Anti-Intellectualism and Politics

Dur­ing 2015, Cana­da took a con­scious, intro­spec­tive turn toward a more pro­gres­sive jour­ney as vot­ers elect­ed Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau. Since then, we’ve been mak­ing inroads on a sig­nif­i­cant depar­ture from the atti­tudes of the pri­or admin­is­tra­tion and stay­ing most­ly true to this. While there remains a lot of heavy lift­ing to do in cor­rect­ing the anti-progress lega­cy of Stephen Harp­er, we’re on the road to recov­ery. There remains a cer­tain faith in gov­ern­ment, such that we’ve sig­nif­i­cant­ly boost­ed vot­er turnout. That in itself speaks vol­umes.

The change of admin­is­tra­tion brought with it some very pub­lic moments, like the new equal­i­ty cab­i­net, the rise of an abo­rig­i­nal chief as Jus­tice Min­is­ter, and the appoint­ment of an inter­na­tion­al­ly respect­ed war hero as Defense Min­is­ter.

While these changes are in all respects wel­come, and in most cas­es long past due, it’s the sub­tle stuff we don’t see going on behind the scenes day-to-day which con­tributes just as much if not more to the shap­ing of our char­ac­ter as a cul­ture of many dif­fer­ent cul­tures. The way our politi­cians behave toward one anoth­er, their inter­ac­tion with the peo­ple, their will­ing­ness to cham­pi­on progress and edu­ca­tion, their atti­tudes toward strangers, and their com­pas­sion towards the ‘oth­er’ — all of these are the mea­sure of a politi­cian whether that indi­vid­ual is with­in view of the press or not. One thing I found reas­sur­ing about this past elec­tion was the con­scious rejec­tion of divi­sive pol­i­tics by the Cana­di­an peo­ple. What we have right now is not per­fect by any mea­sure, but it’s a lot bet­ter than the alter­na­tive might have been.

There’s a com­mon thread with­in the Trudeau admin­is­tra­tion com­mu­ni­cat­ed via non­ver­bal action to the effect of “love trumps hate” — a wel­come oppo­site and a prop­er course cor­rec­tion in the wake of the shame­ful anti-intel­lec­tu­al, anti-Mus­lim hate cam­paigns Harp­er had been run­ning dur­ing the dying months of his career.

With that serv­ing as the wall to our backs, it’s no secret we felt it was in our best inter­est to move for­ward and elect some­one we didn’t just feel we could relate to, but whose views actu­al­ly made prac­ti­cal sense in the con­text of expand­ing upon eco­nom­ic recov­ery efforts, equal­i­ty, jus­tice, and over­all social progress. In this case, it seems we got lucky, and the dia­logue has begun to lean toward diplo­ma­cy rather than iso­la­tion­ism, open­ness instead of xeno­pho­bia, insight­ful inquiry instead of rabid nation­al­ism.

On the lat­ter point, I think Rick Salutin put it best: our weak­er sense of nation­al­ism may be one of our great­est assets — enough to bring us togeth­er, but not so over­bear­ing as to always stand in the way of get­ting things done.

That brings me to the crux of the mat­ter: even as we try to sal­vage our tar­nished nation­al image on the world stage, there are seri­ous cir­cum­stances com­pound­ing south of our bor­der in the world’s largest exporter of cul­ture which I fear could pose sig­nif­i­cant risks to Canada’s econ­o­my and social progress in the near future.

Amer­i­ca, I’m look­ing at you. You’re in a bad place right now. Whether it’s celebri­ty wor­ship, anti-edu­ca­tion, gun nut cul­ture, cre­ation­ism, anti-equal­i­ty ini­tia­tives, wide­spread legal­ized bribery, or racist sym­pa­thiz­ers stand­ing tall among your polit­i­cal elite, the present sit­u­a­tion is fucked up.

The caus­es, nuanced as they are, span too many pages to list in one arti­cle (or even a hun­dred) — and that’s why ordi­nary peo­ple flock to the type of quick-fix politi­cians the present socioe­co­nom­ic cli­mate has been pro­duc­ing. They want a speedy, mag­i­cal solu­tion to all the malaise, yet the solu­tions required to address these prob­lems are thor­ough­ly labour-inten­sive, if not also demand­ing of a high lev­el of spe­cial­ized edu­ca­tion and pro­fes­sion­al exper­tise.

This is why con­tem­po­rary anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism scares me. And it should scare you, too. There is a group of high-pro­file politi­cians mak­ing head­lines right now who’d rather make a lot of noise and rile every­one up, but not do the actu­al work required to fix real prob­lems.

