How Bloggers Can Help Defeat Anti-Intellectualism

shellIn this era of anti-intellectualism and learned helplessness, the media, and we in the alternative media, have a responsibility to inform and engage the public on matters that are important and on vanguard thinking about these matters, even if they’re difficult and make the public uncomfortable.
A decade ago, literary agent John Brockman, who was recently profiled by The Guardian as the owner of the world’s most powerful and envied Rolodex, wrote a book called The Third Culture, which, along with several of his earlier works is now available free online. The book was the first in a series of discussions, inspired by his intellectual meeting group The Reality Club (which has now morphed into the online community-space called Edge), about matters that Brockman thought were important and needed to be made accessible to everyone. The books are presented as a series of group conversations among astonishingly bright and knowledgeable people, with the questions from Brockman that initiated the conversations edited out, so that they appear to be spontaneous and astonishing flashes of non-stop genius and insight. Brockman explains:

“Throughout history, only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody.”

In his books and on Edge, he invites serious thinkers to bring others into the discussion. The tagline for the massive and generous website is “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” Most of the participants are scientists rather than philosophers or intellectuals from the arts and literary fields, and Brockman is unapologetic for this: He clearly believes that this is where the most important, integrative and expansive thinking is going on.

Last year I quoted extensively from the responses to one of his annual exercises called The World Question Center, when he challenged these “complex and sophisticated minds” to answer the question “What Is Your Law?” I still refer to these ‘laws’ frequently — they have altered my ways of thinking on many subjects.

So here’s the situation as I see it:

  1. Very few people are doing much serious thinking.
  2. Those people who are, tend to be cliquish, partly because so few are interested in what they are thinking about, partly because it’s so difficult for the rest of us, uninformed and unpracticed, to keep up. As a result, their ideas and their implications are largely closeted.
  3. The media, which could help bridge the chasm between these people and those who could learn from these ideas and put them to effective use, are disinterested in doing so, partly because they don’t think their audience is interested, partly because they don’t think their audience is capable of understanding, and partly because their background is substantially in non-scientific disciplines and they are a little miffed at the idea that scientists are doing most of the important thinking.
  4. The rich and powerful, who could actually employ the results of this important thinking, are convinced that preserving their wealth and influence has little to do with imagination and innovation, and so are disinclined to pay much attention to it, and many of them are also anti-intellectual by nature (just look at what they read in their ‘spare’ time) and hence incurious and skeptical of what little seriously novel thought they are exposed to.
  5. The political elite is threatened by new ideas and also shares the anti-intellectualism of the rich and powerful, so unless the message can be captured in a sound bite they are likewise uninterested in exposing themselves or their citizenry to new ideas.
  6. Modern conservatives are overwhelmingly populist, and hence like things simple and unchanging. They don’t do any serious thinking themselves and certainly don’t want anyone in their families exposed to such dangerous stuff.
  7. Many modern progressives distrust technology (for perfectly understandable reasons) and by association distrust science, which they see as technology’s handmaiden. They don’t see the need for or practical value of serious intellectual discussion, don’t see it as actionable, and hence don’t see it as important. “The people have the answers, if only we would listen”.

The consequence of all this is that serious thinking is considered a pastime, an exercise of dubious value primarily for students in university. Beyond that, serious intellectual effort is only respected when it is tactical, applied in the context of a specific short-term task, towards achieving a known, practical goal. In a world of immense scarcity, in which time is the scarcest commodity of all, this vicious cycle of anti-intellectualism is perfectly understandable. It explains why Michael Jackson’s trial hogs all the news headlines, and the lion’s share of social discourse, while global warming and Darfur are substantially ignored. And when we are inclined to think about things we don’t want or like to think about, we find we are seriously out of practice (present company accepted, of course).

There was a time when people were motivated to invest in serious thinking and thoughtful social discourse. That was a time when people made more time for serious thinking and discussion, when people did most things for themselves, and when great ideas were respected and talked about. But today we are entrained with learned helplessness, convinced that understanding and sharing and coming up with great ideas and thinking seriously about them is a largely useless activity. And why would we want to invest a lot of precious time to study and understand something merely interesting?

The legacy media seem determined to abrogate their responsibility to inform and engage the public on matters that are important,especially when they are complicated and make the public uncomfortable. So it falls on our shoulders, as the alternative media, to be the advocates for the truth, and to assume that responsibility. I believe it is essential that we bloggers tone down the jargon and the ‘in’ conversations, and the rhetoric and partisanship, and ratchet up the information and thought leadership and conversation and debate in our online journals, to reach a much wider and under-served audience, and hence to fill that void.

