in November. But he's where he is today for being clear and assertive, and, perhaps, for finding the line between simple and simplistic.

4/15/2008 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

As an educator I see the results of an entire generation of educational systems that have driven out curiosity and the value of failure as a process. I think one of the main factors for anti-intellectualism AND elitism is a misunderstanding of the human intellect, which is usually very narrowly defined. Sir Ken Robinson describes a more broadened view well on Ted talks- how the way we think, the way we satisfy our curiosity not only thru our minds but also our hands, bodies, and senses. Each of us leaning toward one type of intellect or another. But we live in a society that devalues certain types on intellect thus resulting in these social frictions.

4/15/2008 10:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, Ed, I think you're painting yourself into a semantic corner by saying all "isms" are a form of extremism. What about feminism? Atheism? Secular humanism? But this isn't a very big point; word definitions and word categories are not applied in a consistent manner.

I am surprised at all the sincere comments here about what Americans want, how Americans vote, what kind of president Americans want. How can anyone make any rational statement about that when America voted in Bill Clinton twice and George W. twice?? I have no idea what Americans want. Call me a snob, an elitist, an intellectualist or whatever (just don't call me late for dinner, as my dad used to say) but the vast majority of Americans and what motivates them are a mystery to me and I'm not ashamed to say it. Personally I want a president who is smarter than me and I don't care if s/he bowls, drinks beer, barbecues, or has any unusual (consensual) sexual practices. It's a very, very important job and I don't want someone like myself in it. Individuals have different strengths and weaknesses that make better candidates (in the broader sense of the word) for various jobs. A good-ole boy, or someone who reads the same magazines or watches the same movies as I do are not requirements of the job!


ps I blame Political Correctness for making elitism a sin. Elitism, in the sense of elite athletes, etc. means striving for the best you can do and valuing and rewarding high achievement and accomplishment. How is that a bad thing?

4/15/2008 11:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps Obama was right. It was unusual for him to say something in so blunt a way (he tends to be more verbally savvy), but he was right. This primary campaign is going on too long. All it's doing now is giving the candidates more opportunities to let something slip that could have been said in a more graceful way, and then the other candidate jumps on them/attacks them for it. My observation is that Hillary is doing more of the attacking (it's hard to believe that she actually said that only two people had the experience to be president and one of them is the repugnican! After the convention, the democrats are going to have to come together and stand behind and support their candidate, so saying the other party's candidate is better is not very productive to that end.)


4/15/2008 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

ask the people of Minnesota how well they faired under Gov. Ventura.

Funny how this recurs every election cycle. Beers with Bush really worked out for us commoners didn't it?

Let's not forget, at least in the US media, that Intellectual is code for 'Marxist'. and we wouldn't want one of those reds infiltrating the WH.

4/15/2008 11:28:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

First of all, Ed, I think you're painting yourself into a semantic corner by saying all "isms" are a form of extremism. What about feminism? Atheism? Secular humanism?

All fundamentalist and all overindulgent, in my opinion. But then, I'm an individualist (meaning I subscribe to individualism) and am just as guilty of extremism in that respect as anyone else.

None of us are all things to all people. We end up being nothing important to anyone if we try to be, though, which to my mind means in the end you must take a stand and defend it. Waxing philosophical about the extremist nature of "isms" is merely something that I believe is true. That doesn't mean I won't defend my own "ism" just as strongly. Recognizing one's faults doesn't obligate one to correct them all at once.

4/15/2008 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

The problem with trying to appeal to the average person is that the average person is way below average.

What I like about Obama, one of many things, is that he speaks the truth. He says what he thinks without pandering or dumbing things down. Can someone like that get elected President these days? Who knows? I guess we have to hope that all those average voters, who elected George Bush to office twice, somehow got a lot smarter over the last few years.

4/15/2008 12:54:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

David, I'm now not sure that all those people who voted for Bush were ever that stupid. I think Obama was right--they voted for guns, religion and token conservatism because they don't believe that politicians can really affect their economic situation. What I'm seeing now, tracking as I do the extreme right-wing blogosphere, is that they're disgusted with Bush because he proved to be anything but conservative.

There are now some conservatives who are considering voting for Obama even though they think he's a Marxist, simply because he tells the truth, and he's the most likely to get us out of Iraq.

4/15/2008 01:31:00 PM  
OpenID ymroddi said...