Last month, I made a post on Face­book about Don­ald Trump’s gains in polit­i­cal trac­tion. The man car­ries him­self with the impul­siv­i­ty of a third-grad­er, lacks appre­cia­ble polit­i­cal skills, and yet because he’s a celebri­ty he com­mands some lev­el of read­i­ly acces­si­ble pop­u­lar sup­port, most­ly because he’s a slick sales­man good at play­ing to vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. If elect­ed, he’s more like­ly to scape­goat oth­er cul­tures instead of actu­al­ly come up with any use­ful, action­able strate­gies to solve America’s prob­lems.

Not long after my post, a friend post­ed some espe­cial­ly valu­able insight on the mat­ter; loose­ly para­phrased, this is not a one-off, he’s get­ting sup­port because some peo­ple actu­al­ly share these beliefs and he’s a voice to them. It was at that point I real­ized I’d been see­ing the sit­u­a­tion incor­rect­ly: extrem­ism doesn’t begin at extreme polit­i­cal fig­ures, more like the oth­er way around. In all cas­es, it begins at the exis­tence of some major inequal­i­ty — mon­ey, edu­ca­tion, sta­tus, achieve­ment, etc. — and even­tu­al­ly some­one cap­i­tal­izes on that.

In the US, the issue seems large­ly split between argu­ments about mon­ey and edu­ca­tion.

Real wages have large­ly remained the same or reced­ed since the 1960s for most tax­pay­ers. Mean­while, liv­ing costs have steeply shot up, eras­ing the abil­i­ty to save and ush­er­ing in the ubiq­ui­ty of easy cred­it (and all its atten­dant dan­gers).

The US edu­ca­tion sys­tem has like­wise found itself in cri­sis for sev­er­al decades. Pub­lic school under-fund­ings, facil­i­ty clo­sures, inad­e­quate acces­si­bil­i­ty, improp­er imple­men­ta­tion of stan­dard­ized tests, grade infla­tion, poor post-sec­ondary readi­ness, con­stant tuition hikes, and unsus­tain­able lev­els of post-sec­ondary stu­dent debt top a laun­dry list of prob­lems that con­tin­ue to wors­en, not improve, under a sys­tem which offers few legit­i­mate sup­ports or well-thought-out social safe­ty nets. On top of this, some oppo­nents to edu­ca­tion have become so brazen as to insist cours­es be illog­i­cal­ly altered to include irrel­e­vant mate­r­i­al (i.e. adding cre­ation­ism into sci­ence texts) or demand that cours­es be watered down (i.e. reduc­ing course demands despite the fact many stu­dents aren’t arriv­ing at col­lege func­tion­ing at a grade-appro­pri­ate lev­el).

If it was only these two issues togeth­er, one would imme­di­ate­ly see the ways in which it’s quite the tox­ic pow­der keg wait­ing to explode. The real­i­ty is more lurid, how­ev­er — to these issues don’t for­get to add an unsus­tain­able for-prof­it health­care sys­tem, self-destruc­tive domes­tic polic­ing and sur­veil­lance indus­tries, a fer­vent nation­wide dis­trust of gov­ern­ment, and the grow­ing pub­lic belief in var­i­ous con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. Then, and only then, do we begin to approach the cur­rent sta­tus quo.

This arti­cle sums up a good deal of what’s gone wrong in recent times. It’s not just the US who has been dab­bling in rad­i­cal­iza­tion, how­ev­er due to its sta­tus as a glob­al super­pow­er, there will like­ly be sig­nif­i­cant trick­le-down effects for most devel­oped nations if the US gov­ern­ment and its insti­tu­tions allow them­selves to be led fur­ther astray.

Some time ago, when it was only rare idiots like Sarah Palin grac­ing the stage from remote venues in Alas­ka, and there were less tales of politi­cians gut­ting pub­lic school sys­tems or squan­der­ing eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties in the name of nation­al­ism and faith, it felt eas­i­er to tell our­selves the US wasn’t head­ing into a mod­ern Dark Age. There are just too many bright minds around for that to hap­pen, right?

Not quite.

As it turns out, fear is a handy tool to cir­cum­vent all of that, and even the most pow­er­ful nations can be brought to their knees in slob­ber­ing, unglam­orous fash­ion by whip­ping up a lot of mis­guid­ed pub­lic out­rage and pan­der­ing to base emo­tions.

Until now, I’ve large­ly held off from giv­ing any atten­tion to clowns like Don­ald Trump, Ben Car­son, or oth­ers of that ilk since they are the type of peo­ple who seed dis­cord and divide nations as a means of seek­ing their own per­son­al for­tunes. There is scant con­cern for the aver­age Amer­i­can there, and as expressed through action, these fig­ures appear to hold a com­mon belief that any press, even bad press, is good for their bot­tom line.

So while I don’t like to feed the trolls, it’s still impor­tant we have a dis­cus­sion about this stuff for the sake of under­stand­ing. It falls to each of us to arm our­selves with knowl­edge, and rec­og­nize the ugly trans­for­ma­tion that’s tak­ing shape. We must do any­thing we can to stop it.

