Anti-intellectualism seems to have become a topic for the masses of educated navel-gazers around the time of Bush II. The phenomenon and criticisms of it go back further, though, as primetime Bob Saget and mid-90s Bob Saget jokes will attest. It’s also not just an American thing. When reality TV shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and Wife Swap washed up on the shores of the Continent (or, more accurately, when these Dutch products were reimported), Eurotrash snobs were just as distraught about what it meant about their culture(s) as they were enthusiastic about what 2003’s record temperatures would do to ‘the vintage’. There are few more bourgeois, elitist sentiments than indignation about anti-intellectualism, and the Euros might even have the Americans beat on this one. But what is anti-intellectualism? The first clue that something here is fishy is that it’s much easier to say what anti-intellectualism is than what intellectualism is. Anti-intellectualism is the condemnation you hear from Jon Stewart & co. when people don’t want to fund NPR or when they not only disagree with what your book says, they’re not even interested in reading it. Anti-intellectualism is the diagnosis when the symptom is that municipal symphony orchestras get axed. Other symptoms include preferences for swag over accessories for YOLO over carpe diem.
So this should give us a hint about intellectualism, shouldn’t it? Is NPR really intellectual? I’m no connoisseur, but on every occasion I’ve listened to it, it seemed formally just like People magazine: celebrities from different fields of activity talking about their latest project and the meta-level of people talking about those celebrities. Maybe I was tuning it at the wrong time, but there was very little discussion of anything hard, any ideas that took effort. Brain science gets reduced to metaphor, culture gets reduced to paintings of landscapes. How many of the people bemoaning the decline of municipal symphonies actually sponsor them, subscribe to their programmes or even take their kids to see Peter and the Wolf or the Nutcracker? I know it’s hard to hear, but YOLO = carpe diem. Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society was giving his students the philosophy of YOLO. (Foreshadow: that’s not exactly true because the medium is the message, and the medium of carpe diem was a private school for privileged WASP teenage boys).
So anti-intellectualism isn’t a matter of behaviour, because the problem isn’t that poor people aren’t going to the opera, it’s that nobody’s going to the opera. So if anti-intellectualism isn’t something that people do, what is it? It’s a matter of taste and of the capacity to discern quality. But that taste is pretty insubstantial, because everybody is sitting at home watching Wife Swap and everybody is taking their kids to Michael Bay’s latest explosofest and everybody is listening to talk radio (yes, NPR is a lot of talking). That taste is more of a system of labeling things, just like brand names can label soft drinks and cereals. Everybody drinks cola, but some people drink artisanally crafted, micro-brewed, small batch cola bean confections, and some people drink generic. Everybody’s doing the same thing, but some people do it anti-intellectually, which is like saying “Ewww! Generic!”.
So now we can say what intellectualism is. It’s conspicuous consumption. (If you’re looking for reading tips, the name to google is Thorstein Veblen). The idea is that nobody really needs things like NPR’s fluff or for their kids to learn a language like Mandarin or for a nanny for their dog, but since nobody needs it, doing it anyway is a way of signifying status. By doing so, you’re different from those who don’t, even if you’re learning as much about the universe from the cartoon presentations of brain science as they do from an Insane Clown Posse concert. The point isn’t the quality or the benefit; it’s the exclusivity and only the exclusivity. Making flights and symphony tickets cheap killed their ability to signify status. But when you put on an exclusive classical concert somewhere exotic, the rich and famous show up.* They’ll be listening to their Ipods with earbuds up in the balcony, but that’s to be expected because they’re there for the red carpet, to which you have no access, not for the music, to which you do.
Before we get extensive, let’s go a little more intensive with a prediction: when we’re closer to the last drop of oil and everyone is driving electric cars, the NPR crowd who are now trading in their Priusses (Prii? Operator: help, I need an accusative plural. Or is that genitive? Operator!) for Teslas (NB: not electric cars, but Teslas) will start fawning over gas guzzlers, probably for their raw authenticity, even though the fumes and noise will be even more offensive in the future.
