Friday, February 22, 2008

America, Anti-intellectualism and Me

Jim has a post where the Whateveresque Refugee Community is discussing (in passing) intellectual elitism. I saved the posts from the old blog, so I'm going to repost this one:

Since when hasn’t America been anti-intellectual? We have been a Nation of doers, not thinkers. There’s a reason America produced Edison and Germany produced Einstein. I’m oversimplifying here, but didn’t all you native intellectuals get a healthy dose of “if you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” when you were a kid? I know I did.

I used to think I was an intellectual. So when I started studying Russian, I naturally gravitated towards this idea of an intelligentsia. People reading Anna Akhmatova while listening to Vladimir Vysotsky and praising Andrei Sakharov. Yeah, that’s the ticket. But then my love of history rubbed my nose in some ugly truths once again. This class of intellectuals didn’t begin to turn its sardonic wit against the regime until the regime began treating them just as it treated anyone else. In fact, an awful lot of them, from Gogol to Sholokhov on down, glorified some pretty heinous stuff. Some dissidents continued to lick the occasional boot in order to remain in public life. Even my hero Bulgakov was in the process of selling out with a piece written for Stalin’s 60th birthday (it was rejected) when he died.

Then I started to think a little harder about intellectuals. And I came to some realizations. For every horror of the 20th century there have been intellectual defenders. At best, being intellectual does not seem to provide a defense against horrible political judgment, at worst, a slight-to-large majority of intellectuals have been on the wrong side of pretty much every issue I care to contemplate in the past 3 centuries.

So it seems that intellectuals, like everyone else, need a person or group to tell them when they are full of shit. Intellectuals more than most, because they are so effective at making rationalizations for their behavior. The effects of the absence of such a person or group can been seen in every totalitarian state and an awful lot of failed businesses. As a consultant, I’ve seen businesses where the CEO and his cronies have no one to tell them to consult reality before making policy. Those businesses are doomed to eventual failure unless the culture changes. When the CEO has a few trusted people around him who can tell him to shut his yap once in a while, the business is much healthier. Everyone needs that. Every writer needs an editor. Look at the turgid prose of those who are so famous they can eschew editing, if you don’t believe me. America serves that function for the world’s intellectuals (including our homegrown ones). A nation of people who became successful, by and large, without leadership from intellectuals. So we say to Europe: “shut yer yap and do something”. Oh yes, I forgot, during the Tsunami aftermath, you didn’t have enough things (like ships and planes) to do much of anything without our help. So if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich like us?

So the next logical question people ask me when this subject comes up is: how can you be a scientist and feel this way? Aren’t scientists intellectuals? Well, yes and no. Unlike most other intellectual endeavors, science has a built in mechanism for destroying stupid theories. It’s called experimentation. It drags scientists back again and again to the reality-based world, back from the world of thought. Most scientists agree that America is the best place to study science. Why is America so good to science if there are so many anti-intellectuals? Because science proves its utility over and over again. And Americans are always friendly to useful people. Our literature and art is strewn with heroes who didn’t fit into society until they proved their worth with a skill or piece of knowledge.

I’ll give you a real-life example of this difference in attitude towards scientists and other intellectuals. My Tae Kwon Do instructor in high school was, well not really a redneck, but a pretty unsophisticated and practical kind of guy. So when his niece went off to get a Ph.D. in English, he was less than impressed. She could read poetry without a degree, he said. What was she going to do as a professor except create more people with no skills and no job prospects? I kind of calmed him down with the normal liberal arts spiel of English developing critical thought and communications skills, all being part of a balanced education.** When I told him I was getting a Ph.D. in Chemistry, his reaction was electric (to me). “Come on back when you’re done. I never knew a scientist before.” Anti-intellectual? No, not really. Mistrustful of people who said they knew what was good for him better than he did? Absolutely.

