Anti-intellectualism in the Age of Drumpf

Hint: It's just like anti-intellectualism in all other eras of American history. With a few slight tweaks to accommodate the accidents of circumstance.

I recently finished reading Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life. He published it in the early 1960s, following on the McCarthyism of the 50s, which particularly targeted intellectuals and entertainers. I say this in part to establish his credibility. However strongly we may feel about the uniqueness of Drumpfian rhetoric, the reality is that politicians have been suspicious of the creators and critics of culture throughout history.

Part of Hofstadter's purpose in writing the book was to provide a historical overview. And while writing about "anti-intellectualism" suggests a certain bias, he does want to offer the thesis that intellectuals come under attack most frequently when they are enjoying a certain degree of prominence. How much more have the technological and scientific advances in warfare required us to rely on "experts" for our national "defense"? How often do we hear experts on economy or the Middle East called in to comment on television shows or, more importantly, to advise presidents, Congressmen, and cabinet members regarding policy decisions?

Given the abstract nature of all of this knowledge such experts sell, it's hard not to feel as if our world has somehow gotten away from us. If common sense is no longer sufficient to wisely determine our political destiny, how can we ever hope to understand it well enough to make a difference: we mere mortals, whose days are spent buying into a dream of prosperity and slogging through the tangled morass of a broken system created by our collective decisions?

I am sympathetic to the cry for a common sense philosophy of life. There's a reason why Wendell Berry's essays and poetry, his Mad Farmer rhetoric, speak to my bones. He talks of solid things in a world that is built out of information and run on attention. And he offers a welcome alternative: he is not uneducated or unintelligent, and he is certainly capable of grappling with culture and ethical problems. In other words, he is no Drumpf, preying on the fears of the people against the disturbing Other. Instead, he seeks to offer a different ideal for what life could be like, if we chose to live it on different terms and with different goals in mind.

But I'm not wholly prepared to shred up my diploma and reject all things academical, purely on the appeal of common sense. What is common sense anyway? Let us say that it is in some measure the pragmatic knowledge necessary for survival. Not only that one must eat, but that one must not eat poison or too many cookies. Not only that one should be home before dark, but that one must not appear threatening in the presence of a police officer or walk through predominantly white neighborhoods.

Oh wait.

I'm not really talking about race right now. My point was rather, that when we talk about common sense, we're talking in part about traditional or social knowledge. Survival is a very limited part of what makes up common sense, but even that which seems like it ought to be most basic is bound up in the accidental circumstances of our society. If you're a person of color, survival is not merely about getting food or shelter: it's also about deflecting the real physical threat that subconscious racism poses when it finds expression in an armed police officer doing a routine traffic stop.

This isn't to denigrate common sense as a whole. We are more apt to decry the lack of it than to wish for it to be done away with entirely. My point is rather that as a foundation for life and as the source of a holistic worldview, common sense can only get you so far, again because it is a product of your society's circumstances.

Common sense hasn't always had the meaning that it has taken on today. It was a philosophical term used in discussions of the mind-body problem (i.e. how do the mind and body relate? is the mind of the same substance as the body and if so, where is it located? if it is not of the same substance, is the mind immortal? and so forth) and more generally of perception. The common sense was simply the organ of the mind whereby all of the different sensory data where compiled into one. Hearing being fundamentally different from touch or from sight, they could not all be perceived by the same organs, but something had to bring all of those perceptions together, and that organ was the common sense.

Taken in that light, common sense is quite raw and uncritical. The common sense belonged to the lower faculties of the brain, the animal powers as it were. It was simply combinatory in nature. The processes of pattern recognition or of critical analysis would not take place at that level.

And it seems like this is what we are being urged toward when we are told to take a common sense view of things--and to discard the bombastic, empty pronouncements of the intellectuals. Take the world as it presents itself to you. What you see is what there is. Appearances are the only thing that there is.

...Denying, all the while, that your senses are not selectively attentive, shaped by myriad, minuscule, unconscious influences from the tone of a man's voice when he talks down to a woman to the perennial aesthetic association of darkness with evil to the blockbuster movies that are somehow always about white people romancing or white people fighting crime or white people having dramatic family redemption stories.

Clearly neither camp has it quite right. If you spend too much time up in the ivory tower, you'll lose touch with the world that can't be contained inside your head and go mad, like Chesterton's mathematician for whom the only cure was poetry. If you react purely on your gut without critical evaluation, you'll make poor decisions based on immediately available information and lack the faculties necessary to change your life for the better.

I suppose it's just the struggle to figure out which one to trust in the moment that I find hard. It's rarely difficult to think something out, once you have a few tools, but it always seems to be so difficult to apply it.

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