09 November 2008

Kristof : "The War on Brains"

This morning's New York Times offers up an op-ed column by Nicholas Kristof that discusses our contemporary tendency to dismiss intellectuals. The cultural disdain for "too" deep thought prompts intellectuals to disguise their abilities to avoid being identified as a curious and complex thinker, and for others to reject any inclination to thoughtful complexity altogether. Of our presidents, he writes:

Perhaps John Kennedy was the last president who was unapologetic about his intellect and about luring the best minds to his cabinet. More recently, we’ve had some smart and well-educated presidents who scrambled to hide it. Richard Nixon was a self-loathing intellectual, and Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs.

As for President Bush, he adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas.
The view that gut feelings or instinct trumps critical thinking has been about for a while, but when has it become acceptable for a president to rely on such nebulous factors to make critical decisions? Why the large-scale suspicion against people who aim to examine varying sides of an issue before arriving at a conclusion? It's Puzzling. Are we, as a nation, so frightened of complexity that we hesitate to trust it?

Mark Lilla at the Wall Street Journal (found via Sullivan) suggests that anti-intellectualism took hold about 25 years ago, when Conservative thinkers adopted Lionel Trilling's statements on the "adversary culture of intellectuals," which Lilla presents as "the left-leaning press and university establishment" of the 1970s and early 1980s. Ironically, it was Conservative intellectuals, such as Irving Kristol, who employed Trilling's phrase as they embraced populism in the mid-80s, and it caught on. Folksy "common sense" was to be trusted. Now populism has overridden Conservative thought. Lilla argues that, following the 1980s,

there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders' intellectual virtues -- indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities [. . . .] But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.

Food for thought.
With Obama, an intellectual president, we might begin to acquire a different view of intellectuals (this, of course, depends on how Obama performs as president). If so, we'll likely see a reaction within the Conservative movement to reinvigorate or reinvent its intellectual tradition and aim to "educate and ennoble" rather than jerk knees.

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