The Woolwich Observer
Truck convoys a symptom of resentment fueling anti-intellectualism
The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Isaac Asimov wrote that in a short essay in 1980. That was on the cusp of the Reagan years that would shape an anti-elite movement that we’ve seen grow exponentially since that time. I wonder what he’d say about the political and cultural developments since his death in 1992? What he, a scientist after all, would make of the ongoing pandemic situation?
One would guess he’d not be surprised that a trend that began decades ago had continued. In that light, the protests and political opportunism surrounding the COVID-19 crisis might not have come as a shock.
It’s clear that backlashes against public health measures, the likes of the so-called Freedom Convoy recently inflicted on Canadians, are rooted in a longstanding movement that combined libertarianism with a mistrust of government and officials in general. Not a grassroots movement, it was the creation of those with economic goals they saw could be fostered by tampering with politics.
To the south, the template was really set during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His aw-shucks, down-home appeal covered an attack on public institutions and a drive to promote individualism over the collective good. The educated, socially involved products of the 1960s were portrayed as out-of-touch idealists looking to spend taxpayers’ money while enjoying cushy government jobs.
To foster those sentiments, those advocating for social change and public institutions are depicted as self-interested, self-serving types who are out of touch with the opinions of the common people. The market and business offer what we really want and need.
The elites are not the bankers, oil tycoons and other robber barons of the past, but liberals and left-leaning activists who propose limiting market and individual freedoms … as defined by those on the right.
An attack on certain experts led to attacks on certain lines of thinking. The result is the divisive society we see today, politically, socially and culturally. It’s perhaps the endgame the earlier framers of such tactics foresaw, though they couldn’t have envisioned the large role the internet and social media would play.
The decades of effort to undermine the status quo – in some cases deservedly, though that was not always the intent – made almost inevitable the fights we’ve seen about vaccines, mask mandates and other measures put in place to combat the pandemic.
That was certainly the finding of University of Toronto political scientists Eric Merkley and Peter John Loewen, who last spring published “Anti-intellectualism and the mass public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic” in the online journal Nature Human Behaviour.
They noted anti-intellectualism entered into the lexicon some 60 years ago thanks to the work of Richard Hofstadter, a Columbia University historian and author of 1963’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life.
“Hofstadter implicitly saw populism (the generalized distrust of elites) as central to his definition of anti-intellectualism, where people distrust and dislike experts and intellectuals because of a view that ‘the plain sense of the common man….is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise.’ Anti-intellectualism is typically embraced by populists who see experts as a class of elites that aim to exploit ordinary people through their positions of power. The simultaneous democratization of knowledge and rising importance of experts in growing government bureaucracies have potentially raised the salience of this concept in political life,” write Merkley and Loewen.
In the US, there’s been a concerted effort to foment backlash against the elites and then capitalize on the resultant fallout. The goal was to both keep the populace divided – with issues the likes of race, abortion and gay marriage – and to drive a certain segment of the population into political movements that were beneficial to certain corporate ideologies.
Changes, real or perceived, are driving much of the right-wing populism. Much of that is centered on immigration – i.e. racial and cultural lines – and the pace of shifts in demographics. Here, such matters are officially downplayed to avoid even a hint of racism or anything that even smacks of identify politics. But, as with elsewhere, there are signs of frustration with the grand social experiment that is being foisted on everybody with almost no input and absolutely no accountability – there’s a realization that we can’t trust those in power to do the right thing.
That lack of trust extends to almost every aspect of governance, from failure to protect against predatory capitalism and environmental degradation – for their own gain, politicians typically support those pillaging the economy over the good of the populace – to the rapid shifts in cultural norms.
Whether it’s experimental curriculum such that school kids no longer learned basic literacy skills or widespread demographic shifts, changes have been made with no consultation, though everyone has to live with the consequences.
With societal changes such as gay marriages and civil rights, there’s a pushback from some quarters, but they’re a matter of right and wrong, of fairness, ethics. And, in the end, such changes really have no impact on the lives of those opposed to them. Oh, sure, their sensibilities might be offended, but there’s no material change if their gay neighbour is in the closet or married to his partner. Society is better for equal rights, period.
Immigration is, of course, the real red-flag issue. Here, too, the pace of change has been rapid
... and readily visible.
Some who chafe at the changes are undoubtedly racist: they’ve got no use for the brown and black people no matter how long they’ve been here, an unsavoury element that’s become a regular fixture in American politics, for instance. But much of