Our proud American tradition of anti-intellectualism


There’s a piece in The Washington Post today about the rise of denial in our society, as in denial of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, the Holocaust.

What grabbed me, though, was the subhed “Anti-intellecualism on the rise.” That drew me because my study of history all those years ago in college deeply impressed me with what a powerful theme that has been in our history (particularly coming into its own when the flat-Earther Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in 1828).

Anyway, to quote from the piece:

In the United States, anti-intellectualism dates back to the founding fathers, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored the wisdom of the common man over the expertise of the elites, embodied by Alexander Hamilton. Since then, the American population has tended to support a belief that ‘regular people’ know best and experts are suspect. This notion flares up when we think that our core values are under attack, as with McCarthyism, and today — with immigration, cyber security and other national concerns — it seems to be back with a vengeance….

Yeah, we’ve noticed. Although the chief evidence, it seems to me isn’t suspicion of vaccines, but the rise of Donald Trump, to whom facts are inconvenient, hostile things.

And let me hasten to say, had I lived in Jefferson’s day, I’d have been a Federalist…

13 thoughts on “Our proud American tradition of anti-intellectualism

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, just to mention a pet peeve: I had to type that excerpt out word for word. The WP piece wasn’t the usual sort of content, and it shared a trait with ALL copy in The New York Times the last couple of months: You can’t copy and paste it.

    I don’t know why all those editors have suddenly decided that they hate bloggers so much. I guess they don’t want us leading the reading public to their content. Which strikes me as hugely stupid, but there it is.

    I hope I didn’t make any errors in my time-consuming transcription…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      When I first started blogging 11 years ago, I saw no need for excerpts, as long as I linked you to the copy I was talking about. But Cindi Scoppe convinced me that I needed to make my posts internally coherent, and not force people to follow links in order to follow my points.

      So I started excerpting. But I try to excerpt the bare minimum to have the post make sense, because I really want you to follow the links and learn more.

      Which is why it strikes me as self-destructive for content providers to make it hard for me to do that…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, that habit of minimally excerpting used to lead to accusations from some of my more hostile readers, back in the days before I started moderating.

        I would quote just enough to make the point I was trying to make, and include the link as an encouragement to everyone to go read the rest.

        And how was I rewarded for my pains and my respect for Fair Use? Trolls would accuse of me having cherry-picked the part of the piece that supported my point, and trying to hide the parts that did not…

        … when I was the one who sent them to the whole piece.

        People are really something…

    2. Mark Stewart

      Right click Print. Select “Save as PDF”. In that window (you don’t even need to save the file) you can copy any of the text you like.

      There are always work-arounds. Always.

  2. Dave Crockett

    Your inability to cut and paste the content prompted me to read the piece. I found it very interesting and made a lot of very cogent points. But I must confess that I was a little taken aback by the disclaimer on it:
    “This content is paid for by an advertiser and published by WP BrandStudio. The Washington Post newsroom was not involved in the creation of this content. Learn more about the WP BrandStudio.” If you follow the disclaimer, you will find that the post is apparently generating a lot of revenue with these paid content pieces.

    But at least that appears to explain the inability to cut and paste. The underlying html has been set up to prevent it. I can only presume allowing it would potentially short-circuit the revenue stream model they have built to take you to other revenue-producing advertising content. It is possible to pull up the page source and get to the text in an accessible fashion. But then you’d have to set up some pretty extensive filtering to remove the html tags for excerpting. Here’s a piece of what you’d deal with (I’m hoping this will post as plain text):

    It’s the deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one’s belief system

    Why we deny
    Denial is the “deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one’s belief system,” says Paul Appelbaum, former head of the American Psychiatric Association. It’s a way, really, for people to make things make sense to themselves. If you love a good steak, for example, you might find a way to dismiss the idea that animals can feel pain—what psychologists call the “meat paradox.”
    A similar rationale is at play when the parent of an autistic child chooses to ignore the fact that the infamous 1998 “Lancet” study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism was later retracted, because the parent would prefer to have something upon which to blame the child’s terrifying disorder. For many, denial is easier than being afraid or confused.

    1. Dave Crockett

      Well, that was interesting. In my desire to show you the coding, it actually removed the html and gave the raw text. Well, well….

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      WOW, I completely missed that, David! Thanks so much for pointing that out!

      I wondered what “BrandStudio” was, and “CONTENT FROM BLEECKER STREET” mystified me. I assumed it was the platform on which the content resided. I had no idea that wasn’t Post content.

      I should have looked at it a LOT harder.

      Now that I know, it explains a LOT. I wondered why, in a piece from a newspaper, climate and Holocaust denial were being offered as examples of anti-intellectualism without any reference (in the part I read) to the current election. The news peg was missing. Now I see it’s because it wasn’t produced by NEWS people.

      So… I wonder if this innovation is something Jeff Bezos has come up with as a way for newspapers to make more money. If so, he needs to be a LOT more transparent about labeling it as paid content, not real editorial content…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          My only defense is that I wasn’t interested in the overall thrust of the piece; I only cared about the brief reference to anti-intellectualism in U.S. history, which is what prompted my post…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Speaking of anti-intellectualism, check out this piece I meant to post about yesterday, “If my candidate is behind, the poll must be biased.”

    I’ll never understand that mentality. If you tell me that a candidate I favor is behind based on a scientific poll, I’ll be distressed, but I’ll appreciate you cluing me in to the situation. Thanks for the warning.

    Of course, I also have trouble understanding the mentality behind a related phenomenon, the bandwagon effect. The very idea that some people would decide whom to vote for on the basis of which candidate they think is going to win anyway is just mind-blowing…

  4. Burl Burlingame

    It’s the 26 percent authoritarian complex. A strong leader attracts followers who aren’t necessarily weak-minded, they’re psychologically programmed that way from birth. They also follow the crowd.

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