Obama: Overcoming Anti-Intellectualism?


Clearly influenced by this post Nicholas Kristof has this to say about Obama:

The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.

Maybe, just maybe, the result will be a step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life. Smart and educated leadership is no panacea, but we’ve seen recently that the converse — a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance — doesn’t get very far either.

We can’t solve our educational challenges when, according to polls, Americans are approximately as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution, and when one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun orbits the Earth.

Almost half of young Americans said in a 2006 poll that it was not necessary to know the locations of countries where important news was made. That must be a relief to Sarah Palin, who, according to Fox News, didn’t realize that Africa was a continent rather than a country.

Krisof offers some examples from history, making special note of Bush:

As for President Bush, he adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas.

At least since Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns for the presidency in the 1950s, it’s been a disadvantage in American politics to seem too learned. Thoughtfulness is portrayed as wimpishness, and careful deliberation is for sissies. The social critic William Burroughs once bluntly declared that “intellectuals are deviants in the U.S.”

(It doesn’t help that intellectuals are often as full of themselves as of ideas. After one of Stevenson’s high-brow speeches, an admirer yelled out something like, You’ll have the vote of every thinking American! Stevenson is said to have shouted back: That’s not enough. I need a majority!)

Yet times may be changing. How else do we explain the election in 2008 of an Ivy League-educated law professor who has favorite philosophers and poets?

Granted, Mr. Obama may have been protected from accusations of excessive intelligence by his race. That distracted everyone, and as a black man he didn’t fit the stereotype of a pointy-head ivory tower elitist. But it may also be that President Bush has discredited superficiality.

An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and — President Bush, lend me your ears — that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.

(Intellectuals are for real. In contrast, a pedant is a supercilious show-off who drops references to Sophocles and masks his shallowness by using words like “fulgent” and “supercilious.”)

Mr. Obama, unlike most politicians near a microphone, exults in complexity. He doesn’t condescend or oversimplify nearly as much as politicians often do, and he speaks in paragraphs rather than sound bites. Global Language Monitor, which follows linguistic issues, reports that in the final debate, Mr. Obama spoke at a ninth-grade reading level, while John McCain spoke at a seventh-grade level.

Kristof worries, however:

As Mr. Obama prepares to take office, I wish I could say that smart people have a great record in power. They don’t. Just think of Emperor Nero, who was one of the most intellectual of ancient rulers — and who also killed his brother, his mother and his pregnant wife; then castrated and married a slave boy who resembled his wife; probably set fire to Rome; and turned Christians into human torches to light his gardens.

James Garfield could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other, Thomas Jefferson was a dazzling scholar and inventor, and John Adams typically carried a book of poetry. Yet all were outclassed by George Washington, who was among the least intellectual of our early presidents.

4 thoughts on “Obama: Overcoming Anti-Intellectualism?

  1. I’m afraid Obama won for the simple reason that in the political cycle it was the Democrats’ turn to win; Bush’s unpopularity was more diagnostic of rhetorical fatigue than any substantive disagreements with his policies. Obama won as big as he did because of the economy. I doubt there’s any useful conclusion to be drawn about an opening to intellectuality here; and if folks remain as anti-intellectual as I think they do, Obama’s rhetorical fatigue curve may be shorter than W.’s. I’m going to enjoy this ride while it lasts.

  2. I agree. I don’t think Americans will all of a sudden fall in love with intellectuals. However, I always found the argument that Obama was winning/eventually won because of the economy a bit underdeveloped – does that mean that folks generally trust a Democrat when economy is bad? and is the implication then that Republicans aren’t good for economy?

  3. Good point. I think it’s that when the economy is going well, folks fill their sails with dreams of wealth; when the economy is going badly, they look for ports in the storm. Republican economics is thought to be better about making headway, Democratic economics is better about keeping afloat.

    How’s that for playing out a metaphor? Eh? Eh?

  4. [Thunderous applause] Good point all around, I have to admit though that I have never traveled by boat, so I find your metaphor beautiful but hard to grasp – I always thought there was a lot of seasick people and therefore involuntary puking involved…

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