Eons ago—in 1980—word-machine Isaac Asimov had an essay in Newsweek entitled “A Cult Of Ignorance.”
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain against anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by a false notion that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Asimov was wrong. On matters where people think, or know, they are ignorant, they scarcely or never weigh in with an opinion. Ask an ordinary citizen the best method to measure recalcitrant membrane proteins, or what other configurations of his fleet d’Aigalliers might have chosen and this citizen will tell you he hasn’t a clue and will happily leave the matter to experts.
Unless the citizen is asked to vote on a question related to these matters. Then he will be forced to form an opinion. Then that man’s ignorance is just as good as, and must be just as good as, your knowledge. That is the definition of democracy.
Put up for vote a question in which our man must weigh in on the importance of transmembrane versus integral monotopic proteins, say a matter of funding over which is best to explore first, and then suddenly everybody has an opinion and must have an opinion.
Good Democrats always choose transmembrane proteins. Everybody knows all but RINOs opt for integral monotopic proteins. Only deniers deny the importance of transmembrane proteins! Once politics discovers the subject, it wouldn’t be long before students in colorful vests harass passersby with, “Do you have a minute for monotopic proteins?”
Since proteomics is not a subject to faint of heart, only the minority of minorities will understand it. Yet since everybody must have an opinion it (as we are imagining), those who do not, or are not, able to grasp its essentials are subject to being led by those who have strong opinions, or interests, or demagogues.
Asimov admits as much without understanding. “Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school.” Who wants to be spoken down to on a matter on which he must have an opinion?
Democracy is politics. Once something becomes political, there is little chance of it becoming unpolitical, unless it is forgotten by some more-current crisis. Because Democracy is politics, and since people have to have opinions on matters they don’t understand, it’s natural for the citizenry to disparage elite opinion which differs from their own.
That makes Asimov partly right. There will be anti-intellectualism in a Democracy, yet it will be caused by Democracy.
Anti-intellectualism will also be caused by intellectuals themselves.
Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that was all his own and that has been the been the despair of satirists ever since.
George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the “pointy-headed professor,” and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-headed audience.
Stevenson, a Democrat, the progressives’ progressive and anti-anti-communist—he backed the nortorious spy Alger Hiss—was trounced in 1952 and again in 1956 by Eisenhower. Wallace, also a Democrat, was a segregationist who gave the party a bad name at a time when the party’s more progressive members sought to clean up its image; he also made attempts at the Presidency.
Asimov praises Stevenson as an intellectual, which is true. Yet even intellectuals err. The greater public was surely unable to analyze in-depth philosophical arguments about international socialism’s inherent contradictions and fallacies, just as they aren’t able to discuss intelligently the finer points of proteomics (or naval history), but it didn’t, and doesn’t, take a genius to recognize the horrors of communism and progressivism. Unlike proteomics, the errors or communism are obvious to most (alas, not all), and the strictures of progressivism touch everybody. Hence it is natural for people to dismiss the high-faultin’ theorizing of intellectuals who support these ideas.
It is also true that most public intellectuals have been and are now progressives; or Enlightened, if you prefer. Since many of the ideas of progressivism go against Reality and Tradition, the areas average folk know well and instinctively, it’s also natural there would develop a tradition deriding intellectuals. Of course, tacit premises in this argument include American’s native rambunctiousness and independence.