The difference in outcomes between the French and American revolutions also gives ample evidence of American anti-intellectualism, or at least indifference to intellectuals. Take an issue near and dear to my heart, the metric system. Certainly several of the more scientific-minded founding fathers preferred this system, but it was never enforced by fiat. As a scientist, I’d prefer its use, and in fact I do use it. But the kind of minds that would enforce this in the 18th century were not the kind of minds that would have stepped down from power voluntarily after two terms, setting an example for generations to come. Thanks, George. But the proof in the pudding is the intellectual attitude of the French Revolution: this is how men are supposed to be, so Liberty, Fraternity and Equality (and the metric system) for all, want it or not. The Americans said: you should stop at Liberty and the rest will take care of itself: if an idea is good for society people will eventually adopt it. If not, sometimes a little inequality is a good thing. Not before the law, but everywhere else in life, different gifts and different effort deserve different rewards. And one of those rewards is not the Guillotine.

So I take this opportunityto recognize what America has given me: the opportunity to get an education and make a better life for myself than my parents or grandparents. Freedom from the political turmoil of 19th and 20th Century Europe. The freedom to think and say what I will, and learn from others as a consequence of this freedom. We owe a lot to those practical patriots of the Revolution. Long may we continue to doubt the wisdom of the elite.

**I don’t know if she was a Postmodernist, if she was I take it all back.


Nathan said...


You're supposed to leave us something to argue with you about...or something to add.

You're doing it wrong. :-)

Janiece Murphy said...

Yep, we're a bunch of "doers."

I kind of like that about us...

Eric said...

I think there's a difference between being willing to question anyone and the sort of anti-intellectualism that seems so common these days. Questioning authority is a good thing; assuming that everybody's opinion is equally valid is different.

Yes, I'm defending elitism. Rational elitism.

I practice law. I think that means that on most legal questions, especially those that are within the realm I've specialized in (criminal defense), my opinion is more valid than most non-lawyers' opinions are going to be. I have a dilettante's interest in science--but I'm going to assume that the host here has a more valid opinion on scientific topics than I do because he has expertise and training; he may not always be right, but the odds favor him. I'm also going to assume that an auto mechanic has a more valid opinion than I do when I'm having car troubles and a plumber's opinion is more valid than mine when the question involves pipes.

There's been a tendency in this country for the past fifty years to reject what I think is common sense. From the purging of the Russia experts and China hands from the State Department after WWII (and we wondered why Korea and Vietnam were such messes) to the present Administration's apparent inability to listen to military experts when planning the occupation of Iraq, there's been this tendency to eschew expertise--the expertise of the intellectuals in a given area--because of the perverse claim that "experts don't know anything." Of course experts know things, that's what the word means. And experts have only become more important in a world where there is so much information that it's almost impossible for a renaissance man to know everything--Franklin could successfully dabble in a dozen fields because, frankly, in the 18th century there was a lot less to know about all of them.

Which brings us to the Founders. I have to disagree with the characterization of the Founders as being indifferent to intellectuals. They were intellectuals, and their suspicions towards dilettantes and uninformed mobs is the reason we have an electoral college and (until the XVIIth Amendment) members of the upper house of Congress being chosen by legislatures instead of by direct election. The Founders' mistrust of the uneducated, non-intellectual public also drove the interest some of the Founders had in public education (e.g. Jefferson attempted to pass a bill that would have provided free public education to all non-slaves; the measure failed).

However, the Founders were also idealists. They were suspicious of the masses and yet hopeful of what the masses might achieve. Cynicism and optimism aren't incompatible.

The United States could have gone the way of France. I suspect that we didn't because of the size of the new country and the considerable differences between the regions: the Founders from New York, Virginia and Georgia (for instance) only agreed on one thing--the establishment of a Republic. This was as problematic as it was beneficial. We avoided the tyranny one small, homogeneous group can perpetrate (from France to Russia to Cambodia), but we got a brutal Civil War before the first American century ended. If the Federalists and Republicans had agreed on anything other than the promise of a new Republic, we might well have had the metric system and public executions. (As it was, we still had the Alien and Sedition Acts and the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion.)

