San Marcos, TEXAS — Perhaps this is not new, but a strong tide laps at our proverbial shores: The rise of anti-intellectualism … among liberal ranks.
Most of my liberal friends and peers bash conservative media, politicians and pundits for pushing anti-intellectualism. For years in this country, we have labeled the right as anti-intellectual owing to hallmark faith-versus-fact arguments and palpable contempt of the word “intellectual,” which the right often tosses around like a pejorative bean bag.
But lack of thoughtful discourse and knowledge is prolific today, and not just among one group or the other. Everywhere we go, we have small, lit-up screens with which we can quickly condemn criticizers of Islam, watch mothers be shamed for vaccinating their children or be inundated with language that supports one pre-formed political belief set or another.
In a recent New York Times Magazine article on “shiny objects” — or devices that distract, outrage and misdirect — Mark Leibovich notes that, “Even the most isolated outrages become outsize on our little, attention-burning screens.”
Once, a friend told me Facebook is “the street.” Not only is it often unfriendly, Facebook is not an open forum for thoughtful discussion.
Sadly, the same is true for most discussion forums: the college classroom, article comment sections, the poker table and the Internet, where most Americans get some — if not all — of their news. Camille Paglia and other cultural critics note that, with the progressive wipe-out of newspapers, journalistic standards have fallen and we now are confronted left and right with strident, knee-jerk and predictable headlines, opinions, or reporting.
The result? Liberals watch MSNBC, and conservatives watch Fox News. How boring!
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
I am not an expert, I am not a social scientist, I don’t poll people for a living — I live and watch the day-to-day like anyone else. But what I see in terms of conversation is frightening, and I see it almost everywhere — we are unwilling to hold two opposing ideas in mind and treat them intellectually. There is an oil slick of anger and resentment that seems to lie just beneath everyone’s surface and, if one doesn’t tread carefully on a topic, who knows what bone might get broken?
How did we become this way?
I hate to say it, but if intellectualism has historically been a liberal quality, then that means education, as it is dispensed in this country, means less now than it once did.
We are more educated than ever; we are more polarized than ever. College is a given. But, why? Institutions allow students to object to reading a book because it might make them uncomfortable. On other campuses, faculty sensitive to the trauma-climate of the student body feel intellectually stifled and afraid of making a wrong move in class or on campus and not being able to find another job.
David Ulin’s Los Angeles Time article nails this on the head. “How stupid do we want to be?” he asks. “Do we want to be constrained by our preconceptions, or do we want to learn to engage with, even be compelled by, opposing points of view?” Those of us in and outside of the classroom would do well to consider this question and answer with integrity.
Of course, emotional and knee-jerk reactions are not limited to college campuses. When Texan Corey Knowlton bid $350,000 to kill a black rhino in Namibia in January 2014, he received thousands of threats by complete strangers, some of them horrifically graphic. “I hope the rhino rips you in half. Do your children know what a monster their father is? I hope you get what you deserve — a short and painful death.”
“I’m coming to your house. I’m going to burn it down. I’m going to put your kids in a wood chipper and I’m going to do it in front of you.” said one.
While I don’t know if these threat-senders are conservatives or liberals, I do know that Knowlton is a typical victim of what is being called “Internet vigilantism.” The New York Times defined the term as “facing a seemingly endless shaming until the next issue comes along.”
The facts of Knowlton’s hunt were this: In order to help conserve black rhinoceroses, the government of Namibia auctions the right to hunt the oldest male black rhino that is past its reproductive stage once per year, because these males are territorial and violent, often killing the young fecund male black rhinos that could reproduce and continue the species. The money used to kill the rhino goes to anti-poaching agencies and other conservation efforts. Those facts are pretty easy to come by — so easy, in fact, that it wouldn’t take someone much longer to read them than it would to craft a threat.
On NonDoc’s About page there is a quote by Walter Cronkite that states:
“being a liberal, in the true sense, is being nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, non-committed to a cause — but examining each case on its merits… I think most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not liberal, by my definition of it, then they can hardly be good newspapermen. If they’re preordained dogmatists for a cause, then they can’t be very good journalists; that is, if they carry it into their journalism.”
The Internet has made everyone a journalist. True liberalism and progressiveness is a dialogue. Behaving otherwise makes a liberal just a conservative in a liberal dress. Conservatism reinforces established norms, and liberals are falling for this, settling for intellectually dishonest, lazy and polarizing positions.
“Nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, non-committed to a cause – but examining each case on its merits.”
Good on you, Cronkite.
We could all work a little harder to this end.