Monday, November 22, 2004

# Posted 8:35 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IVORY TOWER POLITICS: Last Friday, I attended a colloquium at The Miller Center on the subject of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Over lunch, we discssed a paper on that subject by Prof. Colleen Shogan of George Mason University.

I feel compelled to respond to Prof. Shogan's paper because it embodied so fully the manner in which professional scholarship rests on a foundation of unstated liberal presuppositions. One might describe the tone and style of Prof. Shogan's paper as thoughtful, sedate, and even non-partisan. Yet on almost every page there are statements that strongly suggest an unacknowledged debt to a liberal worldview.

Yet before describing exactly what is in Prof. Shogan's paper, it may be more important to mention what isn't. Based on a close reading of public and private statements by Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush, Prof. Shogan concludes that anti-intellectualism is part and parcel of a Republican strategy to attract less affluent voters. Perhaps. Yet not once does Prof. Shogan consider that the GOP's anti-intellectualism represents a conservative response to the intense commitment of an overwhelming majority of American intellectuals to a passionately liberal ideological agenda.

The conceptual roadblock that prevents Prof. Shogan from recognizing the ideological nature of American intellectuals is her identification of ideology and intellectualism as polar opposites. For example, she refers to President Reagan's "reliance upon ideology rather than intellectual prowess" and observes that
As Reagan demonstrated, ideologues and intellectuals do not make the best bedfellows. (Page 24)
In contrast to her (often justifiable) criticism of President Reagan, Shogan provides an extremely positive, almost glowing description of the academy. She writes that
The intellectual community is inherently critical of the status quo and often serves as the catalyst for social upheaval and development. (Page 8)
Shogan also takes care to point out that the "lasting, negative stereotype of the intellectual" grew out of "a clash between the educated elite and the party machine politicians" in the Progressive era. (Page 4) In other words, Republican anti-intellectualism amounts to nothing less than an embrace of reactionary prejudices that retard social development.

Naturally, this identification of the GOP with social regression begs the question of why Republican candidates have prevailed so often in presidential elections. In the manner of Thomas Frank, Shogan asserts that
For Democrats, fostering a populist connection is an easier task, since liberal policy proposals emphaisze the diffuse benefits of government intervention and social welfare. (Page 7)
According to Shogan, the voting public fails to recognize the advantages of voting Democratic, because television gets in the way. Shogan writes that
The political era of the sound-byte [sic] frustrates an extended intellectual discussion of complex policy issues...

Furthermore, the plebiscitary presidency is dependent upon the creation of "spectacles" that encourage awestruck citizens to become passive spectators rather than active participants in politics. Spectacles lend themselves to the portrayal of presidents as energetic, dynamic, hyper-masculine individuals who defeat evil in the name of American democracy, exemplified most recently by George W. Bush's landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. [Do I detect a note of sarcasm here? --ed.] The intellectual process of deliberation cannot constitute a spectacle. (Page 6)
Unsurprisingly, Shogan doesn't even consider the possibility that media coverage may favor Democratic presidential candidates (cf. "Rather, Dan").

In any event, Shogan goes on to argue that Republican candidates also benefit from the fact that evangelical voters are decidedly anti-intellectual. According to Shogan,
Animosity between evangelicals and intellectuals in the United States has existed for over a century. As theologians, Darwinists, and scientists discredited religious fundamentalism and literal interpretations of the Bible, evangelicals were displaced from mainstream intellectual discourse. (Pages 10-11)
While I can understand how one might argue that science has discredited creationism, Shogan seems unaware of the fact that science cannot discredit those all-important passages in the Bible that consist of moral prescriptions rather than statements of fact.

'Thou shalt not kill', 'Thou shalt not steal' and other commandments -- including the controversial ban on homosexual behavior -- are simply not amenable to scientific proof or disproof. Thus, it is somewhat misleading for Shogan to write that "Religious and moral imperatives are consistent with anti-intellectual leadership stances." (Pages 10-11)

On a similar note, Shogan writes that
Bush's anti-intellectualism and moralism are complementary and reinforcing.
The example that illustrates this point is Bush's "visceral" reaction to one of Bob Woodward's questions about North Korea. During an interview with Woodward, Bush emotionally shouted
"I loathe Kim Jong Il!" Bush shouted, waving his finer in the air. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people...It is visceral. Maybe it's my religion, maybe it's my--but I feel passionate about this.
One would hope that even the most nuanced contemplation of Kim Jong Il's brutality would produce a similar outburst. Yet Shogan writes that
By definition, a visceral reaction cannot be reflective; it comes from the "gut" or from deep-seated beliefs that are firmly rooted in place. (Pages 27-8)
It seems that even when Bush is right, he's wrong. Anyhow, Shogan concludes her analysis of Bush's anti-intellectualism with a back-handed compliment:
There is no doubt that the "cowboy" persona performs well as a plebiscitary [read: electoral] tool, but its utility to fight the international War on Terror is more limited.
There is something to this argument, yet the way in which Shogan takes its validity completely for granted demonstrates the degree to which an unstated liberal worldview animates an academic work that presents itself as detached and non-partisan.

At Friday's colloquium, I made many of the same points that I make in this post, although somewhat more briefly. Prof. Shogan responded that my criticism is misdirected, since she has more positive things to say about Bush than any of her colleagues. For example, she recognizes that Bush is sincere and that he is very successful at putting together winning coalitions.

In other words, Shogan has absolutely nothing good to say about Bush's policies, although she acknowledges that he is a formidable politician. However, it is her first statement that is far more revealing. If she represents the right-wing of the American academy, then it should come as no surprise that Republicans lash out so often at the professoriate. Thus it is quite ironic (but not at all surprising) that Prof. Shogan attributes the GOP's anti-intellectualism to its conservatism rather than her own liberalism and that of her colleagues.
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