How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroying America

Sad but true: Intelligence is a political liability in the US. Author of The Age of American Unreason Susan Jacoby explains why.

August 15, 2008  |   “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.” Barack Obama finally said it.

Though a successful political and electoral strategy, the Right’s stand against intelligence has steered them far off course, leaving them — and us — unable to deal successfully with the complex and dynamic circumstances we face as a nation and a society.

American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 countries in math literacy, and their parents are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution; roughly 30 to 40 percent believe in each. Their president believes “the jury is still out” on evolution.

Steve Colbert interviewed Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland on “The Colbert Report.” Westmoreland co-sponsored a bill that would require the display of the Ten Commandments in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but, when asked, couldn’t actually list the commandments.

This stuff would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.

In the 2004 election, nearly 70 percent of Bush supporters believed the United States had “clear evidence” that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda; a third believed weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; and more than a third that a substantial majority of world opinion supported the U.S.-led invasion, according to the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. The political right and allied culture warriors actively ignore evidence and encourage misinformation. To motivate their followers, they label intelligent and informed as “elite,” implying that ignorance is somehow both valuable and under attack. Susan Jacoby confronts our “know-nothingism” — current and historical — in her new book, The Age of American Unreason.

A former reporter for the Washington Post and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, Jacoby is the author of five books, including Wild Justice, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Her political blog, The Secularist’s Corner, is on the Web site of the Washington Post.

Terrence McNally: Have things gotten worse? How were things different as you were growing up?

Susan Jacoby: Well, I have just been told that all of my memories of growing up are wrong, because memory is absolutely inaccurate. It’s only a “narrative.”

I’ll give you an example of how stupid this country has become. I’m one of the village atheists on Faith, a panel sponsored by the Washington Post and Newsweek. In a recent post I wrote that when I was 7 years old, I was taken by my mom to visit a friend who had been stricken by polio and was in an iron lung. Polio has basically been eradicated, but I grew up when polio was still a real threat to children, before the Salk vaccine.

This childhood friend had been playing and running only three weeks before, and now he was in an iron lung. And I asked my mom, “Why would God let something like that happen?” And to her credit, instead of giving me some moronic answer, my mother said, “I don’t know.”

After posting this on Faith, I received an e-mail saying, “All childhood memories are unreliable. We construct narratives to justify what we now think.”

Of course it would be stupid if I’d said I became an atheist at the age of 7. But I hadn’t said that, only that I remembered this childhood experience as making me begin to question what I’d been taught. The whole tone of the e-mail was that nobody’s memory about anything could possibly be accurate — no fact could possibly be true.

TM: That doesn’t sound like a typical evolution doubter. It sounds like an attack on rationality from a rational person.

SJ: That’s right. One of the points I make in my book is that unreason pervades our culture. It’s not just a matter of right-wing religious fundamentalism. There are all kinds of unreason and suspicion of evidence on both the Right and the Left.

TM: Misinformation may well have been the deciding factor in a close election in 2004. I worry not just about the lack of information and knowledge, but also the active disparagement of those who would even care about such things.

SJ: Contempt for fact is very important.

I’ll give you a great example that’s already obsolete. At the end of the primaries, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain endorsed a gas tax holiday for Americans this summer. Every economist, both liberal and conservative, said this would do nothing to help matters. And when Hillary Clinton was asked by the late Tim Russert, “Can you produce one economist to support the gas tax holiday?” she said, “Oh that’s elite thinking.”

Now to say that economists have nothing intelligent to say about whether a gas tax will give people economic relief is like saying that you don’t ask musicians about music; you don’t ask scientists about science. It’s not just an attack on a political idea; it’s an attack on knowledge itself.

TM: And this from a woman who was in the top of her class at Yale Law School.

SJ: Of course, she doesn’t believe it for a minute. It shows that a lot of politicians think they have to play to ignorance and label anything that goes against received opinion as elitism.

I was quite encouraged that the actual majority of Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — said the gas tax was just a stupid gimmick.

TM: They were already getting a tax rebate check. At a certain point we see through this.

SJ: Elite simply means “the best,” not the political meaning that’s been ascribed to it. If you’re having an operation, you don’t want an ordinary surgeon. You want an elite surgeon. You want the best.

TM: I suspect the connotation is better known now than the actual definition. “Elite” now implies stuffy, superior, arrogant — and, most importantly, not one of us.

SJ: These basic knowledge deficits — the fact that American 15-year-olds are near the bottom in mathematical knowledge compared with other countries, for example — actually affect our ability to understand larger public issues. To understand what it means that the top 1 percent of income earners are getting tax breaks, you have to know what 1 percent means.

TM: Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, described our anti-intellectualism as “older than our national identity.” Yet our founders developed a form of government that demanded an informed citizenry. How do these two things fit together?

SJ: That’s really the American paradox. For example, there is no country that has had more faith in education as an instrument of social mobility. No country in the West democratized education earlier, but no country has been more suspicious of too much education. We’ve always thought of education as good if it gets you a better job, but bad if it makes you think too much.

Hofstadter was writing at the dawn of video culture, so he could not talk about one of the key things in my book. The domination of culture by mass media, video and 24/7 infotainment has been added to the American mix in the last 40 years. Video culture is the worst possible means for understanding anything more complicated than a sound bite.

TM: I recall the book The Sound Bite Society (by Jeffrey Scheuer, 2000) said that television inherently prefers simplistic arguments, simple solutions, simple answers.

