Friday, February 3, 2012

Intellectual Elitism, or Just Plain Smarter Than You?

Cover of "Smart People"
Cover of Smart People
This country took a strange path over the past couple of decades, a road leading towards an inherent distrust in what many like to refer to as "Intellectual Elitism." Slowly, gradually, an ever-increasing number of Americans have become more and more wary of those who claim advance knowledge in specific fields of study. In short, more and more people are afraid of smart people.

Why could this possibly be? We could blame the politicians who sell this fear, or the news media that helps support it, or even the entertainment industry for turning ignorance into a noble character trait. But what it really comes down to is that many Americans fear smart people simply because they are, themselves, rather stupid.

Of course, this isn't the kind of thing you're supposed to say. It upsets people because they instantly assume that you are referring to them specifically, and lends support to the claims of Intellectual Elitism by the arrogant and snobbish nature of the statement. "You can't really mean that, can you? I guess you think you're smarter than most people." Actually, I do. Considering that the Average IQ of the American citizen rests between 90 and 100 (depending on who you ask), I feel very comfortable with the assumption that I am smarter than most of the people I come in contact with on a daily basis. It isn't smug elitism, just simple math. As a wise man once suggested, if you imagine how stupid the average person is, then realize that statistically half of the population is even dumber than that, you can get a real sense of how smart the majority truly is.

Does this mean I think I'm better than most people? Of course not. That's the same arrogance that allows some people to estimate their worth as an individual based on how much money they earn, or how big their house is, or how strong they are. At 6'4" I am also taller than most people, but that statement doesn't enrage people as much. Except really short people, of course.

The problem with this anti-intellectual attitude is that it has slowly made its way into the public discourse, and has taken over topics that in the past have been reserved for more intelligent consideration. With the growing amount of available media streaming into our eyes and ears, debates and discussions on serious issues of grave importance are being pondered and discussed by people with no real credentials. Some of the biggest names in talk radio, for example, spend hours discussing advanced political, economic and legal issues while having never obtained a college degree of any kind. Now, does not having a college degree make someone stupid? No, people are more than capable than obtaining knowledge on their own. However, most people prefer to get medical advice from a certified doctor with framed degrees on the wall, and not just a nice guy with a well-worn library card.

This acceptance of the untrained and unqualified as experts worth listening to has had a negative effect on the way matters of importance are considered. Take, for example, the state of political discourse in America today. Spend enough time reading the posts and messages of your average politically active individual (or, God forbid, get stuck in a conversation with one), and you will be utterly amazed at how ridiculous the most outspoken of them sound. if this is truly a nation of intelligent people, then why do most people with anything even remotely resembling a political agenda seem unable to engage in a cogent and logical argument? Follow any news site message board, and you'll be convinced that you are eavesdropping on schoolyard during recess. People spend more time defending individuals and organizations than they do ideas or philosophies, and most of the debate degenerates into labeling and name-calling.

Actually, the real reason I'm dragging politics into this is that this year's Republican Primaries stand as a perfect example of this strange reluctance to accept wisdom from the wise. The Republican Party has spent the last decade or two espousing financial success as the indicator of personal greatness, while simultaneously discrediting intelligent people scientists and college professors (who also just happen to regularly speak out against Republican policies) as "out of touch" and "too smart for their own good." The end result turns out to be a Presidential Primary composed entirely of extremely rich candidates who appear to be collectively dumber than a box of hammers.

Yeah, I know, it was hilarious when we got to poke fun at Sarah Palin for being stupid. But you could always blame her participation in the election process on John McCain's self-destructive flight of fancy, and at least she had enough common sense (barely, it seems) to drop out of public office altogether and rake in that sweet, sweet political pundit cash. But now there's nobody to blame. We're stuck with debate after debate featuring a stage full of disgustingly rich successful businessmen who repeatedly prove themselves to be less intellectually adept than a teenage Denny's waitress. The object of these debates has ceased to be deciding which candidate is best equipped to lead a nation, and is now nothing more than a sad game of seeing who can say the least amount of stupid shit in a specific time frame. What's even worse, the audiences keep upstaging the idiots in the spotlight by periodically applauding government-sanctioned murder, cheering the death of an uninsured man, booing an American soldier for

Maybe I'm being harsh, but I'm slowly resigning myself to living in a country in which a candidate for the role of Supreme Leader (more or less) declares a to have created a list of three important items that need to be addressed, fails to remember what the third item was, and doesn't immediately drop out of the race in shame. Rick Perry hasn't been the only one taking pride in ignorance, either. The historical mistakes, policy blunders and poorly phrased sentences exposing an increasing insular existence have been a daily occurrence, with each painful error brushed of or explained away by the candidates as the results of strenuous campaigning or "gotchya questions" served up by a hostile press. If these are the results of gotchya questions, the least the telejournalists could do is point and laugh when they finally trip somebody up with difficult brain teasers such as "What do you read?"

Where am I going with all of this? I'm not sure, really. If I had any kind of solution or overall explanation is to why Mike Judge's Idiocracy keeps looking more and more like a grim eventuality, this is where I'd lay it all out. I guess I don't have all of the answers after all. Hey, I said I was smart. I didn't say I was THAT smart.
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