This isn’t news to me

Hello, it’s been a while since I last posted here, but I thought this one was worth reposting:

For some reason, the US national characteristic of anti-intellectualism is being noticed in the press with MacLeans (Canada) America Dumbs Down and the New York Review of Books, Age of Ignorance. I’ve also been doing posts on this since 2010, and am not the only person to have noticed this trend. As I said, this isn’t really news since Richard Hofstadter won the 1964 Pulitzer prize for a book titled Anti-intellectualism in American Life.  Hofstadter attributed this trend toward the democratisation of knowledge.

in 2008, journalist Susan Jacoby was warning that the denseness—“a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations”—was more of a permanent state. In her book, The Age of American Unreason, she posited that it trickled down from the top, fuelled by faux-populist politicians striving to make themselves sound approachable rather than smart.  Perhaps we can add media consolidation to the contributing factors with fewer good news sources being available in the US and even public broadcasting being throttled by crypto-commercials called “underwriting”.

Hofstadter’s book was the landmark work on the topic, even though there have been a few more significant books and articles on anti-intellectualism preceded it (most notably Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought in 1943), and even though it has been followed, in recent years, by well known books from the Left and Right, including Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, and so on. The list lengthens if one adds in broader books about the “dumbing down” of American society.

Of course, some of the US founders were intellectuals (Jefferson and Franklin) who founded Universities or who praised education (Madison), yet the trend toward anti-intellectualism has taken grasp in the US.  Hoffstadter pointed out that there is a conflict between access to education and excellence in education (although, I am of the opinion that one does not need to be formally educated to contributes to this trend, which is reiterated in the MacLeans article where a US Second Grader wrote to the South Carolina legislature that she believed the States should have a fossil, but was rebuffed by fundamentalist spewing mumbo-jumbo about evolution.\

Charles Simic point out in the NYRB piece that:

It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today. Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.

Even better is where Simic points out:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth

It seems that the big push for ignorance comes from the right since an educated, well-informed population, which is required by a functioning democracy, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country.  It is much easier to spread disinformation to a population which is incapable of critical thinking skills than one which only hears the things which they agree.  That was one of the reason for the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press: to have a healthy and informed debate on public policy.  But one cannot have such a debate if the field is filled with rubbish spread by those who have their own interests at heart.

To some extent, Hofstadter is correct when he mentions the democratisation of knowledge, where someone who has no real grasp of the topic gives an opinion and weight is given to that opinion which is out of line with its value.  The opinion of someone who has no knowledge of a topic does not have the same weight as someone who has studied the topic and developed an expertise of the matter.

Simic points out the common misconceptions which are being pushed and offers this conclusion for why anti-intellectualism has become epidemic:

  • Christians are persecuted in this country.
  • The government is coming to get your guns.
  • Obama is a Muslim.
  • Global Warming is a hoax.
  • The president is forcing open homosexuality on the military.
  • Schools push a left-wing agenda.
  • Social Security is an entitlement, no different from welfare.
  • Obama hates white people.
  • The life on earth is 10,000 years old and so is the universe.
  • The safety net contributes to poverty.
  • The government is taking money from you and giving it to sex-crazed college women to pay for their birth control.

One could easily list many more such commonplace delusions believed by Americans. They are kept in circulation by hundreds of right-wing political and religious media outlets whose function is to fabricate an alternate reality for their viewers and their listeners. “Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces,” Sidney Hook said once. No doubt. What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently. Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is why millions are being spent to keep my fellow citizens ignorant.

8 thoughts on “This isn’t news to me

  1. Thanks for the inspiring post, Laci. Inspiring in that it ought to make Americans shudder! Yet it won’t for the very reasons you list.

    The list that Simic made belongs to old, white men who are impotent but angry. They know that the ‘good’ part of their life is over and they are left with only memories (enhanced) of the good old days. Harrumph! Sit around and bitch.

    The other statements come from Fundies who hope like hell that their beliefs are true. They’ve bet the farm that they are and now must defend it from anything that appears to challenge the belief system. That’s all they’ve got!

    Thus, the group that espouses the list by Simic are has-beens, lost and locked in a time that has come and gone. The new generations will not carry the water and, as a result, that era will die out and known only to future historians.

    One last comment: “these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest.” This is perhaps the most foolish point of all. The suckers pimp themselves and their own families. That takes the dumbbell cake!

  2. Yep, exactly! As a former college professor and administrator I can bear witness to the dumming down of the college student. Indeed, I was in Atlanta
    the last 5 days and met at the hotel a young man working on his Master’s in
    History at UGA. We fell into a discussion about the Civil War as American History is his major and his thesisis is on McClellan. As we talked, I threw out some historians of the civil war like Bruce Catton, and was surprised he had never heard of him. Talk about forgetting the past!