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10 Responses to How Bloggers Can Help Defeat Anti-Intellectualism

  1. brad says:

    Hi Dave, It’s taken me a few months to grip your line of site/sight, but today’s write on intellect and ideas was great. But filter that because you wrote on something I seek; and I’m no literary critic. But good stuff, brain food for me! So your writes set me thinking of a childhood hero, Henry Ford. Strangely, yesterday someone blogged on boingboing about a nice photo shoot of Ford’s museum, and it rocks! But the point being, Ford set some things into motion that IMHO were E-volutionary (re-volution = come full circle, not really going fwd). E = let’s go fwd, CHARGE!Ford made 15M copies of exactly the same thing, (Model T) and, strangely eventually went on to be known as antisemite. That not withstanding, I find some research a remarkable parallel to your writings. From is the thought “… He and his team looked at other industries and found four principles that would further their goal: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and reducing wasted effort. …” I see blogging, but greater than this is the power of ideas, multiplied by others, as a great start with many things. The blog is the model T, the vehicle that gets the common man on the (www) street. No idea where it’s all going to go, but Ford changed many things – I see all sorts of potential with writings like your “… And why would we want to invest a lot of precious time to study and understand something merely interesting? …”Krrrr! Sorry to be so nebulous, kids running rampant … neurons firing off-center :<( Any rate, good stuff – keep up the good work.cheers, /b

  2. Rayne says:

    Dave, were that it that easy to ratchet up the information AND reach a wider audience. Contemporary profit-driven media prevents that from happening; consumers who might be conversant passively accept the message that they NEED what corporations produce rather than demand something far better than they are getting. Were it as easy as ratcheting up the info level, public broadcasting would be a first choice here — and corporate media would be floundering.There’s a reason why bread and circuses worked, Dave.

  3. Thr trouble with Philosopher Kings is that they’re so often wrong. Go back to the 50s and “the most intelligent man in France”, Jean Paul Sartre, believed that Maoism was the answer to Europe’s problems. The EU still thinks so. Sartre’s equivalent in England, Bertrand Russell, thought Stalinism was the way forward, combined with lying down naked in front of your enemies. Strangely he was not a Christian. By contrast, Jung thought that only 200 people knew what was going on at any one time. But he had very different people in mind from the ones Brockman champions. … Apart from that, I agree with the tenor of your post.

  4. rick says:

    Dave – i find that i have become a regular reader of “How to Save the World” – it seems to hit all of my personal and professional needs and aspirations (am now beginning blogging). I just wanted to ask if the correct phrase is “present company accepted” as you used it today or “present company excepted”?

  5. Jon Husband says:

    it’s hard work *thinking* .. and you’re the hardest worker I know personally

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Brad: That’s a fascinating thought — the blog as Model T of something big and next.Rayne: HYes, you’re right. I’m just back from Montreal and listened to NPR (which we can’t get in Toronto) most of the way there and back, and can’t figure out why anyone in the US would listen to anything else (I’m less enamoured with PBS — though it has some good stuff, especially when it produces stuff in joint ventures with public broadcasters in other countries. I still think if the media could at least exercise the responsibility and integrity to make what’s important interesting, the public could be won over, as they are in other countries (and the public in those countries is no smarter on average than Americans).John: Heh, every country seems to have its myopic favourite sons. The best intellectuals tended to be humbler than the ones you mention — Thoreau, McLuhan, Merleau-Ponty — and hence perhaps got less attention, to the detriment of intellectualism generally.Rich: Ouch! Of course it should be “excepted”. Proofread this three times too. My ‘senior moments’ seem to be increasing since I hit 50. Jon: Actually, I think you are.

  7. Dave, you’re psychic. Thoreau and Merleau-Ponty are among my favourite thinkers, and very rarely mentioned these days.

  8. beth says:

    Dave, I agree with 95% of what you’ve said here. In my corner of the blogosphere, we are mainly writers/intellectuals/artists, and you’re quite right – we mainly talk to ourselves. Much of the conversation that goes on is about modern society, in the form of critique and serious debate about what can be done, as well as support for one another in dealing with this on creative, emotional, political and practical levels. But the frustration, of course, is that this is very different from what gets discussed in the media. My view is that anti-intellectualism was the single most important underlying factor in the last election, and I say this because I grew up in a small rural town which consistently loses its best and brghtest to the city, the university, and the coasts – I know firsthand how deep the resentment and inferiority run, and how far Kerry was from being able to address it. As bloggers, we need to talk much more about how to bridge these gaps through alternative media and by using or cooperating with existing media structures in ways that engage a broader range of people. You mention, in your last paragraph, that we need to “tone down the jargon and the ‘in’ conversations, and the rhetoric and partisanship” and I couldn’t agree more – however, sweeping statements like your #6 aren’t going to get us very far – we simply can’t look down our noses and be dismissive of people with whom we don’t agree, some of whom think a great deal, even if we think their thinking is flawed. I agree with what you say about modern conservatives, basically, but the appearance of disrespect just turns off the conversation and encourages ridicule and dismissal in reverse. So-called simple people are quite capable of recognizing common sense and logic, but media and political spokespersons need to know how to talk to a broad audience without talking down to them. If the Left needs to learn one thing, it’s how to do this. Clinton knew how – but very few of his colleagues do,and still fewer of the country’s progressive intellectuals.Well – you’ve inspired me to write more about this next week on my own blog and I hope you’ll keep after the subject here.

  9. You’ll never find reasoned debate in politics because it’s a ritual for achieving power and dominance. The Left and the Right are as bad as each other. The churches aren’t much better. We have a Right wing Pope and a Marxist Archbishop of Canterbury (Head of the Anglican Church). Last week this amiable chump derided the web as a

  10. Dumb Guy says:

    God, you’re so much smarter than me! That must make you feel great!Asshat.

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