Anti-Intellectualism

Anti-Intellectualism: A self-validation ritual created by and for intellectuals.

There is no reason to believe that large parts of any population wish to reject learning or those who are learned. People want the best for their society and themselves. The extent to which a populace falls back on superstition or violence can be traced to the ignorance in which their elites have managed to keep them, the ill-treatment they have suffered, and the despair into which a combination of ignorance and suffering have driven them.

Given the opportunity, those who know and have less want themselves or their children to know and have more. They understand perfectly that learning is central to general well-being. The disappearance of the old working-class in Germany, France, and northern Italy between 1945 and 1980 is a remarkable example of this understanding.

Yet political movements continue to capitalize on the sark side of populism. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s a number of groups gathered national support—Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Front National in France, Ross Perot in the United States, the new German Right, the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois in Canada, the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the neo-Fascist movement in Italy. These movements share the same message, each in their local way. It combines a simplistic as opposed to straightforward approach to public affairs with the ability to tap the public’s disgust over the established elites.

The conclusion drawn by the Platonists—who account for most of our elites—us that the population constitutes a deep and dangerous well of ignorance and irrationality; if our civilization is in crisis the fault must lie with the populace which is not rising to the inescapable challenges. And yet civilizations do not collapse because the citizenry are corrupt or lazy or anti-intellectual. These people do not have the power or influence to either lead or destroy. Civilizations collapse when those who have power fail to do their job. Ross Perot was created by Harvard, not by illiterate farmers.

Our elites are concerned by what they see as intellectual Luddism all around them—television, films and music prospering at the lowest common denominator; spreading functional illiteracy; a lack of public appreciation for the expertise which the elites see as guiding all aspects of human life. It appears to them as if the populace is stubbornly refusing to fill an appropriate role in a corporatist society.

Perhaps this is because the anti-intellectualism over which the elites make such a fuss is in fact the reply of the citizenry to both the elites’ own pretension of leadership and their failure to lead successfully. This profoundly pyramidal model of leadership takes the form of obscure language, controlled information and the reduction of individual participation at almost all levels to one of pure function.

The elites have masked their failures by insisting that the population is lazy, reads junk, watches television and is badly educated. The population has responded by treating the elites with a contempt reminiscent of the attitudes of the pre-modern underclasses.

If economics are rendered incomprehensible except to experts and in addition are unable to deal with our economic problems, why should anyone respect economists? If the corporate managerial elites cannot explain in a non-dogmatic, reasonable manner what they are doing and why, is there any good reason to believe that their decisions will serve the general good? If those who create the tools of public communication—such as fiction—write novels that do not communicate, why should the public consider these works relevant or important?

It’s not that everyone must understand everything; but those who are not experts must see that they are part of the process of an integrated civilization. They will understand and participate to the best of their ability. If excluded they will treat the elites with an equal contempt.

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994. 

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