SJ: As we’re talking, I happen to have my computer on. News stories are flashing and off the screen. If they’re on for two seconds, you’re going to miss a lot, and that’s the problem with video culture as translated through computers.

TM: Having all that information at our fingertips is a plus. What’s the negative?

SJ: I love that I don’t have to go through half a dozen books to find a date that I’ve forgotten. The ability to get quick information is great, but if you don’t have a framework of knowledge in which to fit that information, it means nothing.

I’ll give you an example. In my talks to people, I often mention a statistic from the National Constitution Center that almost half of Americans can’t name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. A student stood up at a university in California and said, “That doesn’t matter because you can just look it up on the Internet.” But if you don’t know what the First Amendment is in the first place, you don’t know what question to ask the Web.

Garbage in, garbage out. The Web’s only as good as our ability to ask questions of it. The ability to access information means nothing if you don’t have an educated framework of knowledge to fit it into.

TM: Why America? Other countries have television and the Internet.

SJ: The network of infotainment has no national boundaries, it’s all over the world. But there are a couple of things that make America particularly susceptible.

A fundamentalist is one who believes in a literal interpretation of sacred books, and a third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. That’s about 10 times more than any other developed country in the world. It’s entirely possible to be a religious believer and to accept science, but not if you’re a literal religious believer. You can’t believe that the world was literally created in six days, and be open to modern knowledge.

There’s also something else: We’ve always had more faith in technology than other countries. One of our problems with computers is that we believe in technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems. Not knowing is a non-technological problem. The idea that the Web is an answer to knowing nothing is wrong, but it’s something that Americans — with our history of believing in technology as the solution to everything — are particularly susceptible to.

TM: I’m beginning to feel like the child who keeps asking “Why?” You say that a much larger percentage of Americans believe in the literal word of holy books. In your investigations, have you come up with some sense of why that is?

SJ: That’s in my previous book, Freethinkers. One reason, oddly enough, is our absolute separation of church and state. In secular Europe — as it’s often called sneeringly by people like Justice Antonin Scalia — religious belief and belief in political systems were united. So if you opposed the government, you also had to oppose religion. That wasn’t true in America because we had separation of church and state. Many forms of religious belief survived in America, because you could believe anything you wanted and still not be opposed to your government.

TM: So because religion wasn’t tied to government we had more freedom …

SJ: And more religion.

TM: But what is it in our culture? Is our geographical isolation part of it?

SJ: You anticipated what I was going to say. There’s also the idea of American exceptionalism — that America is different from every other country.

I say in my book that Americans are unwilling to look at how really bad our educational system is because we’ve all been propagandized with the idea that we’re number one. That may have been true after World War II, but not anymore. The idea that we’re number one and special and better than everybody else is a very powerful factor in American life, and it prevents us from examining certain respects in which we’re not number one.

TM: Politicians in particular tend to preface any comment by saying, “Well, of course we have the best education system,” “We have the best health care,” the best this and that. And people accept that even though we have clear evidence that it is no longer true.

SJ: Evidence involving infant mortality and life expectancy. Though the very rich in this country get the best health care in the world, by all of the normal indices of health, we are worse off than Europe and Canada.

TM: Our universities and particularly our graduate schools are still the envy of the world, but with the education available to everyone, that’s no longer so.

SJ: Right, and to call arguments like mine elitist is wrong. I think that the basis of a society is what people with normal levels of education understand. That means we need to be concerned about elementary schools, secondary schools and community colleges — not what people at Harvard and Yale might be learning.

TM: What are the possible solutions?

SJ: There are solutions at a social level, but they have to begin at an individual level.

After the Wisconsin primary, Barack Obama was asked a question about education, and I was very encouraged when he said, “There’s a lot we can do about education, but first of all, in our homes we have to turn off the TV more …” Not altogether, but turn it off more, put the video games on the shelf more and spend more time talking and reading to our kids.

With my book, more than making a prescription, I wanted to start a conversation about how we spend our time. I’m not one of these people who think that you should raise your kids without ever watching TV. We all have to live in the world of our time. I’m saying people ought to look about how much time we spend on this. There is nothing wrong with a parent coming home and putting a kid in front of a video for an hour so they can have a drink and an intelligent conversation with their partner. It’s wrong when the hour turns into two hours or three hours or four hours or five hours, as in too many American homes.

TM: When it becomes just a habit.

SJ: Moderation. I know it’s very unfashionable and it seems like a small idea, but I think more than what people watch on video, what matters is how much they watch it.

TM: I believe we’re finding that as kids become more addicted to television and other screens, they become less familiar with nature, with their own bodies, with what we would call the real world.

It strikes me that intelligence has been defined by so many as just cognitive intelligence. Is part of the solution that we begin to shift our way of thinking, so that intelligence includes emotional intelligence and other forms of intelligence?

SJ: No. I don’t actually recognize these different forms of intelligence. Emotional intelligence depends largely on whether we are brought up to empathize with other people. But it doesn’t matter if you’re kind to others and you understand them if you don’t know anything about your society and history.

These are actually different things, and my point is, one doesn’t substitute for the other. They’re all important. In terms of society, having emotional intelligence without knowledge is useless. And, of course, having knowledge without emotional intelligence is also useless. But they’re not the same thing.

I think spending eight hours a day in front of television — the amount of time the average American family has a television on in its home — is probably bad for both emotional intelligence and knowledge. I don’t think these things are in opposition, they’re both necessary. Neither of them is adequate without the other.

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