Anti-intellectualism is back — because it never went away. And it's killing Americans

Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 diagnosis of America has reached its apotheosis with Donald Trump and the pandemic

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published May 30, 2020 12:04PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The late Gore Vidal once confessed, with characteristic rapier wit, "I love stupidity. It excites me." But the excitement and hilarity of human foibles and failures diminish rapidly when the consequences include more than 100,000 corpses. 

Stupidity is a steadfast provider of humor and tragedy in Freedom Central, otherwise known as the United States. Recent highlights of American imbecility stretch from the creation of reality television to the election of a man that genre made famous, who boasted of his own intelligence with the claim, "I know words. I have the best words."

As stupidity reigns supreme in both culture and politics, irony searches for its audience. So do public health experts, virologists, doctors, nurses, professors and other much-maligned "elites" who have the audacity to try to save the lives of "real Americans" with the knowledge acquired through the treasonous instrument of formal education.

To compensate for its failure to create a genuine political democracy, America has marched drunkenly into the gutter of what could be termed cultural democracy — a pathological condition in which all opinions are equal, and to argue otherwise invites accusations of snobbery, pretentiousness and down-the-nose contempt for the "forgotten man."

In cultural democracy, the enemy of freedom is not the Wall Street executive hiding his wealth in an offshore tax haven and corrupting the political process through the deployment of large donations and lobbying firms. It is not the SWAT team conducting "no knock" raids that result in the deaths of innocent people. It's not the real estate tycoon turned television star who rides his golden escalator — and relentless racist rhetoric — to political power.

The true villain in a cultural democracy is the intellectual. The intellectual insists on standards of evidence, reason and logic when attempting to reach a conclusion regarding a matter of social import. She undermines the dogma that all nonsense is created equal, which renders her (or indeed him) unfit for participation in the increasingly masochistic rituals of liberty.

Donald Trump's suggestion that perhaps we could eradicate the coronavirus by injecting of household disinfectant — a solution actual doctors and scientists were evidently too small-minded to consider — is an apotheosis of anti-intellectualism. But our collective resistance to knowledge definitely did not begin with him. 

Historian Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his now-legendary book, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." Alarmed by the elevation of emotions, slogans and clichés above reason, data and analysis in national politics, Hofstadter explored why, despite occasional bright spots, the United States had never developed a culture of intellectual rigor. His tour of the "democratization of knowledge," the populism of the pioneers, and the anti-philosophical tendencies embedded in American Protestantism led to many conclusions regarding our nation's critical failures.

Chief among those conclusions was the dominance of the market, and its utilitarian ethos, over any broader notion of culture. Hofstadter never argued that Americans were stupid. Our tradition of excellence in business, engineering, medicine and law would make such a reductive analysis ridiculous. The weakness of American education and analysis, according to Hofstadter, lay in its conception that the pursuit of all knowledge had to serve a material purpose. Learning is fine, in the American tradition — but only insofar as it "makes sense" in terms of increasing profit margins, advancing corporate interests or national prestige, or improving individual career prospects. 

In addition to confessing his morbid pleasure in observing stupidity, Vidal also defined an intellectual as "someone who can deal with abstractions." This is instructive: Americans either cannot or do not want to deal with abstractions.

Economic growth, tax rates and the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average are relatively easy to measure. (Even if many American notions about such things, in the immortal phrase of George H.W. Bush, amount to "voodoo economics.") As for the general welfare of a diverse population, or concepts like social cohesion, political engagement and what international organizations call the "happiness index," those things are tougher to track.

In education, it requires only elementary arithmetic to evaluate student progress and teacher proficiency based on standardized test scores. Making determinations according to student enthusiasm, along with their sense of purpose and intellectual enlargement, takes more effort. As with the development of a more beneficial conception of society and economics, a better educational approach also demands the instruments of philosophy, psychology, history, civics and the fine arts. In other words, the tools of a functional society.

These tools have become badly rusted and broken-down in the United States. Even universities must now pander to a public that is deeply suspicious of any course of study that falls outside the necessities of job training. From the University of Wisconsin to California State University, administrators continually eliminate liberal arts majors, cut course requirements and reduce budgets in the humanities and social sciences. 

The narrow specialization of university curricula seems almost intentionally calculated to create a graduate who is deeply indebted, and carefully trained but also profoundly ignorant — someone who, confirming Hofstadter's fears, can excel in a complicated profession, but cannot navigate the complexities and contradictions of political debate, social discourse or cultural change. 

The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania reports that 53 percent of Americans wrongly believe that illegal immigrants have no rights under the Constitution. When ignorance mixes with mad-dog hatred the results are combustible. A demagogic president can lock children in cages, leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault, and a significant percentage of the public will change the channel.