But I said above that Yerapeeyans might be even worse anti-intellectuals than Americans, contrary to popular intellectual belief. Here we go.
Over the last couple of years, German politicians have been dropping like flies. First the Defence Minister resigned (full name: Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg – ‘von und zu’ indicates his nobility; he’s something like a junior count). Then came the chairwoman of the German liberal party (that’s European liberal – something like a laissez-faire democrat for you Yankees), Silvana Koch-Mehrin. Then came another MEP (Member of the European Parliament) from the German liberal party, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis – yes, he’s ethnically Greek, but Queen Elizabeth II is ethnically Saxon, so there you go. Then there were two local politicians in Bavaria, both of whom were children of the former Bavarian premier, Edmund Stoiber. Then, on the 9th, the Federal Education Minister, Annette Schavan resigned. They all resigned for the same reason: it came out that they had plagiarized their PhD theses, some of which are over 30 years old.
And it’s not just the Germans either. The Hungarian president resigned last year for the same reason, various Greek politicians have been caught, and even Russia’s man for all seasons, Vladimir Putin has been busted.
The media discussion about all of this has focused pretty much on whether cheating on a dissertation is a resignable offence. Plenty of competent ministers around the world are able to get by without PhDs, and most of them were doing no worse than most other politicians in their roles, so why should they have to quit. Is it different for an Education Minister, who is supposed to set university policies and stuff? Is this just a tactic for people who oppose them and can’t win an election the old fashioned way? Etc.
The angle that nobody seems to have picked up is that, if these people had no academic ambition or burning curiosity in the sense of a question they feel they need to answer for the world, why did they all get PhDs in the first place? Even though most European countries don’t make you pay very much for getting a PhD, it will still delay your progress in other respects while you’re copying, pasting, and waiting for a credible interval of time to have passed. Copying also gives you a exactly the kind of open flank that your political opponents can use. It’s another skeleton in your closet, along with the hookers & blow (but without hookers & blow, the world would simply grind to a halt). You don’t need it, it’s a liability, and it’s actually costly, so why?
How many truck drivers have PhDs, whether real or faked? How many dental assistants or call centre drones can put Dr. before their names? It’s conspicuous consumption. Since everybody is crowding into higher education right now, hoping to wait out the crappy job market or not realizing that the ship of durable employment has sailed, there are going to be a ton of PhDs coming on to the market soon. Which is going to make them like hybrid cars and symphony tickets. Those who have been trying to signify their superiority via title will have to find something new. Something that you can’t get.
But is there anything more hostile to anything that could pass as ‘intellectualism’ than hijacking and embezzling the symbols of intellectual achievement? It’s just aping the original. It’s not even buying or selling the symbols, like prints of a Picasso; it’s using them for a totally different purpose, like using a Picasso as toilet paper to show you can. Anybody remember when Prince Albert of Monaco led an Olympic bobsled team? Pudgy European royal puts together a team of ringers in an expensive sport that’s impossible in his home country just to add ‘olympic athlete’ to his resume, as if a resume was something he ever needed. That’s kind of an insult to the other athletes, to the event, and to sport as a domain of human endeavour, right? Kind of degrading, isn’t it? It’s the same deal with the false PhDs. They’re fake symbols of intellect and work, but they’re still supposed to work as real symbols of status.
The class element is in the exclusivity, and that’s why European anti-intellectualism is probably even worse than the American variant. Anybody can assume that one book holds all truth or that books in general are crap. Ignorance is very democratic. The anti-intellectualism that degrades thinking while simultaneously serving to separate one group of people from another based on a symbol, that’s perverse.
*What’s gonna burn your noodle later is the question of whom they’re trying to impress. They hardly run across the plebes on a normal day, and they certainly don’t care what they think. The privileged also hate each other, which is why they’ll vulture on each other’s scandals and tragedies. So who’s the audience?