One of the recurring features of American intellectual life is hand-wringing over “anti-intellectualism” by, of course, intellectuals.
One of my regular commenters has pointed out that the term and concept of anti-intellectualism are used to describe several distinct phenomena that are relatively easily confused. He’s right, and I think it could bring some clarity to the murkier corners of the culture wars to develop the point.
Note: The term “intellectual” is not infrequently applied to me. By the end of this essay it should be clear why, though I recognize the justice in that application, I’m not completely happy with it.
One kind of “anti-intellectualism” is opposition to “intellectuals” considered as an interest group or social class in the Marxian sense – what Russian writers called the intelligentsia. The only more specific term I can think of for this is anti-intelligentsianism, an ugly coinage which will have to do for the duration of this essay.
Another kind is what I’ll call traditionalism. The traditionalist believes that intellectuals discard or undervalue what Russell Kirk called “the organic wisdom of institutions” (in England and continental Europe this position is associated with Edmund Burke). The traditionalist opposes intellectuals not because they form an interest group but because he believes their ceaseless questioning carelessly damages the organic fabric of society, woven by history and supporting human happiness in ways not understood until it is torn asunder.
Next we come to what I’ll call the epistemic-skeptical anti-intellectual. His complaint is that intellectuals are too prone to overestimate their own cleverness and attempt to commit society to vast utopian schemes that invariably end badly. Where the traditionalist decries intellectuals’ corrosion of the organic social fabric, the epistemic skeptic is more likely to be exercised by disruption of the signals that mediate voluntary economic exchanges. This position is often associated with Friedrich Hayek; one of its more notable exponents in the U.S. is Thomas Sowell, who has written critically about the role of intellectuals in society.
Less commonly, we encounter what might be called totalizing anti-intellectualism. Where the traditionalist wishes to preserve what is or was, the totalizing anti-intellectual wants to remake the world by any means necessary. He is a partisan for a specific totalizing system of thought which regards the methods and habits of intellectuals (and possibly the traditionalist’s fabric of society, too) as its enemy. In Europe the totalizing system is likely to be romantic blood-and-soil nationalism, Marxism, or Fascism; in the U.S. it is likely to be fundamentalist Christianity. Elsewhere, under the influence of the anti-rationalism of
Al-Ghazali, Islam teaches a particularly violent and exclusive variant of totalizing anti-intellectualism.
Finally, we have what I’ll call the thalamic anti-intellectual. The thalamic anti-intellectual’s opposition is not ideological but personal and gut-level. There can be many reasons for this, but one that will stand for all is that intellectuals make him feel inferior and personally threatened.
These are five different phenomena with different sources. So, when American intellectuals rail against “anti-intellectualism”, it’s important to pin down which kind they are actually talking about. And a major, related problem is that intellectuals sometimes pretend to be talking about one kind of anti-intellectualism as a way of discrediting another against which they don’t actually have good arguments.
For example: when an intellectual is attacking traditionalist anti-intellectualism, he or she is quite likely to pretend that the opponent’s position is totalizing or thalamic. Secular intellectuals in the U.S. frequently dismiss religious traditionalists in exactly this way.
Two red flags to watch for are the words “idiocracy” and “Dominionist”. When an American intellectual speaks of the former, he is very likely to be trying to tar a traditionalist as a thalamic, while the latter is usually an attempt to mischaracterize a traditionalist as a fire-breathing zealot for fundamentalist Christianity.
Mind you, real Christian Dominionists do exist; it should be no news to any of my regular readers that I think Christianity is totalizing and evil at its core. Nevertheless, in our historical moment that tendency is well enough suppressed that accusations of Dominionism are almost always false, revealing ignorance and (often) rhetorical dishonesty on the part of the accuser.
Because it’s extremely difficult to make people like F. A. Hayek or Thomas Sowell look stupid enough to be thalamic or totalitarian enough to be totalizers, the usual form of dishonest attack intellectuals use against epistemic skeptics is to accuse them of being traditionalists covertly intent on preserving some existing set of power relationships. Every libertarian who has ever been accused of conservatism knows about this one up close and personal.
But the most pervasive form of dishonesty in intellectuals’ attacks on anti-intellectualism is to pretend that anti-intelligentsianism doesn’t exist, anything that looks like it has to be one of the other four kinds, and the history of the intelligentsia as a political interest group is not even a legitimate topic of discussion.
But it needs to be. Because the intelligentsia has displayed a consistent political pattern over the last 150 years: believing in its own intellectual and moral superiority, it has sought a leading role in politics, promoting a vision of itself as benign philosopher-kings who can steer society to virtue, equality, and fulfillment.
The vehicles of this belief have been many. At its worst, it has led the intelligentsia to endorse and propagandize for totalizing systems like Communism, which the intelligentsia conceived could be guided to good ends in its use of power by – who else? – intellectuals. It is forgotten, but true, that before World War II many intellectuals were attracted to Fascism for the same reason. In this way much of the intelligentsia of the 20th century became accomplices in and apologists for the most hideous mass murders in human history.
This is why I am not entirely comfortable with being called an intellectual. To many people who never went to college, “intellectuals” still equates to “those people who tried to betray us to the totalitarians”. There is enough justice in that charge to make me flinch. And it is not yesterday’s charge, either; the intelligentsia’s determined persecution of refugees from Islamic oppression and anyone else who dares speak truthfully about it are as disgraceful today as Walter Duranty’s paeans to Stalinism were in the 1930s.
I have argued elsewhere that the West’s intelligentsia were successfully subverted by Soviet memetic warfare, and I believe that Gramscian damage remains a central problem in Western politics. But my charge here does not depend on that model. The desire of the intelligentsia to become philosopher-kings predates the Soviets or even Marxism per se; it is already visible in the early 19th century, tangled up in debates about meritocracy and the establishment or disestablishment of religion.
Even where the intelligentsia has not attached itself to totalizing political ideologies, the effects of its belief in its own superiority have been consistent. Technocratic, credentialist, and statist – the intelligentsia perpetually urges us to cede control of our lives to the smart people, the educated ones, the experts, the selected elite – if not the intellectuals, then the bureaucratic machines guided by intellectuals.
There’s a nearly extinct political tendency called “clericalism” which held that society should be guided by priests, considered as a disinterested non-hereditary elite with better education and morality than possessed by mere laypeople. The intelligentsia’s political instincts can be best described as a sort of neo-clericalism in which education substitutes for ordination.
To every action, a reaction. Much “anti-intellectualism” is a reaction against intellegentsian neo-clericalism. Of course the intelligentsia, sensing this, caricatures the opposition as yokels, know-nothings, and reactionaries. But the uncomfortable questions won’t go away. If you’re so bright, why the constant sucking up to dictators? If you’re so bright, why are modern art and literature such a depressing wasteland? If you’re so bright, why do so many of your grand social-engineering schemes end in corruption and tears?
If “intellectuals” really want to understand and defeat anti-intellectualism, they need to start by looking in the mirror. They have brought this hostility on themselves by serving their own civilization so poorly. Until they face that fact, and abandon their neo-clericalist presumptions, “anti-intellectualism” will continue to get not only more intense, but more deserved.