COVID-19 carried with it an onslaught of anti-vaccine sentiments, inextricably connected to a broader hostility toward mainstream media outlets like CNN, MSNBC and other large news corporations under the corporate media umbrella. While it is easy and important to peg individuals like Tucker Carlson (whom we will revisit shortly) for their role in proliferating vaccine hesitancy, the dismissal of science as a pretense of a higher power to conduct their nefarious plans is undergirded by a far more deeply-rooted seed in the American tradition: anti-intellectualism.
Anti-intellectualism refers to the distrust of intellectuals and their contributions to popular discourse. American historian Richard Hofstadter deemed anti-intellectualism the “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life.”
I’m on board with Hofstadter. Anti-intellectualism does inherently undermine the potential of the people in a polity to think fully and critically about their material conditions — in this sense, it is “minimizing the value of… life.”
Furthermore, anti-intellectualism, which is supposedly anti-elite, allies with the ruling class in distracting the public from the real significance of terms that describe complex processes and their material importance.
Consider the popular backlash against critical race theory, a legal-theoretical framework aiming at studying the plethora of ways in which white supremacy guides U.S law. Not only do American conservatives show up in droves to oppose CRT proper, but they organize massive cogs in school board and town council meetings to decry how CRT, in the form of accurate historical curricula, is supposedly infecting the minds of schoolchildren with Marxism and anti-American sentiment.
This exemplifies American anti-intellectualism. Not only does it prohibit the ability of the population to use their heads on important issues, but it suffocates educators, especially educators of color, of their ability to clear social studies curricula of falsehoods and harmful dogmas that carry water for white supremacists. Anti-intellectualism in this vein can be extremely harmful as a population with no understanding of the massive social, economic and political oppression leveled against Black and Indigenous people probably won’t sympathize with basic attempts to rectify a white supremacist history — much less the struggle for reparations for slavery and Indigenous sovereignty over stolen land.
Terms like “surplus value extraction,” “cisheteropatriarchy,” “settler-colonialism,” “transmisogynoir” and so forth, are all derided by anti-intellectuals for being out of touch with reality or deliberately too lofty for “regular folk” to understand. Once again, these terms were cultivated by our modern context to describe extremely real forms of oppression against social minorities.
The same way Gamergate burst onto the scene in the early 2010’s to denigrate feminism and blast any attempt to increase representation in video games and pop culture, anti-intellectualism broadly serves to subvert all intellectual strides made by oppressed communities to analyze and dispose of oppressive systems.
To revisit Hofstadter, in his seminal book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” he traces American anti-intellectualism to the colonization of North America and Protestant evangelism. The protestant work ethic subjects its followers to a lifetime of thankless labor and unconditional devotion to religious causes such as colonization — such was necessary to develop the means of developing your settler-colony prior to the advent of the transatlantic slave trade.
Such devotion, argues Hofstadter, rejects all literature save for the Calvinist bible — to that end, it was an early embrace of anti-intellectualism.
Immediately, anti-intellectualism was draped in an expressly American character. Hofstadter chronicles how early U.S. political symbols evoked the notion of the “self-made man” to buttress the idea that one could come to the settler-colonies with nothing and subsequently become a titan of industry.
Hofstadter adds that Jeffersonian and later Jacksonian populism had a stronger grip on The U.S. as it proudly celebrated the “self-made man” to motivate settlers’ genocidal expansion across the continent. They rejected the intellectualism of the vociferous Federalists and Whigs and won wide appeal among settlers. Such is the legacy that inspired Richard Nixon’s silent majority and Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables” stand.
We now shift to a rosier, more modern era: the Red Scare.
The Cold War between the U.S. and socialist world sent anti-intellectualism into overdrive, enabling the anti-communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy to war against communism in American cultural institutions. Seeing that many American students and intellectuals developed sympathy for communism, McCarthy and his allies began a campaign of hailing pernicious and paranoid accusations of treason at anyone from professors to military personnel and government employees. Intellectualism accordingly became a hallmark of the seditious communist.
After the cooling of McCarthyism, intellectualism became much more associated with a well-educated but blubbering liberal stereotype. If this sounds familiar to the contemporary tongue-lashing against wealthy liberal elites perpetuated by right-wing populists, you are not mistaken. Enter: Tucker Carlson.
Tucker Carlson is a talk show host for Fox News and the most watched news personality, earning the most nightly and total viewers of any news program currently airing. Most of his time is spent railing against “elites” — see monologues like “Tucker: Elites are using identity politics to preserve class system” or “Tucker Carlson: Incompetent elites are ruining kids’ lives” for his monologues. With the largest soapbox in the U.S. to influence the values of his viewership and a net worth to the tune of $30 million, Carlson fully embodies the course of anti-intellectualism as a tool of the powerful.
Carlson’s show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, follows the anti-intellectualist trope of being actively malicious towards marginalized groups. In a direct evocation of white supremacist doctrine, Carlson remarked this past spring how Democratic policy aimed “to replace the current electorate” with “more obedient voters from the Third World.” After Fox executives argued profusely that he was echoing the “great replacement” conspiracy theory of white supremacists preoccupied with controlling the demographics of the U.S., Carlson came right out and called Democratic immigration policy a “great replacement.”
It isn’t news that Carlson’s political agenda is decidedly white supremacist and aligned with wealthy capitalists. What’s important is that, via Tucker Carlson as proxy, anti-intellectualism has refitted itself into the American present as a calculated war against equity and justice for marginalized people.
The average right-wing populist interpreting socio-economic justice for minority communities has fallen into the anti-intellectual trap laid for them by groups with a vested interest in maintaining systems of oppression — the debt industry, the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, real estate giants, media oligopolists, big agriculture and their proxies in government. The job of anti-intellectualism is to obscure the guilt of racial capitalism and imperialism for poverty, state violence and war, instead targeting those suffering from the worst oppression (e.g. BIPOC, migrants, the poor working class, disabled people etc.).
The MO of anti-intellectualism is to center ideas at the expense of action. To radicals, the solution to the centuries-long regime of racial capitalism is reparations and land sovereignty returned to Black and Indigenous people; to the anti-intellectual, the solution is an endless propaganda war in defense of the status quo.
Let’s not forget that change is oriented around actions, not ideas. Good theory might lead to effective material gains, but the only way to test a theory is on the ground. It’s important to make your ideas accessible to all whom they’re intended to reach, but let’s not assume that we need to debone or dumb down complex ideas to anyone who doesn’t attend a university. The assumption that workers can’t understand difficult theories to guide their practice is not only condescending, but historically false, as evinced by the fact that workers without formal education throughout the Global South could grasp and apply a complex framework like Marxism in national liberation struggles throughout the 20th century, some continuing today.
What anti-intellectual demagogues are truly afraid of is action. To celebrate the conclusion of this article, consider joining me as I log off, get some rest and act better tomorrow than I did the day before.
I just want to take a moment to say that I appreciate your writing and how you beautifully articulated your arguments. It would be intellectually rewarding for me to read more of your work.