U.S. Intellectual History Blog

anti-intellectualism in the presidential campaign

To claim that the American electorate has of late adopted an ethos of anti-intellectualism is to do little more than state the obvious, and I will not belabor this point with de rigeur references to Adlai Stevenson, Susan Jacoby or Joe the Plumber. For me, however, one recent event stands out as a subject of particular concern to those with an interest in intellectual discourse in the United States. The “accusation” that Barack Obama has associated with Rashid Khalidi, a scholar of the Middle East at Columbia University, suggests that an exchange with those whose opinions differ from one’s own is an indication not of a sophisticated and curious mind, but of an evil somewhere between duplicity and treachery. The fact that such an accusation can carry any weight at all suggests a tremendous lack of respect for the values of rationality and open-minded discourse.

The Los Angeles Times article that “broke” this story in April reported that Obama and Khalidi had become friends when both taught at the University of Chicago. It quoted the Democratic presidential candidate as saying that Khalidi and his wife had been “‘consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases…It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation…not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,’ but around ‘this entire world.'”

In my view, Obama’s act of befriending someone with whom he disagrees on a political issue of great importance, and taking his friend’s views seriously enough to allow them to clarify his own thinking, speaks only well of him (and, conversely, of Khalidi as well). To view this kind of relationship as something that Obama needs to clarify or explain is to express a profound ignorance of, or even contempt for, the Socratic values of the examined life.

A great deal of concern over this relationship centers on Obama’s presence at Khalidi’s Chicago farewell party in 2003. (The unwillingness of the Times, due to confidentiality concerns, to release a video of this event is currently the subject of conservative outrage.) The party was characterized, the Times reported in the same article, by a great deal of anti-Israel rhetoric, including “a young Palestinian American recit[ing] a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism” and arguing that “[i]f Palestinians cannot secure their own land..then [Israel] will never see a day of peace.”  Yet at this party, “Obama adopted a different tone in his comments and called for finding common ground.”

My concern here is not about presidential politics, nor is it with U.S. Middle Eastern policies. Rather, it is about the disdain with which this line of accuation views the process of developing one’s thinking. Thus I will leave to the pundits and voters whether John McCain’s indignant comparison of Obama’s attendance at that party to a hypothetical “tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit” unfairly conflates supporters of Palestinian liberation with those of Adolf Hitler. The point that I want to make here is that it certainly confuses wearing a uniform, which suggests a very strong advocacy, with being in a room full of people with passionate opinions while “adopting a different tone” from them, which unquestionably does not.

A thoughtful, if lonely, Washington Post editorial stated the obvious:  that one can have a close relationship with those with whom one disagrees without compromising one’s own values or integrity. “Our sense is that Mr. Obama is a man of considerable intellectual curiosity who can hear out a smart, if militant, advocate for the Palestinians without compromising his own position.” One would hope that such qualities would be a minimal requirement for the president of the United States, who will hopefully be surrounded by “smart advocates” a good deal of the time. Yet the mere existence of this controversy, manufactured and politically-motivated though it may be, suggests that the American people have little respect for these characteristics, which sit among the highest values of academic and intellectual life.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I agree with you entirely about how egregious the story is..

    However: let’s not draw conclusions about what “the American people” think based on the news that is sold to them.

  2. And yet it is being sold because, at least presumably, it has some salience to many people. I agree with Mike that this is a disturbing example of the cheap anti-intellectualism and suspicion not just of certain opinions but of reasoned discourse itself that seems so prevalent lately. -DS

  3. This very nice point also speaks to another form of American discourse that I hate–the presumption that anyone who examines America critically is somehow anti-American. Given that intellectuals do tend to examine everything critically, I think this is another large part of American anti-intellectualism.

  4. I think your argument is spot on. So spot on that even a staunch partisan like Marty Peretz seems to agree with you: http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2008/10/30/excuse-me.aspx

    As for anti-intellectualism in the campaign, yes it’s certainly strong. However, I do take some comfort in the fact that the next president may be someone who taught constitutional law and seems to enjoy talking about Reinhold Niebuhr (http://select.nytimes.com/2007/04/26/opinion/26brooks.html )

  5. I don’t know how I feel about being on the same page as Martin Peretz, but I did think, on a only tangentially related subject, that when Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic that McCain’s Palin choice was “a big fuck you to the American people” that it meant a lot more than if a more, shall we say, “traditionally” liberal writer had made the same claim.

    Lauren also puts her finger on a very irritating and potentially destructive trend. I’ve always imagined calling in to a sports talk-radio show and saying “All you people who are complaining must not really love the team,” just to see what people would say. I suspect that few people would have much patience for that line of reasoning in other contexts.


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