Americans are Anti-Intellectual Because...
Just before the selection of can-do politician Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to be Mitt Romney's running mate, I finally stumbled over the answer to a question that had been troubling me for years. A liberal friend had asked me, as her conservative go-to guy, why America is anti-intellectual. The answer, I finally realized, was obvious.
But nothing is obvious until you collide with the truth. For me, the collision occurred when I read Victor Davis Hanson on Gore Vidal. Hansen had met Vidal as a kid, because his dad had run a lecture series at Reedley Junior College in California in the sixties. Reedley was out in the sticks, so the Hansons had the speakers stay over at their farm rather than put them up in a flea-bitten motel in town.
So it followed that, from about age 9 to 15 (e.g., 1962-1968), I listened to every word, at dinner and the next morning's breakfast, from the likes of Ansel Adams... Pearl Buck... Louis Leakey... Bernard Lovell... Rod Serling... Mark Van Doren ...
...and, of course, Gore Vidal in 1964. This lecture series was funded by the local landowners.
The Central Valley farming community was innately conservative. But nonetheless, in the classically liberal spirit of those pre-Vietnam times, the farmers on the board not only funded my dad's proposed lecture series, but encouraged him to invite controversial, and often liberal, voices - over the objection of the careerist president of the college at that time.
With farmers like that, why do liberals insist that America is "anti-intellectual"? You can get an up-to-date flavor of liberal feeling on the matter in "Dreaming of a World Without Intellectuals" by history professor Russell Jacoby and a subsequent comment in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The fuss is about David Gelernter's America-Lite, in which Gelernter attacks the "post-religious globalist intellectuals who, by and large, 'can't run their own universities or scholarly fields, but are very sure they can run you.'" This kind of intellectual lèse-majesté doesn't sit too well with folks like Jacoby. Conservatives like Gelernter, he writes, "turn on intellectuals, professors, and presumably the specialized knowledge those experts trade in. Instead of resisting that tendency, conservative intellectuals such as Gelernter encourage it. In their flight from elitism, they end up in a populist swamp peopled by autodidacts and fundamentalists."
Close, Professor Jacoby, but no cigar. Conservatives dream of a world without totalitarian intellectuals. We'd love intellectuals to death, like those California farmers back in the 1960s, if they could agree to limits on their power, and if they could resist the temptation of scarlet-lettering conservatives as sexists, racists, and homophobes. We are all in favor of experts and specialized knowledge; we just can't stomach it when specialized experts in politics, e.g., tell us how to organize health care.
Where did liberals go wrong? Walter Russell Mead explains it all in God and Gold. America is built on a balance among religion, reason, and tradition, Mead argues. It's when the Puritans want a state church in New England, or tradition keeps slaves in the South, or liberals reduce everything to a rational bureaucratic system that America loses its way.
We autodidacts remember from when Mom and Dad took us to Shakespeare in the park and we saw Bottom the weaver wanting to play every part in the play-within-a-play. So we don't like the idea of liberals trying to replace the vibrant culture of competing religions with a single state orthodoxy called Political Correctness. We don't like all social services being reduced to comprehensive and mandatory bureaucratic systems run by liberals, and we don't like the American Way of Life being demolished in favor of liberal-sponsored and liberal-mandated "lifestyles."
The problem with intellectuals is that they have pushed the American system off balance, weakening tradition and religion in favor of dominating reason, and Americans don't like it.
Back in 2008, the Democrats ran on a platform that was self-consciously intellectual, and they spent two years busily passing their intellectual solutions to national problems in massively intellectual 2,000-page bills. The undoubted scientific fact of global warming called for a program of targeted green energy research and subsidy. The documented fact of 30 or 40 million without health insurance called for an Affordable Care Act that would bend the cost curve down with administrative committees. The financial excesses of Wall Street buccaneers would be cured with a new layer of regulation in the Dodd-Frank Act.
But are the Democrats defending their intellectual achievements with intellectual arguments? Of course. They are defending their record with the intellectual argument that Romney is an uncaring beast and Ryan wants to tip Granny over a cliff. Vice presidential pick Paul Ryan gives a speech on his Catholic conservatism at Georgetown University and is attacked by liberal profs at Georgetown before his speech.
It comes down to this: Americans are anti-intellectual because the intellectuals are anti-American.
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us. At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.