11 January 2010

The uses of anti-intellectualism

Ask any loyal liberal about the great vices ensnaring America and one won't have to wait long before the lamentations about the exceeding dumbness of the American unwashed masses start to pour in. There seems to be a virtual cottage industry dedicated to understanding how stupid we can be. Furthermore, the story goes, not only are we dumb, but we are proud of our dumbness, and hate eggheaded intellectuals solely because they have the temerity to know things.

Now, one imagines there is a great deal of self-flattery involved in this monologue. Our hypothetical liberal professional is mighty proud of those degrees, not to mention the money he spent on it, and what better way to pass the time than imagine there is a mob of sulking parasites who are stewing in their jealousy of you. This is pretty standard behavior in a competitive society, though; substitute looks, money, athleticism, etc. and you'll find a similar attitude among many other people. Our liberal naturally thinks he is above that sort of thing, and that his learning has elevated him above such petty feelings of superiority, but, well, the line starts here.

In the political arena, of course, this is manifested by the obsession with Sarah Palin and other right-populists leaders who allegedly represent the common-sense knowledge of everyday Americans against the murky "elite" who control government, culture, and all and sundry. Liberals largely buy into this frame because, as I said, it flatters them. (I should be more careful with terms; populism need not be anti-intellectual, but it does if you can't abide the thought of philistines learning things, so liberals distrust it.)

There's just a slight problem: For a country which supposedly derides the "elites" and favors good old fashioned truth from the gut over science and the ivory tower, we have a pretty foolproof record of letting those elites do what they want with the country. We elect incumbents to Congress at a rate that would make the Politburo blush. Any kind of strike or mass protest of any kind on the level seen in other parts of the world is big news. There was some anger at the decadence of Wall Street in the wake of the financial meltdown, but it was mostly unfocused and ultimately nihilistic.

So it is somewhat puzzling then to read liberals complain that there are never any mass movements to do anything these days. No marches on the streets for single-payer health care, no rallies to end the wars, no protests for election reform or cleaning out government-by-money. Why should there be? We think our elites are doing a good job. After all, they have the credentials to prove it and there's no way that we, the uneducated toilers of the hoi polloi, would dare think we could do their job better.