Ignorance is not bliss: The dangerous politics of anti-intellectualism
President Donald Trump. Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images.
Thoughtful, studied consideration does not reign supreme in American politics, and frankly, I can’t think of an era it did. Conversely, I also can’t think of an era like ours where crankery and ignorance are entertained so prominently and with such deference.
Author Isaac Asimov may have best characterized the mindless beast of legitimized stupidity in a 1980 column for Newsweek magazine.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been,” he wrote. “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” blew up like a keg of gunpowder when he dropped it on what he perceived to be the increasingly thick skulls of his fellow Americans in 1963.
Hofstadter argued that anti-intellectualism was a function of America’s cultural heritage from European colonialism and evangelical Protestantism, and not necessarily a byproduct of small-d democracy.
In 1985, Neil Postman’s crowning achievement, “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” provided a most prescient analysis of the current lobotimization of American public discourse.
Postman’s work drew a distinction between the Orwellian vision of a totalitarian government seizing individual rights and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where freedom and rights were voluntarily sacrificed in favor of medicated bliss, or Soma, which Postman pointed to as an analogy for infotainment (television programs packaged as news or information but largely driven by sensationalism, propaganda and entertainment value).
Postman traced the development of human culture from its oral tradition origins to centuries of ever-expanding literacy culminating in the “Age of Reason,” to the point at which we now stand, as an audio-visual society.
Postman played on Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism that “the medium is the message” by asserting that “the medium is the metaphor.”
Oral, literary and audio-visual cultures diverge radically in the processing of information, Postman argued. With the printed word, he said, complicated truths could be rationally conveyed. Reading exacts intellectual involvement at once interactive and dialectical.
Television demands nothing beyond passive viewing, a submission to the physical fact of its audio-visual presence, but nothing more.
With its focus on ratings and commercial feasibility, he said, television does not necessarily involve, much less encourage, honest intellectual engagement or rational argument.
This becomes a danger to society, Postman said, when the conveyance of important information manifests as just another form of entertainment. Television as entertainment alone is not dangerous, he said. But when the stakes are raised, when the direction of the nation is in play, infotainment is actively harmful.
In 2009, Charles P. Pierce published “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.”
Pierce’s work suggests that with the emergence of the television as our culture’s primary mode of communication, the appeal to “the gut” instead of the brain became paramount.
“The gut,” as it were, became the basis for Pierce’s Three Great Premises of Idiot America: Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units. Anything can be true if somebody says it loud enough. And fact is that which enough people believe; truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
The last three years have acted as tremendous verification for anti-intellectualism theorists, and a calamitous tipping point for our audio-visual culture.
Postman noted in his book that many of the presidents of the 18th and 19th centuries would not have been recognized visually by the average citizen walking down the street. What would’ve been recognized by the average citizen was their words — their quotes.
Our earliest presidents were among the most prominent pamphleteers of their time. The Republican Party’s first president, Abraham Lincoln, overcame the poverty of his Kentucky childhood as an obsessive reader, an autodidact who “intellectualized” his way into the highest office in the land. Another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote 47 books, and claimed to read an average of one per day (I have my doubts).
America currently has a television celebrity for president — a man who has said, before he was president, that he had no time to read and he never has. (Thinking about that makes me want to play a round of golf.)
America has a president who gained fame as a garish billionaire with a bad haircut, solidified that fame with a reality TV show and made his foray into the political realm by tweeting odious, false, crank accusations about Barack Obama being a Kenyan-born Muslim usurper.
This brand of crankery and all sorts of others have been promoted implicitly and explicitly by unscrupulous reactionary prime-time media figures producing wildly effective infotainment for several decades now, often leading the ratings.
Preying on and supported by their work, Trump has now become a kind of folk hero for many Americans, who believe everything he says despite his staggering record of lying thousands upon thousands of times about both the most ridiculous and the most important types of things.
This is the consequence of a society allowing facts to become subjective, a society allowing any introduction of doubt to dismantle any mountain of evidence.
You see, cranks have been with us always, but rightly marginalized. Crankery has now been mainstreamed. Anti-intellectualism has reached a new high water mark.
A Trumpean ethos has taken hold saying it’s OK to form hard-line opinions and make wild, malicious accusations without evidence, because we’re Americans, and we don’t need facts to know that we’re right.
This degrades us all, not only as a society and a country, but also as human beings.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.