Wednesday, November 26, 2008

roots of anti-intellectualism in recent years

In the wake of this November's election of Barack Obama, dozens of media commentators have heralded this as a welcome respite in the anti-intellectualism that has dominated American society and American politics for the past thirty years.

One media pundit (sorry I can't remember who) has said that Obama, unlike other presidents of the last forty years is "openly intellectual." Sure Clinton was a scholar during his college years, but he down played his scholarly background behind a folksy southern persona, leading voters to think that he just might be a "red-neck." [By the way, if Jeff Foxworthy is right, I too just might be a red-neck, since the instructions on how to reach my house include "and then you turn off the paved road" and my house originally came with wheels].

It is tempting to say that the roots of anti-intellectualism in American politics come from the simple lack of brainpower of the common man (or woman). They aren't so smart so they mistrust anyone who is openly interested in the life of the mind and intellectual ideas. Given that Obama, "openly intellectual" as he is, garnered the largest percentage and larger number of the popular vote in recent history, suggests that such a simple explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps that is the motivation of a few individuals here and there, but it doesn't help to account for the way in which anti-intellectualism is structured into our society, especially into our educational system. Also it doesn't explain why Republicans candidates and voters are more likely to exude contempt of intellectual accomplishment even more than Democrats do.

The key to understanding anti-intellectualism is found in our economic system and its current troubles. It is clear, beyond doubt, that our economy depends upon people buying things. When consumer confidence goes down, and people cut back on their purchases, our economy tanks. Regardless of all the sanctimonious sermons about people spending more than they earn, and going into credit card debt, the reality is, that our economy has been built on people spending beyond their means.

In troubled times like these, the rational choice for individuals is to save their money and not spend it, but what makes sense for individuals is exactly opposite what is needed to recharge the economy. Certainly there are economic systems that do exist and have existed that do not rest on consumerism and credit, but ours is not one of them.

When the health of the economy depends upon ordinary people spending and consuming larger and larger quantities of material goods, society must provide incentives to make people desire to spend beyond their means. One important tool in doing this is to attach cultural and social values to material things. Advertising is one means of doing this. Through advertising values of family, success, achievement, sexiness, love, and many others, are attached to material products.

More than a hundred years ago, Thorsten Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the role of consumption in establishing status. The only thing that has changed since Veblen's time is that the use of consumption of luxury goods has been pushed further and further down the income scale. As a result, even low income teenagers will pay $36-$46 dollars for an Abercrombie & Fitch logo t-shirt, rather than $4-$6 for a similar quality blank t-shirt at Walmart. Where the wealthy rely on their peers knowledge of designers style (if you couldn't recognize a Chanel suit, a Lily Pulitzer frock, or an Dior gown, on sight your opinion hardly mattered), lower middle class and working class young people rely on large graphics of "high class" names spread across their chests, backs and down their arms.

When consumption is the bedrock of the economy, and appeals to status are crucial to encouraging continual consumption, there is little room to tolerate alternative, non-consumption based sources of status. Intellectual, creative and artistic pursuits -- except to the degree that they represent monetary exchange -- need to be actively discouraged since they can distract people away from consumption.

Degrees are fine, especially if they come from expensive schools, its knowledge and thinking that are viewed as bothersome. About fourteen years ago, the commencement speaker at the public four year college where I was then employed was a politically appointed state bureaucrat in a Republican administration. He congratulated the graduates on receiving their degrees, and then offered himself as an example of someone who had managed to get a college degree "without letting college change" him, or his beliefs and opinions in any way. This young Republican bureaucrat was proud of the fact that he had come through four years of college unscared by any troublesome knowledge that would undermine in any way the prejudices and attitudes with which he had entered college.

Similarly, art that commands high sale prices is fine, but art for art's sake is not. Negative attitudes toward the National Endowment for the Arts, and the artists that it supports demonstrate this latter view. Conservatives consider the only good art is that which has commercial value. The only artistic value is the value of the market place.

The ordinary individual who expresses distrust, fear and contempt for intellectualism or artistic creativity, is not thinking about promoting consumerism, but there are those in positions of leadership and influence, in government and the media, who are consciously undermining non-commercial sources of status and life satisfaction such as intellectual and artistic endeavor.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

failure of the sociological imagination

The topic in my social problems class today was drug abuse. We looked at the data, and tracked the trends, outlined the extent of the problem. Then we turned to the question of "why?" -- why so much more drug abuse in our region than in the past. [We live in the epicenter of the Oxycontin phenomenon.]