To get back to the main point: yes, intellectuals can be asses. We can be wrong (I'm not trying to put on airs with that "we"--it would be putting on airs to pretend that I don't have a college degree and postgrad education; the same, I think, can respectfully said to you). We can be idiots. But sometimes, within our fields, we know what we're talking about. Military intellectuals know something about military operations and scientific intellectuals know science and legal intellectuals know law, and some people are smart enough to know a fair bit about a lot of things. Instead of pretending that every person is an expert, let's acknowledge that sometimes we need guidance from people who actually know what they're doing.

Sorry for the long comment, and thank you for an interesting and provocative post.

Janiece Murphy said...

Eric, in my business we call that being "qualified." I am utterly unqualified to have an opinion on criminal law, so I don't have one. But if you want an IP based enterprise network? I'm your gal.

It doesn't offend me that I'm unqualified to have an opinion on a myriad of subjects - as you mention, there's just too much to know for one person to be an expert in everything.

The trick is find intelligent trustworthy experts, then follow their advice.

John the Scientist said...

Eric – thank you for a thoughtful reply. A few points.

I fully expect people to disagree with my definition of "intellectual" since most people class scientists in that category. I resist because I do see a fundamental difference between me and artists and writers with no other skills, or with social scientists who do not use the scientific method to ground themselves in reality.

I think that the founders were not intellectuals in the sense we use that word today, ar at least in the sense I’m using that word. Outside the salons of Europe it was extremely difficult in the 18th century to produce an intellectual – the material level was not high enough to provide sustenance for a large number of people who lived their lives entirely in their own head. Most people had to have a day job. The closest of the FF was Jefferson, and given that I am a big fan of Hamilton, I regard Jefferson as the most dangerous of the FF if he had not had people reigning him in.

I think that you may be over-reading me by mistaking my attacks against intellectuals as attacks against thinking people. Experts are necessary - but they have to have a working BS detector, or you run into what Zenpundit was talking about here - the "Curse of Knowledge". What I am attacking is the multitude of elites that infect Washington today. The socialists who so screwed up Social Security in the 30s and their heirs, and the third generation upper-middle class jackasses in places like the Cato institute who don’t realize how sticky the bottom rungs of the economic ladder are. Economists who have never run a real business. It is a highly dangerous development in the modern world that a person can go through 27 years of life, get a Ph.D. in the social sciences and never have had a real job beyond flipping burgers. Such people have no bullshit detectors. (I blogged about that on the CB here.)

In “Portraits of the Revolutionaries” Trotsky went on at length about the concept of “Dual Power (Dvoevlastia)” – the 1905 uprising trained the largely useless intellectuals of the Bolshevik faction in practical matters. Twenty years later another cop of useless Bolshevik intellectuals mis-interpreted grain statistics and took too much seed grain from Ukrainian farmers, instigating a famine. (Stalin seized on this and made it worse, but the initial mistake was made by people who got all of their learning from books). It’s mostly from my study of the glorification of theory and “intelligentsia” in Russia that I come by my attitude.

The thinkers on the continent who came closest to being modern intellectuals were also the thinkers whose muddled thoughts infect politics today. Rousseau and the “Noble Savage” comes to mind (he was Pol Pot’s favorite author). Intellectuals tend to become cynics because in their head the world could become perfect, so you see the sardonic wits of Mirabeau and Moliere – sardonic but empty, because the best they had to replace the old regime with was the terror. Men such as Necker and Lavoisier were reviled for trying to actually do things, to use their intellect for practical purposes, and the guillotining of Lavoisier is perhaps the ultimate example of their pernicious effect.

The founders did things. They were not wholly men of intellect. George Washington ran a farm, grist mill, and distillery. Before he became president he led an army. Before he led an army he led a colonial militia under Braddock (and thus the British trained the man who would oust them). This kept him grounded in reality and made him the great man he came to be. Rousseau in that position would have been a disaster.