A post over at Psychology Today makes the claim that “Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America.” Citing the horrific mass murder in Charleston by the overtly racist Dylann Roof, the essay goes on to state that, “Many will correctly blame Roof’s actions on America’s culture of racism and gun violence, but it’s time to realize that such phenomena are directly tied to the nation’s culture of ignorance.”
Now, among the more singularly despicable statements made by conservative politicians, pundits, and supposed “news” outlets, have been the cowardly red herring evasions of the obvious and irrefutable fact of Roof’s overtly and explicitly stated racist motivations in the mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The disgusting refusal on the parts of so many to frankly acknowledge and deplore the blatant racism behind Roof’s act of terrorism is beyond inexcusable. The people engaged in such denial and misdirection are themselves complicit in Roof’s crimes as enablers and legitimizers.
But even though anti-intellectualism and racism may likely be frequent, even inevitable, co-travelers, can we justifiably assert that anti-intellectualism is the root, and racism is the branch, as the author in the above Psychology Today post does? I do not think so.
For one thing, there has never been a particular lack of racism in the Academy. While this is obviously the case in many historical figures, it is also very much a fetid presence in contemporary higher ed, both explicitly in the form of more than a few well established and, in some instances, explicitly declared, racists and white supremacists, but also in the even more numerous caviling apologists who would justify such racism or even deny that it exists. It is more than a bit of a stretch to suppose that these people’s racism is driven by anti-intellectualism. Let me reiterate: such behavior is very much a stinking and oppressive reality in the contemporary academy.
Having mentioned historical figures in the academy, we should also note that the American Founding Fathers, who are commonly praised for their intellectual standing, were also quite frequently slave-holders in massive numbers. There are those who would apologize for these individuals, and attempt to justify the many framers of the Constitution and their egregious participation in the institution of chattel slavery. However, such people are themselves being racists. Spew all the fatuous twaddle you want about “history” and “the times back then,” it will never change the indefensible fact of slavery in the Americas, the incomprehensible brutality of the institution, or its uncompromisingly racist orientation, foundation, and purpose.
One need not reach so high as the preceding to observe the disconnect between racism and anti-intellectualism. A great many bright people who lack the standing of University professors, or Founders of the United States, nevertheless embrace all manner of excuse-making in order to justify their roles as enablers of racism, and even outright racists. Examples of this do not require anything as monstrous as the Charleston murders to show themselves. (Indeed, it is in the less monstrous, and more “everyday” acts of racism that the institutionalized character of racism reveals itself and its deeply embedded place within American society.) Thus, for example, many people aggressively defend the police response to the teenagers at the McKinney, TX pool party that garnered so much internet attention. The people who defend the police response to this incident generally do so by never asking even a single meaningful question. Examples of such questions include: “Would the police ever have acted so aggressively had the teenagers been white?” And, perhaps even more tellingly, “Would the police even have been called had the teenagers been white?”
But rather than dealing honestly with the obvious racial components in the police responses, the “thoughtful” racist enablers insist that the police were well within their rights because the children in bikinis failed to comply with lawful orders. And, of course, it goes without saying that had Roof been a black man who murdered nine white people at a prayer meeting, the police would have been every bit as delicate, deferential, and professional in securing his capture. I mean, it is not as though Roof was some dangerous psycho selling “loosies” on a street corner who needed to be choked to death. (Such is the “logic” of “post-racial” America.)
It is “logically possible,” in as gratuitously dessicated and abstract a sense of “possible” as you could ever wish to choke on, that had those teenagers been white, the police would still have been called and their response would still have been the same. It is equally possible, in as equally and childishly a caricature of possibility, that had Roof been black and his victims white, that the police would have dealt with him in the same careful, polite, and circumspect manner as they did with the white terrorist Roof.
But it is nigh on to incomprehensible how anyone could be so willfully and disgustingly flat out butt-st00pid as to imagine such ridiculously abstract possibilities were even marginally reasonable, much less inevitable. It is not as though there was any lack of evidence to the contrary:
So the driving force behind racism is not – and, indeed, cannot possibly be – anti-intellectualism. Far too many smart, well-read, intelligent people are repeatedly, rampantly, viciously, proudly racist, without apology or even a first, much less a second thought, for the anti-intellectual tag to stick. So wherein does the explanation lie?
The only response that makes any sense to me is one that takes us back to Robert Altemeyer and The Authoritarians. One of the primary signs of authoritarian thinking is, admittedly, a tendency toward anti-intellectualism. But of far greater reach, I would argue, is the devastating capacity for compartmentalization. People with University earned Ph.D.’s, at something like the top of their profession, are more than capable of not only being racists, but overt white supremacists. I have personally met such people, as well as their University earned Ph.D. apologists, defenders, and enablers. These people are not anti-intellectual in any but the most ridiculously twisted sense of the concept. But they are racists. They are racists because they have compartmentalized what they claim to believe from what they actually do. (Except for the overt white supremacists, who don’t bother with compartmentalization, but know the game well enough not to brag about who they really are. There are more than a few sociopaths with Ph.D.’s, just by the bye.)
The psychological act of compartmentalization has nothing to do with one’s approach to, or standing within, intellectualism. It is an emotional/ideological performance that defines itself as outside the possibility of rational inquiry or critique. It has nothing to do with intelligence, and even less to do with education.
Well, maybe the word “education” is wrong here. Let us say, instead, “schooling,” since there are far too many idiots with Ph.D.’s who have passed through school without ever becoming educated. Many of them work in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, in one form or another, certainly earning more money than any honest scholar like myself might ever hope to see
What is killing America is not anti-intellectualism, since this is nothing more than a symptom. What is killing America is the Authoritarian mindset. And until we address ourselves to the root cause, flailing at the various symptoms will only serve to make things worse.