We looked at the issues of the availability of drugs, of the economic and social conditions, of the cultural attitudes encouraged by the media, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical profession, that pills are a solution to most of life's problems (sexual problems - take Viagra, anxious in social situations - take Paxil, etc.).

One of the students in the class, Mary*, has worked on several local media projects and films about drug abuse in this region, and as a result has talked to a lot of people who have become entangled in abuse. Mary pointed out that the reason given by most of the people that she talked to was that they couldn't cope with the pressures and problems of their lives and took drugs to relieve the pressure, to be distracted, to forget about things for a while. Mary noted that this reason made her mad and disgusted. She didn't think it was a valid reason; that people were just weak and that should just learn to deal with things as she did. The other students in the class offered their agreement with Mary. They too viewed drug abuse as weakness and moral failing to which they were immune.

I asked the class to consider why it might be that more people today found themselves unable to cope with problems and pressure without drugs. I was hoping that they might think about ways in which the circumstances of living in the region had changed. I hoped they might think about how family situations and child rearing had changed (two working parents for example), how job opportunities had declined in the region, how out migration had reduced family networks, how political changes and budgetary cuts meant less in the way of social support, and finally how stagnating middle class and working class incomes and rising costs had eroded the standard of living.

Mary, however, suggested that circumstances had not changed that much, that it all boiled down to people being "weaker" today than they were in the past. People, she suggested weren't willing to "deal with" things as they were in the past (or as she implied as she was). The rest of the class vocally concurred with this view.

So I asked the class, if people were "weaker" today, how had that happened. What was it that had changed to make them weaker? This is the problem with us sociologists, we always think there is a reason for changes that they don't just come out of the air. Unfortunately Mary's response was, "it just happened. I don't don't want to call it evolved [we know from previous classes that Mary doesn't believe in biological evolution], it just happened." Mary suggested that people just naturally changed for the worse over time. Other students in the class offered agreement. There wasn't any reason for change, it just happened they all agreed. Society gets worse, people get worse. People today are weak -- except for us -- that's why they abuse drugs, was the unanimous opinion of my students.

We stopped the discussion at that point to see a short film made locally about Oxycontin abuse in the region. While I tinkered with the VCR, rewinding the film and cuing it up, I could hear Mary speaking quietly with the woman next to her. She was recounting her own history with the use of Paxil for the "terrible anxiety" she suffered after her baby was born, and how she "would not have been able to cope" without her doctor's help and the medication. I could tell by Mary's tone of voice that she did not consider her own inability to cope without medication to be a sign of weakness.

Despite my best efforts this is clearly a group of students who have not grasped the sociological imagination -- that ability to see connections between the biography of the individual and the broader social, economic, political and cultural trends that C. Wright Mills collectively called "history." Worse than that they seem to lack empathy for others, and the ability to see "there but for fortune go I."
*names changed to protect identity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

reaping the whirlwind

The 44th President of the United States gave an awesome, inspiring, uplifting speech last night. But Obama's was not the only fine speech of the evening. The real John McCain, the reasonable, thoughtful, American patriot, gave a moving speech in which he conceded the presidency to Barack Obama.

"I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.
It is natural. It's natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again."

-- John McCain, United States Senator

For the full text and video see CNN.

If Senator John McCain had conducted his entire campaign the way he conducted his concession speech, last night might have had a different outcome. Last night we saw the man of integrity, the man for whom "country first" is an abiding truth not a campaign slogan. It was painfully clear at several points during the speech (including the one captured in the photo below) that McCain is dismayed with the kind of vitriol that his campaign inspired in many of his supporters.
McCain's speech, the reaction of some of the crowd and McCain's discomfort with that reaction, reminds me of Hosea 8:4,7.

They have made kings,
But not with My sanction;
They have made officers,
But not of My choice.
Of their silver and gold
They have made themselves images,
To their own undoing.

They sow wind,
and they shall reap whirlwind---
Standing stalks devoid of ears
And yielding no flour.
If they do yield any,
Strangers shall devour it.

Photo credit: CNN/Art