Nicholas Kristof’s terrific Sunday NYT column, “Obama and the war on brains,” opens:
Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.
Maybe, just maybe, the result will be a step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life.
Fundamentally, we have no chance whatsoever of avoiding catastrophic global warming if Americans remain as anti-intellectual and anti-scientific as they have been. Or perhaps I should say if Republicans remain as anti-intellectual and anti-scientific as they have been.
As I noted here, a large number of Republicans have effectively tuned out scientists. The percentage of Democrats who say (correctly) the effects of global warming have already begun has risen steadily in the past decade from 52 percent to 76 percent. But for Republicans there has been a drop from 48 percent to 42 percent — even though over the exact same time period, the percentage of Republicans who say that “most scientists believe global warming is occurring” has risen from 52 percent to 54 percent! In short, a significant and growing number of Republicans — 1 in 8 as of 2008 — simply don’t believe what they know most scientists believe.
This is no accident. The leaders of the conservative
movement stagnation have launched a sustained campaign against science and scientists — a war on science, as Chris Mooney labeled it. In some cases, like Inhofe and Crichton, they viciously attack not merely the conclusions of the scientific community but their motives and integrity. And the cleverest GOP presidential candidates along with their Rovian advisors have been able to associate intellectualism with being elite, out of touch, and untrustworthy, using the centuries-old tricks of rhetoric.
Perhaps John Kennedy was the last president who was unapologetic about his intellect and about luring the best minds to his cabinet. More recently, we’ve had some smart and well-educated presidents who scrambled to hide it. Richard Nixon was a self-loathing intellectual, and Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs.
As for President Bush, he adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas.
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.”
Of course, Obama is not your garden-variety intellectual, even if he is an “Ivy League-educated law professor who has favorite philosophers and poets.” He is not a nerd or wonk — he is genuinely cool in the classic sense of someone to whom it seems to come naturally, as opposed to those unnamed intellectuals who are only “cool” since the internet and blogging came along or who work hard to be like some character in an independent film:
Juno: I think I’m in love with you.
Paulie: You mean as friends?
Juno: No … I mean for real. ‘Cause you’re, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even have to try, you know …
Paulie: I try really hard, actually.
Well, it made me laugh. But I digress.
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. Global Language Monitor, which follows linguistic issues, reports that in the final debate, Mr. Obama spoke at a ninth-grade reading level, while John McCain spoke at a seventh-grade level …
Yet as Mr. Obama goes to Washington, I’m hopeful that his fertile mind will set a new tone for our country. Maybe someday soon our leaders no longer will have to shuffle in shame when they’re caught with brains in their heads.
And maybe Obama can surround himself with the best and brightest, can unmuzzle our top climate scientists, and can eloquently articulate both the science-based need for urgent climate action and the technology-based reality that the necessary solutions are at hand.
Such cool intellectualism is, I think, the only antidote to globally warmed ignorance.