January 11, 2008 | By:

#18 Dave Around the Campfire; Anti-Intellectualism in America

Oh, woe is the conservationist who tries to talk sense to the wolf-haters, climate change-deniers, DDT-lovers, and others of their ilk.  Science, facts, and reason wilt as lances against the brick wall of populist anti-intellectualism.  In fact, being handy with scientific facts and concepts about conservation issues can even be a handicap because some folks will label you as an intellectual and therefore not to be trusted.  Thus, we can’t begin to understand anticonservationists without knowing how anti-intellectualism marbles through their skull-meat.

A continuing theme in Around the Campfire is probing what makes anti-conservationists tick.  It doesn’t take much probing to learn that anti intellectualism is an underlying trait of theirs.  We most often are slapped with hostility to facts in strongholds of ignorance like New Mexico’s Catron County, but anti-intellectualism runs rife through all demographics.  After all, for the last seven years, the most powerful man in the world, leader of the Free World, and president of the United States has also reigned as the Chief Anti-Intellectual, and the United States Congress is chock full of the little buggers.

So, let’s take a quick look at the powerful pulse of anti- intellectualism in American public discussion through our history.  Then I’ll try to draw a lesson or two for how it applies in conservation struggles.

In his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter found anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism python-coiled around American culture and politics.

Whether in religion, politics, business, agriculture, labor unions, or education, Hofstadter shows how common-man populism right and left has gagged on supposed educated, intellectual elites.  Hofstadter didn’t include anticonservationists in his 1964 study because they weren’t much of a factor then, but what he wrote about the other guilds of dumbness applies very well to many of our foes today.  Moreover, science, especially biology, is now seen by many as a key plank in the scaffolding of intellectualism.

Throughout American society, Hofstadter sees intellectuals portrayed as “pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive.”  He describes this attitude as “The plain sense of the common man, especially if tested by success in some demanding line of practical work, is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in schools.”  This trait of anti-intellectualism runs especially strong through the anticonservation movement.  For example, a lifetime of the dirty work of castrating little bulls makes one more of an expert on animal behavior —including wolves—than having a Ph.D. in ecology or wildlife biology with years of experience in the field.  Causing soil erosion for forty years makes one a better land manager than studying and experimenting with stopping erosion over a like period of time.

Hofstadter acknowledges that anti-intellectualism has become “a broadly diffused quality in our civilization…because it has often been linked to good, or at least defensible causes.” In religion, because of an evangelism with “many humane and democratic sentiments.”  In politics, because of “our passion for equality.” In addition, today’s anti-intellectuals “have not found it necessary to originate a single new argument, since this mythology is deeply rooted in our historical experience.”  This is as true today as it was when Hofstadter wrote more than forty years ago. American anti-intellectuals have consistently seen intellect as opposed to feeling, character, practicality, and democracy.  Of course, intellectuals such as postmodern deconstructionists, free-market economists, and neoconservatives are richly deserving of lay skepticism.  And sneering at the needed use of emotion in arguing for conservation is just plain foolishness.

Please click on the attachment below to read the entire “Campfire.”



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