If anti-intellectualism is a common characteristic of American life, it has mutated into a particularly asinine and lethal form in contemporary conservative politics. A majority of Republicans now believe higher education is "bad for America." Suspicious of anyone with an advanced degree, they are increasingly likely to view anyone with academic credentials as alien from the "real America," where people work with "their hands," as conservative commentators often suggest from their computer terminals or talk-show studios, or to believe that reading books — other than unless the Good Book — is likely to turn true-believing patriots into "globalists" who hate God and love dark-skinned people.

Republican politicians, as always shameless hypocrites, encourage ignorance because they reap its rewards. Rick Santorum, former senator and presidential candidate from Pennsylvania, has accused liberals of "snobbery" for supporting higher education, and often ridicules universities as "indoctrination mills." He holds two advanced degrees.

Donald Trump speaks and behaves as if he would struggle with the recipe for ice water, but even he has a degree in economics from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. All his adult children have earned degrees from Wharton or Georgetown, but that did not stop him from declaring, "I love the poorly educated."

Establishment applause for anti-intellectualism is the equivalent of an English professor writing a book in defense of illiteracy. The political threat, however, is no joke: If an assembly of rubes and loons grows too large, as it did within the Republican Party in 2016, the so-called leadership will no longer be able to control them and, for the sake of their own survival, will simply join the mob.

The threat to society from this widespread derision of knowledge has manifested with particular urgency during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, only 27 percent of Republicans trust scientists, and only 31 percent trust medical science. The refusal to wear masks, the rejection of social-distancing recommendations and hostility to shutdown protocols are not merely fodder for political argument. These anti-intellectual outbursts could actually kill people — and almost certainly have already done so.

The bizarre opposition to masks, despite the consensus of public health experts, is also the newest episode in the right wing's assault on science. Only 43 percent of Republicans believe in evolutionary biology, and just 27 percent accept that climate change is a threat to the planet. Evangelical Christianity, a foundational element in the insanity of the modern right, is especially contemptuous of scientific expertise. Viewing scientists as their competition, "young-earth creationists" — a specific subset of evangelicals — routinely claim that fossils are not evidence of evolution but Satanic plants meant to mislead the fallen. Climate change, in this demented worldview, is nothing to worry about, because God has his hand on the thermostat. 

Millions of people who are openly hostile to scientific thought and inquiry, and who happen to dominate one of the major political parties, do not make for ideal companions in a pandemic. Unaware that they undermine their own concepts, they hold protest rallies to demand for a "full reopening" while also ridiculing the wearing of masks — probably the most important measure in keeping people safe as we move out of lockdown. 

Because American schools no longer teach geography, some citizens might be surprised to learn that other countries exist. One of those countries is Japan, and epidemiologists are studying its response to coronavirus, because Japan appears to have defeated the pandemic without resorting to full lockdowns. 

The Japanese government did cancel all public gatherings and close all schools, museums, theme parks, concert venues and sporting events, while allowing most private businesses to remain open under strict public health regulations.

Japan is a nation of 126 million people, a bit over one-third the size of the United States, and has suffered only 784 deaths from COVID-19 — well under 1 percent of our total. It is likely relevant that Japanese society has a low obesity rate and, like every other civilized country, has universal health care.

Ryuji Koike, the assistant director of Tokyo Medical and Dental University Hospital, told the Guardian he partially attributes Japan's success to other factors: "I think it looks like Japan is doing well thanks to things that can't be measured, like daily habits and Japanese behavior."

It is customary in Japanese culture for people who believe they are ill to wear masks in public, making it easy for the entire population to transition into mask-wearing. There is also widespread trust and confidence in science and data, meaning that few, if any Japanese citizens are likely to reject public health experts as tyrants who are using a "hoax" virus to wage war on their freedoms in pursuit of one-world government (or something).

It's also worth noting Japan does not have a large contingent of people who believe that an assault rifle is better protection from a virus than social distancing. Firearms are extremely difficult to acquire, and violent crime is exceptionally rare.

In the documentary "The Brink," sulfuric political consultant and onetime Trump adviser Steve Bannon explains his ambitions: It's unnecessary for the xenophobic nationalist movements he supports to win a majority of elected offices in any country, he says. The point is to "establish an immovable minority" that can serve to counterbalance on everything the majority does.

Is there any doubt that we are now living out Bannon's gruesome dream in the United States? Responsible Americans have to live with the antisocial pathologies of an immovable minority, even in the middle of a pandemic when lives are at stake.

We all know the faintly ironic expression, "This is why we can't have nice things." To Americans who are frustrated with the economic shutdown and wonder why we could not have attempted the Japanese approach, the answer is before you. Behold the anti-lockdown protests, hear our president mock masks as "politically correct," or watch a deranged viral video arguing that the entire pandemic is part of an engineered, totalitarian conspiracy. This is why we can't have nice things in America.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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