Sunday, September 28, 2008

Brain Freeze

I've long been embarrassed by the willful innocence pose held by a huge segment of the US population. Yes, we're a relatively young nation, but that's no excuse for the naivete we display in world and worldly matters. Lately, I've something new to be red-faced about, something that has been creeping into the national psyche (if there is such a thing), but I've been hard pressed to come up with just the right term for it. I was coming around to designating the source of the discomfort as intentional ignorance, but an interesting essay by Jeffrey D. Sachs (professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) and published in the Jordan Times suggests a more proper name: anti-intellectualism. I think he's on to something.

In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving. Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meagre development assistance, and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilising actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism, exemplified recently by Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s surging popularity.

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence.
[Emphasis added]

Such a stance has turned out to have rather dire consequences. Prof. Sachs points to several areas where anti-intellectualism has had a potentially murderous effect, including global warming, a subject obviously near to his heart:

The Nobel Prize-winning global scientific process called the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set the gold standard for scientific rigor in analysing the threats of human-induced climate change. We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

In the US, however, the attitudes of President Bush, leading Republicans, and now Sarah Palin, have been the opposite of scientific. The White House did all it could for eight years to hide the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change. It tried to prevent government scientists from speaking honestly to the public. The Wall Street Journal has similarly peddled anti-science and pseudo-science to oppose policies to fight human-induced climate change.

The war in Iraq provides yet another example for Prof. Sachs, although I think my "intentional ignorance" might be a better term than mere anti-intellectualism. Either way, however, Prof. Sachs really nail the convictions behind the active expression:

These anti-scientific approaches affected not only climate policy, but also foreign policy.

The US went to war in Iraq on the basis of Bush’s gut instincts and religious convictions, not rigorous evidence. Likewise, Palin has called the Iraq war “a task from God”. ...

The problem is an aggressive fundamentalism that denies modern science, and an aggressive anti-intellectualism that views experts and scientists as the enemy. It is those views that could end up getting us all killed. After all, that kind of extremism can even lead to war, based on perverted views that a particular war is God’s will rather than a failure of politics and cooperation.

The irony is that such a stance works only if its holder believes that God actually might have made some mistakes when it came to creation. Instead of viewing the marvelous design of the brain as a way for humans to appreciate the intricacies and grandeur of the universe, the fundamentalists see it as the source for sinful pride and subsequent error. Instead of being grateful for the unique design of sexual organs which make physical intimacy enjoyable, thereby ensuring the continuation of the species, the fundamentalists see the act of sex as disgusting and perverted and insist on insane limitations, even to the point (in some cultures) of encouraging mutilation.

The theological inconsistencies aside, however, the stance is profoundly dangerous, especially at this time when the fate of the entire creation, of which we are supposed to be stewards, hangs in the balance. I wish God would just slap some sense into those people, but I suspect God expects the rest of us to bring those people around.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing new about this, of course. Richard Hofstadter wrote 'Anti-Intellectualism in American Life' in the early sixties, documenting its presence throughout America history. Seems worse in degree today, though, with the fundies in the ascendant under Bush, and being aggressively installed across all branches of government service.


11:02 AM  
Blogger shrimplate said...

Your last two paragraphs are great.

Every once in a while I run into one of those "sex is only for procreation" types, and I always tell them that they in particular should never have any then.


8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One reason that evolutionary thought is unacceptable to Christian Americans is that it is too similar to the way American society really works. Far from being alien from U.S. social values, it shows a view of survival uncomfortably familiar to Americans, and this discomfort is elaborated by fundamentalist Christians in an attempt to deny it. Don't kill the messenger! figure out how to improve the quality of the society!

8:31 PM  
Blogger merygoround said...

Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason is an excellent, well-researched wake-up call concerning the state of intellectual activity -- or the lack of it -- in our present society.

5:24 AM  

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