Intellectual Warfare

Pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-populists duke it out.


In the March 4 New Yorker, Aaron Sorkin, executive producer of NBC's The West Wing, referred to President Bush as a "bubblehead." The ensuing flap found commentators across the political spectrum cast in familiar roles: liberals deriding conservatives as dumb, ignorant boors and conservatives deriding liberals as eggheaded, arrogant elitists.

Each side in this shouting match often seems determined to live down to the other's stereotype of itself—even though, in fact, the relationship between conservatism, intellect, and even intellectual elitism is infinitely more complex than the simple dichotomy implies.

For an excellent sample of the liberal mind-set on this question, examine "Brain Drain," an essay by Mark Crispin Miller in the online journal Context. Miller is fresh from the traumatic experience of promoting his book The Bush Dyslexicon, a highly unflattering assessment of the 43rd president, in post-September 11 America. He laments that our civic culture is awash in rabid anti-intellectualism promoted by the right-wing establishment.

His evidence includes the fact that the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly told him he was "misguided, as many, many academics are these days" and Fox Chairman Roger Ailes' comment that "what people deeply resent out there are those in the 'blue' states thinking they're smarter."

To Ailes, Fox News reflects "a touch" of that resentment. Miller also cites some obscene hate e-mail he has received from Bush supporters and some short, crude attacks on left-of-center books posted under the guise of "reader reviews" (e.g., "I have never read another book so full of bullshit") at the Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web sites.

One can make many points in response to Miller's broadside. Vitriolic reviews at online booksellers are hardly the doing of right-wingers alone; books by conservatives such as David Horowitz, or Bill O'Reilly for that matter, get the same treatment. One could also note that Miller unintentionally validates Ailes' remark about the smugness of liberal elites when he jeers at the "half-educated viewers" of Fox News. And he himself acknowledges that the right's anti-academic prejudice does not extend to conservative academics, from Henry Kissinger to Condoleeza Rice.

In Miller's view, of course, these academics are not true intellectuals but mere cheerleaders for the powers that be. Indeed, it seems that for him the only legitimate intellectuals are on the left. He ends his essay by asserting that in the wake of September 11 millions of previously thinking Americans have sunk to the level of right-wing goons, and that the current climate makes it impossible to ask "rational and necessary questions" about the attack, such as "Why are we so hated in the Muslim world?" and "What did our government do there to bring this horror home to all those innocent Americans?" Presumably, scholars who blame radical Islamic terrorism on certain aspects of modern Muslim culture—the historian Bernard Lewis, for example—are to be counted among the dull-witted multitudes.

These blind spots make Miller's screed as easy to dismiss as Sorkin's potshots. National Review's Jonah Goldberg is most likely right when he says that Sorkin would regard Bush as a dummy even if he "had an I.Q. of 7,000 and spoke 16 languages," simply because he is "one of those arrogant Lefties who thinks conservative ideas are stupid until proven otherwise and the burden of proof can never be met." (On the other hand, it is worth noting that no one ever tried to slap the "dumb" label on, say, Bob Dole.)

Nevertheless, the charge that the conservatives' mistrust of the liberal "cultural elites" has a way of morphing into a generalized anti-intellectualism cannot be dismissed out of hand. This tendency has been particularly evident since George W. Bush was nominated to be president, when quite a few conservatives responded to the widespread put-downs of Bush's intelligence by embracing literal know-nothingism.

"Maybe we don't want a presidential candidate who can pronounce Kostunica or recite the constituent parts of Yugoslavia," wrote National Review Editor Richard Lowry. And when Bush delivered an inarticulate, deer-in-the-headlights performance in the first presidential debate, George Will enthused that "his low-voltage delivery of his words exhibited a kind of behavioral modesty, analogous to and expressive of conservatism's modest expectations for the uses of government."

Sometimes, especially at National Review, the animus against braininess has overlapped with a crusade for traditional manliness—the idea being that book learning is for wimps.

Appearing on the Fox News show On the Record to discuss a recently released documentary about Bush on the campaign trail, Lowry hailed him as "a more traditional, red-blooded guy" than Al Gore: "He's tough. He's manly….He's not very reflective." To Lowry, it turns out, even familiarity with "hip" pop culture products such as Sex and the City—a familiarity that Bush, in the documentary, appears to lack—denotes excessive intellectualism and elitism. "Bush probably knows more about NASCAR, which is more tuned into what most Americans care about, than any of these reporters writing about him," he commented.

These are, remember, the same conservatives who decry the sad state of our educational system, college students' ignorance of history, and the fact that universities are abandoning the great classics for the study of popular culture. Even on a populist (but smart) show like The O'Reilly Factor, a faintly sarcastic attitude toward academics coexists with indignation at the decline of academic standards and the proliferation of junk courses at prestigious schools. (One might say, of course, that the current state of academic thinking is a good reason for sarcasm toward academics.)

What's more, in their screeds against the pointy-heads, conservatives are missing a key point: It is a startling indictment of the so-called liberal elites that Al Gore is their idea of an intellectual. As New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum (a Democrat) wrote just before the 2000 election, in a scathing essay deconstructing Gore's pretentious, vapid ramblings, "If George W. Bush is a lightweight, Al Gore is a deep lightweight: deep on the surface, profoundly shallow down below….Al Gore is the Emperor's New Brain."

Unfortunately, such insights into the foibles of one's own side are fairly rare. For the most part, we hear from the usual suspects—smug liberals like Sorkin, who laments that Gore had to "try so hard not to appear smart in the debates," and smug conservatives like Lowry, who proclaim that real men don't need brains.

It is neither smart nor attractive for liberals, the self-professed champions of the little people, to scorn the vast majority of their fellow citizens as mindless yahoos. But conservatives don't look much better when, after lambasting the left for feeding on resentment of economic success, they pander to resentment of intellectual achievement.