Distrust of intellectuals is not stupid

Hostility toward the philosophes is not unique to Americans, of course. It was the ancient Greeks, after all, who executed Socrates because his philosophy conflicted with their piety. Likewise, there is an element of fear among religious conservatives that the intellectual project as such—not any particular brand of intellectualism—is inherently subversive of their settled wisdom.

But the bigger reason for this anti-intellectual animus is that every time really smart people run the country, things go spectacularly wrong.

The team of the “best and brightest” that Lyndon Johnson inherited from John F. Kennedy embroiled America in an ignominy like Vietnam—not to mention Medicare, a fiscal quagmire that, unlike Vietnam, the country can neither exit nor fix without courting bankruptcy or seriously screwing over millions of seniors.

Moreover, George W. Bush’s failures resulted not from his alleged stupidity, as his most vitriolic critics believe, but the brainiacs in his Cabinet. Bush himself might have reveled in his Forest Grump image. But he assembled a team of intellectual stars including Dick Cheney, who was so smart that Beltway Republicans and Democrats wished that he had run for president; Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies; Condi Rice, provost of Stanford University; and Donald Rumsfeld, who made his mark in academia, politics, and military service. But this Mensa-worthy team, backed by Ivy League neocon intellectuals, left a legacy of Afghanistan, Iraq, and deficits as far as the eye can see.

The prize for discrediting intelligence, however, goes to President Obama. Unlike Bush, he wore his intellect on his sleeve, raising hopes that he could fix the country with sheer brainpower. But he has presided over a deterioration on every front: Deficits are worse, unemployment is higher, a double dip is imminent, and we have added another foreign misadventure.

So why do intelligent people consistently make such a hash of things? Because they are smart enough to talk themselves into anything. Ordinary mortals don’t engage in fancy mental gymnastics to reach conclusions that defy common sense. But intellectuals are particularly prone to this. Hence Bush’s brilliant foreign policy team used the apparatus of the state to search for evidence connecting Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attackers, which its superior ratiocination told them had to exist.

The great hope from Obama was that he would be different. That his thoughtful, professorial demeanor would prompt him to look for policies that worked—not push a preconceived agenda. In fact, when he took office, I hoped that he would be an “empirical president” who dispassionately considered the evidence from all sides before making decisions. One’s preferred position might not win every time under such a president, but it would at least have a shot, something that people outside Bush’s ideological kin never felt they had.

But Obama has been infinitely worse. He has glibly cited Congressional Budget Office scores and stats to argue that extending government-subsidized health coverage to 30 million Americans won’t exacerbate the federal deficit; that a debt-ridden country can borrow its way out of the recession; that pumping tax dollars into pie-in-the-sky green technologies would stimulate growth and produce energy security, and so on.

Ordinary folks might be unable to marshal facts and figures to counter such ludicrous claims, but they know bullshit when they see it. This has two effects on them: One, they feel profoundly disempowered watching their leaders deploy their smarts not on their behalf but against them. And two, since they can’t become experts and academics, they resist by retreating into their own simple certitudes drawn from folk wisdom, faith and founding principles. Indeed, Sarah Palin is as much Barack Obama’s gift to America as she is John McCain’s.

The great political divide right now is not between eggheads and blockheads, as Maureen Dowd puts it, or intellectualism and stupidity, as other self-serving liberal pundits sneer. It is between two types of activism: an irresponsible, pseudo-intellectual one and a retrograde, folksy one. This divide will disappear when some genuinely smart and wise leader earnestly addresses the nation’s problems, instead of pushing his or her loopy program.


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