And the French are upset because their president isn't intellectual/cultured enough.


Why is so hard to understand that someone different from you can protect and further your interests. And someone like you can betray your interests. Bush is an excellent example of the latter. He beat the drum of social conservatism. He was one of 'them.' What has Bush really done substantively for social conservatives? Where is the $1 billion to defend marriage? I cannot think of one thing. Bush has only served the interests of big business. Ironically, the economic interests of the small town social conservatives that voted for Bush, that Obama referred to, were betrayed by the candidate that was 'just like them.' He did nothing for their social conservative values other than use it in speeches.

4/15/2008 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Also, I think this election is different because of both the extreme situation that Bush got us into, and the radical change in communication brought about by the Internet. People can actually post comments to opinion columns on the New York Times, instead of writing a letter to the editor and having a 1 in 100 chance of seeing it published, two or three days later; they can post opinions to their own blogs and to major political websites. They can actually be involved in the discourse, instead of having it spoon-fed by a polarizing media.

Obama has been so successful at grassroots fundraising and campaign organizing largely because of the Internet. This would have been impossible even five years ago. He's been able to take the debate to a new level of complexity largely because of YouTube; we can all see and hear his campaign speeches even if they're given to a church group in Indiana.

We're no longer stuck voting for a sleazy candidate because sleazy people are the only ones with the leverage to manipulate the system.

Isn't this great? Woo hoo!

4/15/2008 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Show: Help
underwesterneyes (1 minute ago) 0 Reply | Spam
Isn't this great? Woo hoo!

4/15/2008 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

What I'm seeing now, tracking as I do the extreme right-wing blogosphere, is that they're disgusted with Bush because he proved to be anything but conservative.

PL, the fact that you would do that shows that you have much more patience than I do. Which is why I continue to support you as my first choice for Vice President.

The problem I have with conservatism is that I don't know what it is. If it means a philosophy "marked by moderation or caution" (as one dictionary defines it), then I'm all in favor. But people who define themselves as conservatives mostly seem to fall into one of two right-wing camps. They're either total believers in following and enforcing the rules of some authority, either political, religious or otherwise (hence guns, religion and racism), or they represent the political interests of big corporations. Or both. Neither of those positions seems particularly moderate or cautious to me.

What has Bush really done substantively for social conservatives? Where is the $1 billion to defend marriage?

I don't know, $1 billion seems like a very un-conservative expenditure for something like that. My wife and I defend our marriage by caring about, respecting and listening to each other. But then we're on a budget...

4/15/2008 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

They're either total believers in following and enforcing the rules of some authority, either political, religious or otherwise (hence guns, religion and racism), or they represent the political interests of big corporations.

You see, it's sad and ironic that you should think that, because classical conservatism is highly anti-authoritarian; it takes the position that less government is better government. Classical conservatives may have strong religious faith, but shy away at using the government to impose the tenets of that faith upon others.

The terrible thing is that that sort of conservatism is all but dead in the modern political sphere. Ron Paul embodies its last vestiges.

It is important to understand, however, that the smarter sort of conservative does not oppose things like universal healthcare from a necessarily un-compassionate, selfish stance; many of them are justifiably concerned that this would lead to unacceptably totalitarian government invasion of every aspect of our lives, not to mention endemic corruption and inefficiency. This is a valid concern, and one that liberals would do well to pay attention to.

4/15/2008 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

...classical conservatism is highly anti-authoritarian; it takes the position that less government is better government.

I agree with that position to some degree. The problem is that it can give free reign to large corporations (and individuals too) to destroy the environment, profit from war, and cheat people out of their money if there are no regulations. When those corporations actually own the government, as it does in some respects, then you have real totalitarianism.

...that sort of conservatism is all but dead in the modern political sphere.

That was my point. The kind of conservatism that attracts the most support is the guns, religion and bigotry flavor.

...universal healthcare...(many of them are justifiably concerned that this) would lead to unacceptably totalitarian government invasion of every aspect of our lives, not to mention endemic corruption and inefficiency

That already describes the current healthcare system, if you substitute the word "corporate" for "government".

I'm not trying to demonize corporations or deny the many problems that exist in government-run institutions. Hey, if I'm shipping important, I avoid the USPS and use FedEx. I just think there's a balance that should be struck between personal, corporate and government sphere's of activity. If the government completely stays out of things, the corporations are in charge of our lives.

