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Stuart Whatley

Stuart Whatley

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Teabagging: Redux Anti-Intellectualism

Posted: 04/14/09 12:06 PM ET

The burgeoning conservative "teabagger" movement, and the "tea party" demonstrations set for Wednesday, has created opportunities aplenty for ridicule (as one would expect from a movement that shares its name with a frat boy prank involving a scrotum). However, beyond risibility, the "tea parties" are also an occasion for something more substantive; namely, a chance to test the resolve of America's 21st Century anti-intellectual movement. We saw this during the 2008 election season, where fatuous myopia, paranoia and frothy-mouthed rage set in at McCain/Palin rallies -- calling for then-candidate Obama's head, or at least his birth certificate, and deifying Sarah Palin for her contempt of all things informed or worldly.

That shameful, rabid anti-intellectualism went dormant after the landslide election results posted, but it is now on the rise again with troubling charges to pull one's children out of college ("brainwashing institutions") and to "burn the books" with "that evolution crap" (whatever evolution has to do with taxation or increased government outlays is beyond me).

[WATCH:]

Really, it's come to this? People like that guy are running the show? A prudent question: just how serious are these resurgent anti-intellectuals? Hardly anyone in the video even flinched when the woman seriously called for books to be burned. One wonders if there's anything you couldn't say in these settings. "Kill all puppies?" "Grab your guns?" "Let's burn this mother fucker down?"

Anti-intellectualism is defined by, inter alia, abject paranoia of the perceived educated elite -- which, in the US, is a group that's been growing for decades alongside steady economic growth, fueled by innovation. Granted, this is all very simplified, few would deny that the driving force for America's economic growth now is educated innovators. This, sure enough, will drive any future economic growth as well. Manufacturing has moved across seas, and regrettably much of American brainpower in the past few decades has been directed towards the financial sector. But that may be set to change, and the alternative is not retrogression towards willful ignorance or a widespread, intentional drop in college enrollment -- it is simply a shift in focus towards science, math and technology, whereby education remains as important as ever.

It is categorically accepted that access to education should not be denied to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic standing. Millions of young people are being furnished with educational opportunities that would have been pure fantasy for their parents or grandparents. And yet the man in the above video calls for his compatriots to deny this opportunity to their own children. (By the way, these potential vacancies would gladly be filled by "sea turtles" from the developing world, or by underprivileged students here at home.)

The sad fact is that there is simply no place for this type of wretched anti-intellectualism in America anymore. It can be expected from the margins, but it's troubling to see it embraced and validated by more mainstream entities. This movement represents the lost and left-behind. And, pitifully, it's a one-way street. It is not as though there are educated or "intellectual" people who crave ignorance and despise knowledge. Anti-intellectualism is a purely circumstantial outlook, whereas education or knowledge acquisition is indisputably a normative societal goal. Thus, it is no surprise that anti-intellectualism is promptly defenestrated as soon as alternative options become available. It is, in short, a last resort, knee-jerk reaction to abject desperation.

All that being said, some very important questions remain -- namely, why the hell is this populist, boastful ignorance being actively encouraged and exploited by conservative corporate lobbyists, Fox News and, indeed, the Republican Party, as Jane Hamsher outlined Monday on this site. As if the 2008 election was not evidence enough that pulling on the atavistic, anti-intellectual thread of America's social fabric is a failed political strategy.

The most obvious answer, I daresay, is that this rabble is easily roused. It's surely the most reliable -- the GOP's loyal, doltish puppy. But by embracing the current hullabaloo, is the party not taking the easy way out? Rather than endeavoring to redefine itself as a party of well-reasoned, informed conservative viewpoints, GOP politicians are simply crawling back to the usual bunch of idiots -- a group that ululates resonantly while carrying an ever-more puny stick. New studies suggesting a mass political realignment towards the Democratic Party bode ill for this strategy. Moreover, it bodes ill for a properly functioning democratic system. When the music dies, one hopes we won't be left with only one credible party. However, that is looking increasingly likely.

 

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