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.