Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why We Hate Nerds

It's an interesting topic, and one as American as apple pie. Americans dislike intelligence and learning, and this dislike starts early. Teenage love dramas end with the cheerleader in the arms of the school athlete, while the rejected class genius wears glasses and large red spots on his or her ugly, crying face.

The adult version of the same hatred of the intelligentsia wears political clothes these days. It's the liberals, lefties and communists who are seen as smart, and this is why they are hated. The conservatives have done an excellent job in creating the impression that the only true elites in this country are people with learning. There are no financial elites, no political elites, no industrial elites, none at all. The only elites, the ones who rule everything that has turned out poorly, are the well-educated and intelligent lefties. Oh, and the Hollywood elites.

This retelling of reality is quite masterful. The idea that Hollywood and the universities run this country, even when the conservatives rule all the branches of the government, even when some of the wealthiest men on this earth run the industries of this country, even when George Bush courts the religious leaders almost daily. Even then it's only the ex-hippies with their John Lennon glasses who have enough power to be envied, despised and hated.

Why does this plot work? It doesn't conform to reality. What is it about learning that causes such a visceral negative reaction in so many Americans? Why are the owners of great wealth not regarded as elites to hate?

I'm not sure. Is it the myth of equal opportunity that makes people see great wealth as something almost within reach? If so, why doesn't the same myth work for higher education?

Billmon's post on Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth addresses some of the same questions:

There's something deeper at work here than just conventional media bias or capitalist economics, although they're certainly part of it. There's always been a powerful current of anti-intellectualism in American politics, just as there is in American life. It's the dark side of democracy: The pressure to accept what the majority, or the most vocal minority, thinks is true as truth – even when the evidence is entirely on the other side. When Henry Ford said history was bunk, he wasn't taking about the past but about the present, and his ire wasn't directed at historians per se but at the revisionist historians of the Progressive Era, who were telling him and his fellow know nothings inconvenient facts they didn't want to hear. Pump Henry full of Hillbilly Heroin and put him on the radio, and you've got Rush Limbaugh, still making the same point.

The difference between Ford's time and Limbaugh's is that the political presumption against rationality is now shared, or at least pandered to, even at the top of the political and cultural pyramid. It's curious that people who are paid to think and write for a living, and who, like Gore, attended the "best" schools, are now nearly as susceptible to the politics of ignorance as your average conservative talk show host, but then the elite media ain't what it used to be. Like academia, it's fighting a losing rear-guard action against the spirit of the times and the angry, irrational prejudices that go with it.

Read the whole post, by the way. It is beautiful.

"It's the dark side of democracy", Billmon says about the question I asked. I wonder. Anti-intellectualism isn't anywhere near as common in European democracies. People there are more likely to hate the moneyed elites or the political elites than the educated elites, and being a nerd had no negative effect on my teenage dating successes (though naturally I had no red spots).

It could be that anti-intellectualism has to do with the way American democracy is defined, though, or more specifically with the myths of the American democracy. Think back to all those black-and-white movies where the simple cowboy type gets up and gives a speech straight from his heart and lo! everybody is convinced and the cowboy wins the debate. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Or all those thirty minute TV sitcoms which end with any and all serious problems completely solved. My hunch is that Hollywood might indeed be responsible for some of the nerd-hatred, simply by having made knowledge look too easy and something that can be found by a sincere study of ones heart, by having prepared for our consumption too many delicious scenes where the simple values beat learning, where they are seen as mutually exclusive.

Another way of looking at these myths in the context of American democracy is to argue that the democracy has so far failed in making higher learning genuinely available to all who are interested in acquiring it. The United States doesn't do very well in international comparisons of student performance. Public schools in poor areas are underfunded. College education is extremely expensive. All this makes book learning look like something that is out of reach for most lower income families or available only in a diluted form, and perhaps it's psychologically healthy to scorn something you can't get in any case. But the same scorn should apply to that mythical great wealth that awaits right around the next corner, and it doesn't.