Monday, February 29, 2016

Is American Anti-Intellectualism Growing?

I don't know. And I don't think you do either.


And I can't think of any good reason to start regarding Psychology Today as a valuable source of insight into America's intellect.

We know that anti-intellectualism has always been strong in the United States -- now, wait a minute. Do we actually know that? We know that it has been a popular assertion for a long time, but is anti-intellectualism actually stronger in the US than in other places? Again, I don't know. I don't even know what the assertion means.

Is anti-intellectualism stronger now in the US than it was in the mid-19th century? Back then, Herman Melville, after having started his career by writing 3 bestselling novels in a row, published Moby Dick in 1851 -- and it received unanimously negative reviews, and although Melville wrote several more novels, from a business standpoint, his career as a novelist was over. In 1955, William Gaddis published his first novel, The Recognitions, and the nearly-unanimously-negative reviews it received were eerily reminiscent of the strange case of Moby Dick, and resulted in very low sales for the novel for a least a decade. (jack green collected these reviews and published them along with some intelligent commentary, in what is now the book entitled fire the bastards! It's a great book, but its title, a to-the-point suggestion about what should be done with such book reviewers, misses the point in my opinion. The real problem here is the people who hired the reviewers who trashed Melville and Gaddis.)

But while Melville's career never recovered from the critical reaction to Moby Dick, which did not become widely regarded as a classic until long after Melville died in 1891, in the 1970's Gaddis won a National Book Award, in the 1980's he received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in the 1990's he won another National Book Award. I've heard that Gaddis even started to make some appearances on bestseller lists in the 1980's (back when bestseller lists only went down to #10 or in a few cases all the way down to #20, not like today's Amazon Sales Rank which goes down to #7,592,613 or so), although that's just hearsay, I haven't been able to confirm it yet.

You might well respond that the cases of 2 individual writers don't say much about American culture as a whole. On the other hand, these days, unlike the mid-19th century, things like the genius grants exist.

On the 3rd hand, even mighty things such as the genius grants are a puny substitute for state support of intellectuals, just as even the mightiest charities (thousand points a light goin round an round) are a puny substitute for a government social safety net. There's no doubt that state support of the arts, humanities and sciences is much stronger in some Western European countries than in the US. And I absolutely do believe, with no if's, and's or but's, that those countries are much more sensible and fortunate than we are in that regard. University attendance should be free, painters and sculptors and poets should get government grants as a matter of course, orchestras shouldn't need to go groveling to corporations for funding. If the lack of such things means anti-intellectualism, then game over, the US is anti-intellectual, period.

But I don't think that the lack of such things in the US, or, for example, the climate-change skepticism of many of our elected officials, reflect a hostility to learning and good sense on the part of the US population as a whole. I think they have been imposed upon us by corporations led by MBA's who don't care about either the opinions or the well-being of the entire populace.

The hero, result and major role model of those same asshole MBA's is currently running for President. If he's elected, or if he even comes close, then I think that would prove that anti-intellectualism has grown since W's administration.

But lest we forget, in the last 2 Presidential elections, a man who was about as different from W as a man can be, a bona-fide intellectual, has won by wide margins. W was the poster boy for anti-intellectualism, the Tea Party is now its locus and Donald Chump is their man -- but is the Tea Party growing? If it is, then I think you could say that anti-intellectualism in the US is growing. Yes, the Tea Party did very well in the 2010 and 2014 mid-terms, but that's the fault of Democratic voters who act as if they don't know that there are elections in the US oftener than every 4 years, and of Republican leaders who should have known better, but "followed the base" rather than leading. They have "followed the base" -- the fringe, actually, not the base -- all the way to the Trump campaign, and now, finally, some of them are beginning to see their mistake and to do something about it.

I don't know whether anti-intellectualism is growing in the US or not. I don't know whether there is a meaningful way to measure such things. In my opinion, the latest wave of American intellectualism peaked when W was re-elected over John Kerry, another bona-fide intellectual. Today, even Republicans tend to be embarrassed by W, and even Republicans are speaking out against Trump. I think that The Tea Party (synonymous with the Trump campaign in my opinion), although there's no doubt that it's very loud right now, is getting weaker. Louder doesn't always equal stronger. More and more non-fringe Republicans are jumping ship. I think that the anybody-but-Trump voting bloc is bigger than Trump's block.

But whether I'm right or wrong, whether American anti-intellectualism is growing or declining, whether Trump will be elected President or cause a Democratic landslide, or neither, I think that pro-intellectual people should do very much the same things: speak up for intellect and learning, vote for better schools and for no tuition and for well-funded artists and scientists and for fact-based environmental and energy policies. Speak up (loudly), vote, campaign, petition, agitate, fight back against the bozos, whether we're a minority or a majority.

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