U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kristof on Obama as anti-anti-intellectual

In his New York Times column on Sunday, “Obama and the War on Brains,” Nicholas Kristof expressed concern about the anti-intellectualism that characterizes our nation. “We can’t solve our educational challenges when, according to polls, Americans are approximately as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution, and when one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun orbits the Earth.” He nonetheless expressed hope that Barack Obama’s presidency “will be a step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life.” Here’s hoping.  


8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I loved this line from the column’s opening paragraph: Obama is “an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.”

    As many know, however, reason alone can’t save the U.S. from a fall. But reason combined with solid character, centrism, practical-thinking, and hard work will help. Let’s see how it goes.

    Kristof wrote: “At least since Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns for the presidency in the 1950s, it’s been a disadvantage in American politics to seem too learned. Thoughtfulness is portrayed as wimpishness, and careful deliberation is for sissies. The social critic William Burroughs once bluntly declared that ‘intellectuals are deviants in the U.S.’ “

    This was the campaign and the candidate that inspired Hofstadter’s classic work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It’s nice to see that the opposition this year didn’t (consistently, at least) roll out the tired “Egghead” epithet to criticize the winning candidate.

    And I found this statement of Kristof’s to be quite provocative: “Granted, Mr. Obama may have been protected from accusations of excessive intelligence by his race. That distracted everyone, and as a black man he didn’t fit the stereotype of a pointy-head ivory tower elitist. But it may also be that President Bush has discredited superficiality.”

    Does this mean, due to racism, that we have to trot out traditionallty underestimated candidates to fool our electorate into voting for bright, capable people? I hope not.

    On the other hand, with regard to Obama, you’d think that the traditional caricature, tinged with racism, of black’s being “eloquent” without being intellectual, would’ve been clear to race-thinking voters. I mean, to that group, the notion of a “black intellectual” is an oxymoron. But maybe we’ve progressed far enough as a nation that this stereotype has been consigned to the dustbin—or at least a statistical minority.

    Kristof asserted: “An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity.”

    Well, yes and no. Intellectuals are just as interested in morals, character, and certainty. That’s why they’re the ones traditionally assigned to the role of truth-seeker. Intellectuals try to figure out complexity to find solutions. Intellectuals, true ones that is, are often very pragmatic (despite the “geek” label). They understand complexity, but they’re not necessarily “comfortable” with it.

    Finally, this is just a ridiculous statement: “Mr. Obama, unlike most politicians near a microphone, exults in complexity. He doesn’t condescend or oversimplify nearly as much as politicians often do, and he speaks in paragraphs rather than sound bites.”

    To me, Obama doesn’t “exult in complexity.” He seems to exult in finding solutions and being practical. And speaking in paragraphs is not a habit I’ve noticed in the academy, to be sure. Correlating one’s intellect with one’s ability to speak well is a major mistake—although I do believe those traits correspond in our president elect. But let’s not perpetuate a false stereotype by bundling those characteristics.

    At least Kristof ended his column with a caution about falsely correlating a president’s high intellect with success in politics. The latter is messy and unreasonable in a democracy. – TL

  2. A couple of years ago I asked a candidate for the head of African and African American Studies what he thought was the future of Black Intellectual history (his work was related to this proto-field, so the question was appropriate). He looked at me like I had uttered a phrase in a foreign language and asked me to repeat. When I had, he was still unable to answer the question and offered something along the lines of–that really isn’t a field and doesn’t have a future. As I was still a young graduate student, I thought I must have phrased it incorrectly. Now, I am consistently surprised by the memory of his fluster.

  3. That is quite a harsh, fascinating, article. How would you respond, Tim?

    Sowell seems to argue that intellectuals think they are infallible, and as such, any sign of their failure is enough to discount any claim they have to leadership. That, to me, is an absurd argument.

    But, he also suggests that two of the great moral evils of the 20th century can be laid at the feet of intellectuals–Stalinism and Hilterism (or if not those systems, American reaction to them). Many historians have tried to understand these very points. Sowell’s argument seems ahistorical to me (not recognizing the real constraints that American intellectuals had on their knowledge). But is this a knee-jerk reaction on my part to a very difficult article? What do others think?

  4. Personally, I didn’t think Sowell’s article was even well-argued, much less thoughtful or constructive. Kristof’s point was that Obama’s rise might signal a waning of anti-intellectualism in our culture. Sowell repsonds to that assertion by pointing out that a) Adlai Stevenson was not really an intellectual, and that b) intellectuals do not deserve to be taken seriously because c) they failed to see the evils of the Soviet Union.

    The third point, though a tired conservative hobby-horse, is the only one that is even remotely relevant to Kristof’s argument. While I do think that the embrace of Stalin is a huge black mark against leftist intellectuals that their apologists tend to minimize, this failure really counts, in my view, as evidence against leftism more than it does against intellectualism. Sowell’s argument is akin to claiming that the failure of phrenology proves that we should do without science.

    It is true that intellectuals can be full of themselves, and Kristof acknowledges as much. (Interestingly, the same Stevenson story about “every thinking American” is quoted in the letters section of the current Atlantic, though the writer tells it in a tone much more celebratory of Stevenson.) But what does this prove? That their ideas should be dismissed out of hand?

    To the extent that I can figure it out, Sowell’s conclusion is contained in the statement that “the ignorance of Ph.D.s is still ignorance and high-IQ groupthink is still groupthink, which is the antithesis of real thinking.” If intellectuals, by definition, are conformists with degrees, then his point is well-taken. But that’s not how I understand the term; Sowell has simply smuggled a politically-charged rhetorical caricature for a flesh-and-blood, workable definition. And, again, it only relates to Kristof’s point if we take Sowell as arguing for anti-intellectualism itself. As anti-intellectualism is usually more of a pattern of thought rather than an actual position that people hold, Sowell would need to offer a great deal more evidence to even begin to plausibly support that assertion.

    Finally, it takes some nerve, in my view, to quote William F. Buckley as a proponent of anti-intellectualism. Buckley was a lot of things, but anti-intellectual was not one of them. Sowell would do well to clarify exactly what he advocates and opposes.


  5. Sowell’s piece is his typical hack job. He hates the social type he calls an “intellectual,” and then goes out of his way to describe as “intellectual” politicians he admires to some degree–Truman and Coolidge. Sowell dislikes leftist intellectuals, not intellectuals, per se–and the same went for Buckley. From the opposite perspective, this is similar to how Russell Jacoby considers intellectuals in his _The Last Intellectuals_. Jacoby laments the death, not of intellectuals, but of non-postmodern, leftist intellectuals.

  6. Well perhaps we should step back here. I think most of us tend to admire intellectuals we agree with more than those we do not (here I mean politically, but one could also imagine doing so in history itself). The idea that Obama is some sort of amazing thinker is, I think, entirely premature. His books do not forward any coherent system of thought nor do his speeches, while sometimes brilliantly constructed. Pragmatism is not a sign of genius, nor is it an especially brilliant philosophy for anything, let alone government. Obama’s not an idiot by any means (but then, I would not argue that the current President is, either) but the genuflecting going on in articles like this is bound to provoke reactions from those who despise Obama’s ideas and policy positions, like Sowell.

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