American Culture

Smart people hate America and other myths of the current cultural milieu…

Everyday life, supersaturated with images and jingles, makes intellectual life look hopelessly sluggish, burdensome, difficult. In a video-game world, the play of intellect — the search for validity, the willingness to entertain many hypotheses, the respect for difficulty, the resistance to hasty conclusions — has the look of retardation. – Todd Gitlin

Maybe it’s our name.

After all, this blog called Scholars and Rogues contains in its moniker two terms against which certain types of Americans react: Rogues are, after all, known law questioners, rascals, generally naughty types; Scholars are, in all probability, intellectuals, know-it-alls, all around smart asses. Both of these are groups that some here in the land of Deciders deem, if not outright outlaws, at the least needing (preferably warrentless) surveillance.

Anyway, S&R gets its fair share of trolls and others who seem to approach us with the assumption that we mean ill to “their” America. Most of the time these persons (I use the term loosely) turn up in our comment threads. Their most common form of attack is ad hominem – they attack us as unpatriotic, liberal pedantic snarkers.

This, of course, is preposterous. We are patriotic, progressive intellectual snarkers.

Over the course of the last week or so, we at S&R – in our smoke free, macrobiotic, yoga matted, Enya sound tracked editorial room – have been discussing the problem of why we occasionally draw fire from the red meat devouring, Toby Keith and Rush Limbaugh listening, Coors drinking crowd. What could we possibly have done or said that might offend these folks? That the world is teetering on catastrophe from global heating while our government does nothing to try to reduce our carbon emissions? That corporate and banking interests have conducted themselves in despicably greedy ways and put the nation at the brink of not just recession but outright depression the likes of which we have not seen since 1929? That the Iraq War was started on false information and continues only to enrich corporate cronies of the Bush administration? That our educational system is a hostage to corporate interests only concerned with profiting off it by selling tests, tests, and more tests? That racism is still alive and well in our country? That Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens ought to go to jail just like any other violators of drug laws?

Susan Jacoby’s new book The Age of Unreason offers at least some explanation of why we’re sometimes misunderstood – and disliked. Jacoby examines the debasement of public discourse, the manipulation of America’s anti-intellectualism by neo-conservatives (including many who are intellectuals themselves), and the replacement of thoughtful analysis by anti-rational “punditry” that is little more than bigoted demagoguery from either side. Consider what she suggests about public discourse itself:

The debasement of the nation’s speech is evident in virtually everything, on every subject, broadcast and podcast on radio, television, and the Internet. In this true, all-encompassing public square, homogenized language and homogenized thought reinforce each other in circular fashion…. In this continuous blurring of clarity and intellectual discrimination, political speech is always ahead of the curve—especially because today’s media possess the power to amplify and spread error with an efficiency that might have astonished even Orwell. – Susan Jacoby

That Orwell guy she mentions, for those of you who’ll offer your own ad hominem attacks on me for this post, is George Orwell who wrote a couple of novels on demagoguery and totalitarianism, Animal Farm and 1984. In one of his most famous essays, “Politics and the English Language,” he observes this about the power of language to influence thought (an issue our own Sam Smith has just discussed in relation to Hillary Clinton’s latest political maneuvering):

A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts . – George Orwell

So we’ll keep right on with our intellectual progressive snark, thank you very much. To our critics, we extend an invitation – albeit one once extended to Winston Churchill by George Bernard Shaw:

Bring a friend – if you have one.

8 replies »

  1. I’ve been pondering a lot of what you’re writing about here lately, and want to thank you for saying it better than I would have. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to resolve what seems to be, in the American context anyway, an inherent conflict between the intellectual and the populist. I come from humble beginnings and care a lot about the welfare of THE PEOPLE. But on the other hand, it gets increasingly hard to care more about people’s lives than THEY do. Willful stupidity (and that which the willfully stupid reap) is something I’m just about over.

  2. Jim,

    I love Toby Keith, have no problem with Rush, like my steaks bloody rare, and have been known to tip back a Coors. Does that make me a troll?


  3. Slammy has been known to enjoy his steaks “so rare a good vet could bring it back,” if I recall his statement correctly.

    And as much as I love my microbrew, I’ve been known to enjoy Coors Extra Gold or Winterfest (Coors original is just downright nasty and Light might as well be water). Any Coors is better than Bud or Natty Ice, and horse piss is better than Iron City (I went to PA for undergrad and discovered Iron City the hard way – I drank one).

  4. (Sorry, no beer here.)

    Even though finding just the right word has been a crusade of mine for years, I’m somewhat less despondent about the degradation of language than many, such as Orwell and Ms. Jacoby.

    The verbal has been superseded by the visual and compromised by a culture that seems to accept lying. Thus people are learning to rely less on what they hear and read than on their instincts and intuition.

    After all, isn’t mind reading how they communicate on more advanced planets?