Is 2009 the Year of the Intellectual?

Shameless, sophomoric analysis has no answer for the economic and national security challenges that confront the country going forward.
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One of my hopes for the New Year would be for a substantial decline of the anti-intellectual fervor that has been dominant in our public discourse since the early 1980's.

I am defining anti-intellectualism as blatant hostility toward intellectuals, along with the incessant attacks on science, education, and the arts. The anti intellectual critiques suggest that highly educated people are an isolated social group removed from the realities of Main Street.

This anti intellectual climate self-identifies as the populist champions of ordinary people, it is the sworn enemy of elitism, especially left-wing academics. Like any other group, there are good intellectuals and there are bad ones. But they are hardly a homogeneous lot, who has taken a sworn oath against Joe Six Pack.

Is 2009 the year we view opposition to stem cell research as absurd, impeach any school board official that wants intelligent design taught along with evolution, and dismiss any elected official that believes "drill baby drill" is a logical proposition to reduce our dependency on foreign oil?

Moreover, whatever is gained by anti intellectualism can it be off set by its long-term costs?

Several recent anti intellectual decisions has not only slowed down progress on global warming and stem cell research, it has also contributed to our current economic state and got us into an unnecessary war and occupation that has led to more than 4200 American causalities, unknown number of Iraqi deaths, at a current cost of $10 billion per month.

This certainly is not to suggest that something once existed that could be classified as the golden age of intellectualism in America. But what we have witnessed over the past several decades has been a virtual cottage industry of anti intellectualism.

Perhaps the area where anti intellectualism has been the most dominant is within religious fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism, which is an adherence to a strict view of doctrine of any type, is harmful in the public square. When such stringent beliefs are allowed to encroach on the notion of separation between church and state, it threatens the very ethos of the Constitution.

Without offering a sociological or theological context, merely parroting the words of sacred text written before electricity and running water, fundamentalism has been allowed to be the purveyors of religious truth in America.

While there are a variety of religions that promote intellectualism, one would be hard-pressed to find it in the current public discourse that harbors so much anti-intellectual sentiment. As a result, the works of Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant are largely irrelevant.

Even the names of recent theological intellectuals Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., are usually invoked through the anti intellectual prism of predetermining a position and justifying that viewpoint by merely quoting one of these intellectual giants.

It has been widely assumed that the Republican Party, with its myriad brands of conservatism, is the architect of this nouveau anti-intellectualism.

I marvel at the ability of media personalities Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and others who have mastered a lucrative business with their ability to explain anything through a so-called conservative lens, no matter how false, irrational, or flat-out wrong that, in many cases, would draw the ire of the late conservative patriarch William F. Buckley.

Shamelessness, sophomoric analysis has no answer for the economic and national security challenges that confront the country going forward.

Republicans may have used anti intellectualism better than their Democratic counterparts, but that does not mean the party of the donkey is immune to its temptations. If memory serves me correctly anti intellectualism was brazenly used against President-elect Obama during the primary season.

Intellectualism should not mean that one must possesses a graduate degree in order to embrace it. It means we cannot allow oversimplification to trump responses to complex issues that require more than a sound bite.

It also means that our civic duty did not end on November 4, 2008. Our elected officials will treat us however we dictate. If rote, simplistic responses will suffice that is what we will get. But we should demand more because we deserve it.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his website:

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