Ineffectual intellectual

A friend posted this link featuring a 1987(?) interview with Isaac Asimov in which he briefly pontificates, along with other subjects, how the supposed trend of anti-intellectualism has been at least partly to blame for the decline of America.

Here’s the relevant passage:

Interviewer: There’s always been in this country a bias against science.

Asimov: Well, it’s against intellectuality. I mean when nominee [George H. W.] Bush can castigate the fact you’re going to Harvard whereas he went to a proletarian school like Yale, you know, you know there’s something wrong. I mean, there you’re actually trying to run a person down for belonging to what people see is an elite school. There’s something vicious about those feelings.

In the future, we will all have giant white furry caterpillars on our faces

Asimov is a bright guy but here he (and the interviewer) makes the classic straw man argument in that hostility toward elitist institutions is equivalent to hostility toward science. The discussion starts about the decline of scientific institutions, but Asimov diverges into Bush’s populist comments on Harvard. However, as highly regarded Harvard is, it’s hardly the most elite scientific or technical institution in the United States.

For example, you don’t often hear so called anti-intellectuals deriding Stanford or MIT or RPI or CalTech or Michigan. Why? People most people understand the value of the (natural) sciences and engineering because the benefits are tangible. However, when the public reflects on the messes our intellectual superiors have gotten us into (e.g. the current financial crisis brought to you by a slew of Wharton and Harvard Business grads, among others),  it gets a lot more difficult to appreciate their worth, much less their condescension.

An excellent take on this line of thought comes from Armed and Dangerous:

One of the recurring features of American intellectual life is hand-wringing over “anti-intellectualism” by, of course, intellectuals.

One of my regular commenters has pointed out that the term and concept of anti-intellectualism are used to describe several distinct phenomena that are relatively easily confused. He’s right, and I think it could bring some clarity to the murkier corners of the culture wars to develop the point.

And then he describes five distinct forms of “anti-intellectualism” to great effect, but he doesn’t stop there. He holds intellectuals to account — correctly — for many of the atrocities of the past 150 years:

Because the intelligentsia has displayed a consistent political pattern over the last 150 years: believing in its own intellectual and moral superiority, it has sought a leading role in politics, promoting a vision of itself as benign philosopher-kings who can steer society to virtue, equality, and fulfillment.

The vehicles of this belief have been many. At its worst, it has led the intelligentsia to endorse and propagandize for totalizing systems like Communism, which the intelligentsia conceived could be guided to good ends in its use of power by – who else? – intellectuals. It is forgotten, but true, that before World War II many intellectuals were attracted to Fascism for the same reason. In this way much of the intelligentsia of the 20th century became accomplices in and apologists for the most hideous mass murders in human history.

This is why I am not entirely comfortable with being called an intellectual. To many people who never went to college, “intellectuals” still equates to “those people who tried to betray us to the totalitarians”. There is enough justice in that charge to make me flinch. And it is not yesterday’s charge, either; the intelligentsia’s determined persecution of refugees from Islamic oppression and anyone else who dares speak truthfully about it are as disgraceful today as Walter Duranty’s paeans to Stalinism were in the 1930s.

Ouch.

A face only an intellectual could love

Ultimately, accusations of anti-intellectualism are made to end debate or nullify opponents. After all, who in their right mind is against intelligence? It’s similar to accusing someone of racism, which is about as difficult to disprove as accusations of anti-intellectualism.

The lesson to remember, then, is that intellectuals making this blunt, stereotypical argument are behaving in a decidedly unintellectual manner. Don’t be cowed by this tactic. You know what’s best for you, and not even a creepy old man with mutton chops like Asimov could possibly tell you otherwise.

After all, even Asimov couldn’t predict that giant plot hole in the film version of one of his short stories.

If the plot made sense, we wouldn't have experienced Will Smith's mighty chest

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