4/15/2008 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hey, if I'm shipping important

should read "something important"...

4/15/2008 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Really good point, David. It's one that I don't see even intelligent conservatives making too often.

4/15/2008 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If the government completely stays out of things, the corporations are in charge of our lives.


4/15/2008 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger Beneful Dog Food said...

I hardly recognize America anymore. We're a nation of surly, uptight, uninformed, dipshits.
And television is destroying this nation. Someone told me Obama's statement was STILL making news! LOL! How come the fact McCain sucked up to a guy like Hagee, who said the pope was the anti-Christ, is not receiving wall to wall coverage? And Hillary casting herself as some sort of champion of the working people is beyond ridiculous. Honestly, we are a nation of imbeciles ruled by assholes. Wake up sheeple and kill your tv! FREEDOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4/15/2008 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger wisesigh said...

The whole notion of incorporating as shielding personal responsibility of individual players is government provided/sanctioned; some regulation is appropriate to counter the downsides that naturally accompany that shield. The trick is not to make them two heads of the same beast -- which too much government interference (even if well meaning) tends to achieve by increasing the booty that lobbying/curry government favor can achieve. It's a question of choosing in which direction to err in making the balance.

4/15/2008 06:53:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Ran across this on he NY Times

Bitter Voters for Obama

Hilary's cooked, put a fork in it.

4/15/2008 07:58:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Oh no! Barack Obama said something that rings true, that reeks of the real world! We better transform it into a controversy!

"When will we realize that the concessions we have made to faith in our political discourse have prevented us from even speaking about, much less uprooting, the most prolific source of violence in our history." (Sam Harris, "The End of Faith")

4/15/2008 11:50:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Excellent post, Edward!

4/16/2008 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Eric, do me a favor and please, please, please do not quote Sam Harris in support of Barack Obama. Obama is a man of faith, and this is one of the reasons he is where he is.

Harris makes the completely and provably false assertion that religion is one of the major causes of war and violence on earth. It isn't. Only 6.8 percent of recorded wars can be said to have had religion as their basis. Furthermore, the most overwhelmingly murderous regimes in history (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler) have either been overtly atheistic or, in the case of Hitler, covertly anti-religious. (Catholics such as Bonhoeffer who resisted the Nazis were packed off to the concentration camps.)

It is not faith that is the problem; it is violent, fundamentalist extremism brought about by economic stress, lack of education and opportunity, cultural loss, and the systemic manipulation of these things by fanatics like Bin Laden. Genuine faith--expanded and non-rigid, as is Obama's--as well as pragmatic political and economic action, is our greatest weapon against this.

4/16/2008 04:04:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Actually Hitler believed in spiritualist and supernatural mumbo jumbo, the holy grail and other bullshit like that. "Hitler appropriated Christian religious symbols such as the Spear of Destiny and the Holy Grail for his own purposes." The opportunistic manipulation of the masses using religious symbology sounds more like it. Sorry if I don't find the "cultural and intellectual accomodomations we have made to faith itself", as something helpful to humanity in the long run. I hate to tell you but you know the public construct known as Barack Obama, but if you want to mistaken that for who is in in real life be my guest. I would still vote for him in a heartbeat but I am deeply concerned about where his contributions are coming from.

4/16/2008 06:02:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

’The problem with trying to appeal to the average person is that the average person is way below average’.

‘I hardly recognize America anymore. We're a nation of surly, uptight, uninformed, dipshits’.

I’m loving this thread.

Also, ’Hey, if I'm shipping important’ still works for me.

4/16/2008 07:27:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

(cont'd) Also I am sure that you wouldn't waggle your finger at a person of the Islamic faith and condemn their entire belief system because of the example of Osama Bin Laden. Stalin killed priests and appears to have been an atheist but this shouldn't lead one to dismiss all people who don't believe in god.

4/16/2008 08:52:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

No, I'm very good friends with a large number of people who don't believe in God. It's idiotic, unfounded, rabble-rousing statements like '[faith is] the most prolific source of violence in our history' that I strenuously object to.

It isn't. Full stop.

4/17/2008 12:32:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I will take a world without the magical, mystical hooey anytime. But it will never happen here. When people wheel out Stalin and Hitler and Mao to make clear anti-atheist statements it reduces the dialogue to name calling. I highly recommend Harris' book to other EW readers. Full stop.

4/17/2008 01:09:00 PM  

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