February 18th, 2008


The intellectual is not one of us

The intellectual is not one of us. We are ordinary folks, he is a member of an elite. We gravitate around right wing ideas, he's left-leaning. We're family people, he screws men, women and children. We farm, he stays in the city, with his intellectual elite, or on campus, corrupting the minds of our youth. We're religious, but the intellectual is an unbeliever. We run to fat, he stays thin. We're patriots, he's a cosmopolitan, equally at home with foreigners as with his own kind. He puts loyalty to ideas before loyalty to his people. We have the church, he has the liberal media.

The intellectual is not one of us. We are struggling revolutionaries, he's a technocrat. He's a Marie Antoinette, completely ignorant of the daily life of the poor. He's never been to Appalachia, though he has been to Tokyo. He's the one who helps the powerful build their atom bombs, their death camps, their spy satellites, their coercive media organisations. He's obviously closer to the Israelis than the Palestinians. He hates rap music and the values behind it. To be an intellectual, you have to think like a white person. And intellectuals are as out of touch with their bodies as they are with the people. All those theories, but they'll never understand art. All theory, no praxis. If you can't do, teach.

Those stereotypes of right and left wing anti-intellectualism are reductive sketches of the Wikipedia entry on the subject. (Ah, reductive, there's a word only an intellectual would use! Things are always more complex, aren't they? Potentially? If we really want to talk about this.) The subject is in the air at the moment because Susan Jacoby has published a book called The Age of American Unreason which says that the fact that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe creationism should be taught in schools alongside Darwinian evolution is "an intellectual disaster as grave as the human and natural disaster unfolding in New Orleans". Meanwhile, in another disaster metaphor, Eric G. Wilson (whose Against Happiness is also just published) warns that the American obsession with happiness could "well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation". Wow, even I didn't go that far in my Down With Fun! lecture!

America closes the book on intelligence was Salon's title for their Susan Jacoby feature. The New York Times entitled their profile Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge? New book confirms Americans are stupid, trumpeted Monsters and Critics. Conservatives' rants share blame for intellectualism's decline, said the Arizona Republic. A poor educational system and religious fundamentalism’s hatred of reason have helped turn many of us into isolationist dummies, declared travel blog World Hum. Meanwhile, for misanthropic bulletin board I Love Everything Jacoby's book elicited a shrug: "Most people just don't care about a lot of the stuff that people who say "people are stupid" care about".

The New York Observer has perhaps the most thoughtful article, headlined A Nation of Uncommitted, Distracted Dilettantes. "The contours of a peculiarly American disenlightenment have been traced again and again in recent haute-pop titles as disparate as Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason," writes Jonathan Liu. "A new American exceptionalism of literalist Christianity and proud anti-intellectualism has taken hold: With our Left Behinds and intelligent designs, we must surely seem exceptionally ridiculous to the rest of the world, not least the London-Dubai-Shanghai axis that’s inherited the future while we’ve dawdled over Jesus."

Liu's review is the best because it picks up on Jacoby's nuance -- her attention to the dialectics at play in American anti-intellectualism, from the Scopes monkey trial onwards: "If Scopes and Spencer and Bryan were the morning of the culture wars, Ms. Jacoby’s noontime showdown was the anti-communist 1950’s, which cemented the “pointy-head” academic “as an alien organism within the American body politic.” Her argument is again quietly iconoclastic; McCarthy’s inquisitions were barbaric, but they also pumped up the self-esteem of a tiny clique of Old Left New Yorkers who’d spent the 30’s debating Stalin and Trotsky in obscure journals. “[A] crucial factor,” Ms. Jacoby writes, “in the postwar conflation of anti-communism and anti-intellectualism was the retrospective exaggeration by intellectuals themselves of their own importance and the importance of their twenty-year-old political and personal feuds.” At some point, it seems, the American intellectual fell in love with the idea of himself as the alien organism among bourgeois rubes."

Events in Europe this month haven't been much more reassuring, though. First the Archbishop of Canterbury said the adoption of elements of Islamic sharia law in the UK civic code "seems unavoidable". Then Sarkozy in France started stressing his Catholic credentials, muddying the clear divide between church and state in France. Danish MPs had to cancel a potentially lucrative trip to Iran after the regime there called on them to apologize for the re-publication of the notorious cartoons (which caused renewed riots throughout Denmark), and they refused.

A UK think tank called the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) issued a report saying multiculturalism and excessive liberal tolerance had made Britain a "soft touch" for terrorists, extremists and militants because the "fragmenting, post-Christian society" was seeing "a loss of confidence in our own identity, values, constitution and institutions". Debate over Islam also fuelled the apparent defeat of Marxist critic Terry Eagleton by Martin Amis; the Guardian reported that, following a long-running debate over Amis' anti-Islamic arguments, Eagleton was facing non-renewal of his contract at Manchester University, where Amis gets £80,000 for just 28 hours a year of creative writing tuition. He clearly wouldn't approve of Eagleton's new book, which casts Jesus as a Palestinian revolutionary. But it may be a mark of the fallen tone of our times -- the way that religion seems to be setting all our cultural agendas -- that Eagleton, "Britain's leading Marxist critic", had to reach for Jesus in the first place.

If Marxism won't save us from religious de-evolution, perhaps machines will. This was also the week when Ray Kurzweil declared that man and machine would merge by 2029. On the current evidence, I'm not quite sure what's in it for the machines; at this rate, the only thing they'll be getting in 2029 is religion.