While I’m not Amer­i­can, my female part­ner is a US expat, and we’ve both got a keen inter­est in edu­ca­tion and world events; each of us has observed the steady expan­sion of anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ist influ­ence in the US over the past few decades to the point today where this doesn’t mere­ly guide US pol­i­tics, but rather defines them (hav­ing come from the South, her insight into region­al issues has been some­thing I’ve found par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful).

Last admin­is­tra­tion, Cana­da got a taste of the US polit­i­cal climate’s trick­le-downs in the form of Stephen Harp­er. We sat, teeth grat­ed, as he made high­ly ques­tion­able leg­isla­tive and per­son­al choic­es, some of which served only to ben­e­fit multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies. We watched in self-ques­tion­ing hor­ror as he aped con­tem­po­rary US con­ser­v­a­tives with asi­nine reli­gious debates and vol­umes upon vol­umes of sim­i­lar­ly unwel­come polit­i­cal chaff.

At the end of it all, how­ev­er, the peo­ple real­ized it wasn’t too late to get up, go to the vot­ing booth, and send 6.9 mil­lion (sym­bol­ic) mid­dle fin­gers to Ottawa.

We don’t like dumb. We don’t want dumb. We didn’t vote for dumb. And last but not least (and this is the impor­tant part) we found a way to look beyond the cli­mate of fear and get rid of dumb. Hope­ful­ly it’s a direc­tion that lasts, at least for a while.

And if we can do it, then Amer­i­ca our beloved neigh­bour, you can too.

It’s repeat­ed­ly being not­ed in the news that many Amer­i­cans feel scared or over­whelmed right now because there’s a lot of tur­moil. In that kind of cli­mate, there will always be oppor­tunists who wish to take advan­tage, peo­ple who wish to hijack a polit­i­cal par­ty for the sake of their own ego.

Rec­og­nize that the best hands to steer this ship are not the ones clos­est by, or the ones most loud­ly scream­ing that they want to help — but rather, the ones that bear the best edu­ca­tion and skills, the most cen­trist mind­set, and the moti­va­tion to do the job right.

Giv­en their cur­rent plat­form, the Repub­li­can Par­ty intends on bypass­ing crit­i­cal thought to lay the ground­work for a nihilis­tic pop­ulist agen­da based on tox­ic machis­mo and xeno­pho­bic chest-thump­ing. Notice how they haven’t come up with sol­id action plans for edu­ca­tion, infra­struc­ture, etc. so far? That’s not by acci­dent. The plan is to divert atten­tion, not solve the issues.

This does not give hon­est rep­re­sen­ta­tion to the Repub­li­can vot­er base by any mea­sure, nor does it con­sti­tute respon­si­ble stew­ard­ship of a nation. If you’re a his­to­ry buff, you’ll prob­a­bly rec­og­nize this as a sto­ry we’ve seen played out many times before across many cen­turies. Once it’s gath­ered enough momen­tum, I don’t think there’s a sin­gle ver­sion of this where it actu­al­ly turns out well for any­one, be they lead­ers or cit­i­zens.

If you’re not sure what I mean by this, a good start­ing point for study would be the rise and fall of 20th-cen­tu­ry fas­cism.

One can­not build or improve a nation by divid­ing it.

The recent favour­ing of noisy, scape­goat­ing, slick-sales­man polit­i­cal par­ties, as opposed to ratio­nal ones that form effec­tive and action­able plat­forms, rais­es an impor­tant issue about the real­i­ty we live in: anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism is no longer just a fringe ele­ment, it’s gained a strong foothold and is active­ly becom­ing assim­i­lat­ed into the main­stream.

If tomor­row Don­ald Trump dis­ap­peared off the face of the Earth, some­one else would sure­ly step in to replace him. That’s not by acci­dent. It’s because enough peo­ple like you and I are fear­ful of the cur­rent eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion that pan­der­ing to fear finds res­o­nance with an audi­ence. This fear makes us less like­ly to ques­tion things and con­nect with oth­ers in healthy was. In a more pros­per­ous and egal­i­tar­i­an set­ting, this might nev­er have grown to such pro­por­tions, and the long list of preda­tors putting on a con­ser­v­a­tive cos­tume might have been more eas­i­ly red-flagged and laughed off the stage by their peers.

We all need to look beyond the fear, beyond these kinds of low-brow pol­i­tics, and find the strength and vision to steer far away from this course.

And if Cana­da can take a step for­ward in spite of its own socioe­co­nom­ic prob­lems and say no to rad­i­cal­iza­tion, I have faith Amer­i­ca can make the move too.

We stand with you, friends.

In 2016, vote “no” to dumb.

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