Sunday, July 3, 2011

Thoughts on anti-intellectualism

Growing up in Sweden and then living in America (= here USA) subjects you to some interesting cultural contradictions.  American culture is vast, both geographically, but also culturally, ethnically, and socially.  One of the things that have bothered and surprised me most is how some people, many of them politicians, despise knowledge and scientific facts.

For these people, I always wonder what they would say if they came to a hospital and the doctors there wouldn't know the latest and best treatments or use the most modern technology.  Oh no, they want the latest and the best science, but only when it comes to medicine it seems.  Not when it comes to the environment, climate, international politics, or making society work so it functions the best for all.  In these latter cases, science should be miscredited and seen as elitist and the opposite of 'common sense'. 

I think it has to do with the mega-obsession in the American culture of the individual, the egocentric way of thinking "me" and "I" about most things.  Strangely enough it is often based on a Christian foundation, which to me should mean sharing, fairness, and equality, but oh no, here it is much more of 'I deserve this' and 'you don't deserve that' here in the US.

I am overgeneralizing here, because there are many people and community groups that are not at all like this, but there is a general, historic, and very bothersome trend to only care about yourself and your family in this country.  That is why USA is 40 years behind Europe in environmentally friendly policies and systems, have no good affordable daycare systems, and a large proportion of the citizens have no health insurance at all.  This is a country of egoists, indeed, speaking in general terms.  [A caveat here too, some of the most generous and friendly people I have ever met have been Americans.]

I was reminded about all this when I read a very good article in a recent issue of the magazine Academe:  A Brief History of Anti-intellectualism in American Media by Dane S. Claussen.  Here is her summary of the three types of anti-intellectualism that were proposed in the 1950s, and I think they still stand, unfortunately.

"Briefly, and at the risk of oversimplifying and overgeneralizing, Rigney (and Hofstadter) found three types of anti-intellectualism: (1) “religious antirationalism,” the view that emotion is warm (that is, good) and reason cold (bad), an outlook often complemented by absolute systems of belief (primarily conservative Protestantism); (2) “populist anti-elitism,” public skepticism first of the patrician class of “gentlemen politicians” and old money (which still flares up, as against George H. W. Bush) and later public hostility toward progressive politics and support of such figures as Joe McCarthy or George Wallace; and (3) “unreflective instrumentalism,” beliefs and behavior indicating that knowledge is worthless unless it immediately and directly leads to material gain, such as profits or higher salaries and wages." (source)

So, what do you do when arugula becomes a bad word, or when media complains that the presidents wants spicy or Dijon mustard on his burger, because that is supposedly 'anti-American and elitist'.  The people here are not only crazy at times, but also very stupid, and proud of being stupid, that is the weirdest.  I don't know what to do when reason fails for these people... but it is utterly frustrating to watch.

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