If you like, you can read my long intellectualized response to the struggle over intellectuals and culture below.
I also have a much more visceral, personal response to the kind of anti-intellectual populism that’s been more visibly present in American life over the last decade. This is the “gut reaction” that Robert Zimmerman talks about in the comments on my other thread. Intellectually, I understand why educated professionals should be regarded as a snobbish power elite. (Margaret Soltan sketches out quite a few of the reasons at her blog today.)
Personally, emotionally, there’s something that doesn’t add up, about how I got to where I am today, about the person I was and became.
By the time I was in third grade, back in the early 1970s, I had been a voracious reader for some time. I particularly liked natural history, biology, and science on one hand and fantasy and science fiction on the other. My sister was similarly voracious: the joke in our household was that rounding us up for dinner was a real chore because we were likely to be so deep into reading that we didn’t hear anyone calling.
I was completely innocent about what this habit meant in the larger world around me. So in third grade, if we had a lesson about hermit crabs and I happened to know the scientific name of several different species, the details of their life cycle, the ecology of intertidal zones, that was all good, as far as I could tell.
In fourth grade, that got my face shoved into the dirt or into fences, it got me kicked and spat upon, it got a ring of girls chanting “you’re a scientific martian” at me during recess. Rinse and repeat for the next four grades or so, welcome to the geek subculture. By high school, things changed a bit, the social hierarchies spread out and complicated somewhat, the recognition of where life was tending started to settle in. But in the years where I came home and cried most days after getting hit or bullied, I looked around at the world for some clues about my situation. I don’t think I had to look very hard for evidence that in mainstream American culture kids–and adults–who knew too much were mocked, marginalized, represented as effete, useless and weak.
Yes, this was also the highwater mark of the authority of technocrats: see my other entry for more subtle histories. But the air around me felt poisoned. That’s what so much fantasy and science fiction, especially for children, fed upon, in fact, and why I grew even more attracted to it over time: its protagonists experienced grievance and marginality and usually had special compensatory powers and experiences conferred upon them as a result. But it wasn’t just speculative fiction. When I got to junior high, I started reading more conventional literary work, particularly short stories, and that felt just as much like an induction into a kind of secret garden, a hidden and despised fellowship of readers (adult and adolescent) who enjoyed literature or found history thrilling rather than disparaged it to join in the polite company of one’s peers.
Now since the 1970s, this sensibility, these themes, has moved from being a marginal literature to being the central engine of much American popular culture. How many stories and films have we seen about the marginalized smart and sensitive child who becomes a key player in the workings of destiny because they’re smart and sensitive? Hermione Granger and Harry Potter are only the latest in a long line of characters fitting this mold. The geek has become a heroic economic and cultural figure in American society, and a major driver of both cultural production and cultural consumption.
And yet here we are: not only listening to mockery and lashings of eggheads and intellectuals, but the eggheads and intellectuals are sometimes apologizing for being that way about as abjectly as I ever pleaded not to be hit one more time.
Time opens up perspectives. It’s possible to realize, many years later, that what you intended to say in all innocence, deeply wounded someone else because of their insecurities, their own baggage. One older male relative of mine who had done military service was once talking to some of the kids about it, and about how the enlisted weren’t treated all that well. I was about ten, I think, and I commented that it seemed like soldiers had always been treated badly by generals, all the way back to Sargon the Great. It was like I’d slapped him, and of course, in some sense I had. But it was all I had to bring to the conversation: I read a lot, I knew a lot about military history. I was trying to give a gift, but from his perspective, it was just a smelly little turd. He was telling me what he knew from life; I was saying what I knew from books, in a ten-year old’s way. I honestly had no sense that I was thinking I was better than him, or that my books told me more than his life told him.
You know, I want to say: it was ok. It was ok that I knew that. It was a helpful thing to know that. It helped me to understand what he was saying. If he was a more open kind of person himself, he could have done something good with that comment, used it himself. Rolled the ball of the conversation along rather than shut it down. Still, there’s a fundamental asymmetry. I could take what he said and add it to my knowledge, make use of it. He couldn’t take what I said unless he followed me into formal knowledge, or trusted me so much that what I said was in the books was as good as truth. (Not wise if you’re talking to a ten-year old.)
Who is most sinned against in that kind of moment?
It’s hard for me to pin the Scarlet Letter E for Egghead to my chest and beg apology for knowing things, or reading literature, or liking the heirloom tomatoes I grow in my backyard, or any of the things that compose my professional and personal being. It’s hard for me to see myself as some growling, powerful elite who daily intrudes upon the private lives of a humble family of church-goers in the heartland and forces them to watch pornography while I turn their children into Marxoislamicist transsexuals.
It’s not as if getting your face pushed into fences ever quite comes to an end, either. I was at a party a few years back where one guy, upon hearing I was a professor, immediately wanted to make sure I knew how to throw a football and put me through my paces. Yeah, I found that basically gentle and amusing, but it’s not as if I then got a chance to find out what he thought of Foucault, if you know what I mean.
So emotionally, I just can’t quite get my head around the idea that somewhere along the way, I magically became the swan and now it’s other people who suffer uglyducklinghood.