The Un-Enlightenment

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America hits peak anti-intellectualism: Majority of Republicans now think college is bad (salon.com)

I was part of the generation that first clued into the joy of Nickelodeon during the rise of cable TV in the 1980’s, but when the network was still so young that there was no such thing as Nick at Nite. Even at a time when most television networks ended their “broadcast day” and went off the air every night, it was still jarring to have Nickelodeon switch over to static in the early evening, and even when it was still sunny out during the long days of summer. (Apparently most cable providers aired the precursor to A&E during those late-night hours, but in Toledo we just got dead air.) I highly doubt that we kids were Nickelodeon’s target demographic when they started extending their broadcasts through prime time with reruns of classic television, but I soon found myself hooked on a couple of shows from my parents’ era that still resonate with me as strongly now as they did back in the eighties: The colour, Harry Morgan-era episodes of Dragnet, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

By that point I was already a huge Monty Python fan (thanks to Nickelodeon, since my love of their absurdist sketch comedy show, You Can’t Do That on Television, led a family member to show me episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on our local PBS station), and although the humour on Laugh-In was somewhat more orthodox, it still made me laugh a lot, even when I didn’t get the cultural and political references. (A lot of that hippie stuff just seemed to find its way into my DNA, without ever having to learn it from my parents or in school.) Watching Laugh-In now, and getting every joke, almost makes it a whole new show for me to take in, and as much as some recent shows have borrowed some of the things that made Laugh-In so great (especially Jimmy Fallon’s late night broadcasts), I doubt that they’ll ever make me laugh as much as those early seasons of Laugh-In do.

Watching reruns of Laugh-In was also my introduction to the conservative pundit William F. Buckley. I was still so young that my knowledge of politics was rudimentary at best, and even though I had a few political positions that I believed in, I don’t think that my defences of those positions would have gone much further than “Because.” (I was not a good debater back then, but I was just a kid; in a few years, though, everyone around me said that I was a master debater. At least I think that’s what they were saying.) I really didn’t grasp the concepts of liberalism and conservatism back then, and even though I would quickly come to detest the latter, there was something about Buckley’s appearance on Laugh-In that was, for lack of a better word, endearing.

It took another few years for me to become aware of the conservative columns that Buckley was writing for newspapers from coast to coast, and although I hardly ever agreed with any of his stances, and his sense of humour rarely showed through in his writing, there was something about the way Buckley approached the issues of the day that was far more palatable to me than the other defences of conservatism I was hearing around me, either from the Republican politicians I saw on television news or the conservative students I was around in school (who mostly latched onto right-wing ideology as an excuse to be dicks to people they didn’t like). It took me a while to attach the word “intellectual” to Buckley and his approach — probably because everyone I was around at that school who claimed to be an “intellectual” was just some shade of sociopath — but once I got to a good school, and got a real education in politics there, things soon cleared up for me.

Buckley passed away in 2008, and some may say that the last traces of intellectualism in the American conservative movement disappeared with him, but the reality is that conservative intellectualism never went away. It’s still out there, but it’s not as easy to find as it was in the days when you could turn to your newspaper’s opinion page (or load it up on the newspaper’s website) and look up Buckley’s byline. A lot of that is just a byproduct of the increasing commercialization of news (or whatever it is we have these days that gets called “news”), since fire-breathing ad hominem gets a lot more ad revenue than a reasoned contemplation of current issues, as can be evidenced by the people of all political persuasions who pervade the opinion sections and pervert our public discourse with their putrid pablum. In other words, that particular problem is hardly “just a conservative thing.”

What American conservatism has done in my lifetime, though, is wage a campaign of deliberately marginalizing and minimizing its intellectual components, in order to foreground a more populist approach. Between Ronald Reagan’s success in winning over working-class voters in his presidential campaigns, followed in short order by Rush Limbaugh’s meteoric rise to mainstream stardom in the media, it’s hardly surprising that Republicans and conservatives would want to emphasize populist rhetoric, but that doesn’t have to mean quashing intellectual approaches at the same time. That’s what the right wing of this country has chosen to do, though, and over the past two years — especially these last six months — we’re all seeing the harvest that has come from the seeds American conservatism has sown for the last fifty years.

Let me be clear  that I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with populist speech. On the contrary, I think populism is a necessary approach to engaging with people on a very basic level that intellectual discourse, no matter how simplified, cannot reach. However, just like pure intellectualism lacks warmth, pure populism lacks depth, especially when it is built on deliberately false claims. It’s certainly possible to blend both approaches — in this most recent presidential campaign cycle, Bernie Sanders might have done a better job of that than anyone else in my lifetime — so the decision to push one to the exclusion of the other is baffling, at least on its surface.

One possible reason for this — and I genuinely fear that this may well be the case — is that American conservatism has, over the past few decades, decided that they have little chance of winning political arguments with the American public through intellectual reasoning. Conservatism arguably has a built-in advantage when it comes to populist rhetoric, as all the right-wingers from sea to shining sea chanting their Incredible Hulk-esque chants of “TAXES BAD, GUNS GOOD” prove, but it wasn’t that long ago when conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley were celebrated and championed by right-wingers of all stripes. Even during the height of the 1980’s, Reagan often used charts and hard numbers when selling his vision of America in his Oval Office addresses, a far cry from what the current occupant of that office is doing these days.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that conservatives have waged so many legislative and media wars against education. These battles, from the initial skirmishes over political correctness in my teenage years to the fights over “free speech on campus” today (yes, there will be a Socratic Sense episode about that latter one soon), always seemed to be about the fight over how education should be implemented, the content and method by which knowledge was transmitted. As this new survey shows, though, the very existence of education, or at least higher education, is now in question, and it’s not just those of us in academia who stand to suffer if this trend continues, but everyone.

What needs to be done now is clear. First, we must redouble our efforts to improve the practice and image of education. That means not only continuously improving our own performances as teachers and students, but also pushing everyone around us to do the same. The effort it takes to be a successful teacher or student is just as meaningful as any other effort, and it will be much harder for us to argue the shortcomings of an explicitly anti-intellectual movement if we fail in admitting to, and addressing, our own shortcomings.

More importantly, though, we have to fight harder than we ever have before to stop those who are trying to twist American education into a breeding ground for their dystopian fantasies. The aims of these people are clearer than ever, from the funding cuts being pushed in state legislatures to the flagrant intimidation of minorities on college and university campuses. Their goal, if it is not to destroy education altogether, is to effectively restrict access to education so that it can only be used by those in power, for the explicit purpose of teaching them how to keep their power, while everyone else is left to suffer in an increasingly slave-like existence. That is already a reality for far too many Americans, and we simply cannot allow this trend to continue.

As much as I disagree with the tenets of conservatism, I don’t want conservative intellectualism to die out. I want people with whom I can debate how to best run a country and take care of its citizens, if only because I want to know when my own philosophies and reasonings have defects that I need to address. More to the point, I want there to be a vibrant public discourse on every issue so we can continue to improve as a culture and as a planet. Many of us are already frightened by the lack of basic intelligence being shown in Washington these days, and if we don’t want that situation to get worse than it already is, then fighting for the necessity of a strong American educational system is not just vital, but a critical first step in turning this country, and this planet, around.

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