    And, the other point is that seems to me that the country has reached the point where simple reform will not change the trajectory towards authoritarian government in the hands of the plutocrats, baring another
    event like the Great Depresssion, FDR, and the New Deal, where a President commanded hugh liberal majorities to change the direction of the country.
    Moreover, I see no individual like a FDR on the horizon. This is why I have reached the reluctant cnslusion that a demorcratic republic is dead; there can be no significant reform given what you write Laci, and likewise that M_R and I have written, and Engineer and JOB and NON. My prediction is that it is only going to get worse….sorry to be so pessimistic, but the way I read the tea leaves, thats the way it is, to borrow a phrase from Walter Cronkite…..

    1. I’m not a civil war scholar and know Bruce Catton is one of the more important Civil War writers.

      I hate to agree, but I think you are correct–the US is heading toward a totalitarian state.

  3. Hello Lacy my friend. It is good to hear from you! Thought I would pass this on today.

    I was thinking the other morning about the “hour long / one on one” conversation I had with Jack Kemp in 2005.

    I was at a Bull Roast reelection fund raiser for then Congressman Wayne Gilchrest.

    I, and a couple of other good friends, quickly & handedly derailed the Conservative Republican primary challenger’s bid for moderate Republican Congressman Gilchrest’s seat that election year. For this, we were invited to this fund raiser and were at a seat of honor with Ex. Vice President Candidate Jack Kemp.

    Long story short, I voiced my concerns and warnings back then to Jack Kemp of embracing the Reactionary Right segment and giving them the validafying voice of being welcomed within the Party. It was not what Jack wanted to hear, but I went on to tell him that the Republican Party had lost its way from what it once was.

    The Republican Party once touted the “Golden Age of Freethought”.

    This describes the socio-political movement promoting freethought that developed in the mid 19th-century United States.

    “Freethought” is a philosophical position that holds that ideas and opinions should be based on science and reason, and not restricted by authority, tradition, or religion.

    Instead voices representing the Republican Party, such as Rush Limbaugh and the clones, passing on the anti- intellectual, non-critical thinking, and “everyone must think alike” mandate. (If everybody is thinking alike….then somebody is not thinking. George S. Patton)

    My prediction warning back then to Jack Kemp was that the Party will come to regret welcoming in the extreme segments that were the old Klansmen, John Birch Society, Extreme Religious Fanatics…in essence, what is known today as the “Tea Party”.

    Jack’s mentality was that this segment was good to easily motivate and get active at election time. They were calling it, ” Whipping Up The Nut Jobs” among the Party Leaders.

    Now latest news:
    This current primary year, Karl Rove has spent 100’s of millions purging out the Tea Party members and challengers trying to bring back some semblance of mainstream conservatives being elected to Congress and Senate.

    So in conclusion I could say, ” Told You So”.

  4. Hello Up The Flag,
    Yes you are correct that the age of Free Thought” did have, what I’ll say, is a realistic view towards religion, but just one among other topics.

    Robert Ingersoll was a major aspect promoting the “Golden Age Of Free Thought. His progressive views on religion, slavery, woman’s suffrage, and other issues of the day effectively prevented him from ever pursuing or holding political offices higher than that of state attorney general.

    Below are some of this Republican’s quotes in the day when the Republican Party was a “Thinking Man’s” Party….Not what it has become today. Read the quotes and reflect how they differ from the “Republican Rhetoric” of today. Here of late, the Party has quit employing “Critical Thinking”.

    On woman’s rights:
    “Women will never be truly free until they have control of their own reproduction.”
    On Fundamentalist Religion:
    “They knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping or in the keeping of her God the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship or not to worship that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all to prevent the few from governing the many and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”
    “Progress is born of doubt and inquiry. The Church never doubts, never inquires. To doubt is heresy, to inquire is to admit that you do not know. The Church does neither. ”

    “No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.”
    Defining the meaning of the Declaration of Independence:
    The Declaration of Independence announces the sublime truth, that all power comes from the people. This was a denial, and the first denial of a nation, of the infamous dogma that God confers the right upon one man to govern others. It was the first grand assertion of the dignity of the human race. It declared the governed to be the source of power, and in fact denied the authority of any and all gods. Through the ages of slavery, through the weary centuries of the lash and chain, God was the acknowledged ruler of the world. To enthrone man, was to dethrone God.

  5. Good morning All,
    Yes I like Bruce Catton but prefer Shelby Foote. To hear that soft spoken, aristocratic Southern drawl from his interviewed input views on Ken Burns’, “The Civil War” series,; well his knowledge on the subject just lilted from his mouth.

    I was saddened when I heard he had passed away. What a treasure.

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