Paul Krugman recently charged in his New York Times column that the right wing support for Cliven Bundy, who turned out to be more straight-talking racist than straight-talking Marlboro Man, was based on a prevailing anti-intellectualism among conservatives. Salon.com’s Elias Isquith echoed Krugman’s views, noting that “the trouble is that such beliefs are fundamentally indefensible in the modern world, which is rife with what economists call externalities — costs that private actions impose on others, but which people have no financial incentive to avoid.”
In his 2007 book The Assault on Reason, former Vice President Al Gore saw the same alarming trend. Gore held that reasoned discourse, the “central premise of American democracy” was imperiled by changes in the media and the politics of wealth. Supporting this contention, Princeton University released a report claiming America was no longer a democracy at all, but an oligarchy. When the Citizens United decision, SuperPACs, blows to the Voting Rights Act and the end of internet neutrality are taken into account, the veracity of these claims is hard to deny. So the real question is: what caused this fundamental shift in the American consciousness?
To Gore’s fairly typical “money in politics” and “media bias” arguments, I would add more fundamental cultural factors. The closing of the Borders bookstore chain has, in my view, as much to do with the end of reason as money in elections. I have been told that ten percent of people are buying ninety percent of books (hint: they arenʻt millenials). But this is a deep cultural issue. As a teacher, I see two ironic (and perhaps conflicting) trends. First, the abundance of information has diminished its perceived value to the point where young people see very little utility in actually knowing things. Second, this trend has very uneven effects – those at the top of the socioeconomic/academic spectrum (and make no mistake, the two are correlated) have disproportionately benefited, while those at the bottom have fallen further behind. This trend is seen in admissions rate to top tier schools, which have never been more selective. At the other end, the US dropout rate of 30% has recently been exposed as the dirty secret of American education. These inequalities are not mysteries, but simply reflect the inequities in the society generally, so that there is now an marked inequity in intellectual capital.
The unintentional acceptance of the demise of thought in American life is seen in the treatment of the field of philosophy. I have heard of philosophy professors, Harvard PhDs no less, making less than I did as a 23 year old teacher with a B.A. – the law of supply and demand at its most intense. Turning the field, one might say, of thought itself into a joke (what will you do with it? Become a barstool philosopher?) has the unintended consequence of promoting the question “how?” at the expense of the question “why?” We have become a society of technicians who blindly follow the next (economic) step, without reflection on its larger implications.
These implications are real and severe. Anyone following politics closely is compelled to ask whether government in Hawaiʻi (and the US) is simply a facilitator of business interests, and whether it retains any sense at all of providing for the public interest. We allow arguments in the public sphere that simply fail a logic test. We may have already crossed the “Rubicon,” as the Princeton report suggests, of near-complete citizen disengagement.
There’s hope. I spend a lot of time at Barnes and Noble Booksellers (the one that’s left) and the lines have never been longer. We also have a new “nerd culture” – nerd is the new black. Mainly this is in technical fields, but it has some spillover effects into humanities and social sciences. But there is also cause for alarm. There are now no bookstores West of Ala Moana. UH Mānoa tried to cut its Classical Languages program and was only prevented from doing so because it is a mandatory part of any liberal arts program (no classics, no accreditation). Perhaps we are all so overwhelmed by simply getting by that we have no time for reading and reflection. But if we do not prioritize it, it is at our own peril.