Rise of the anti-intellectual intellectual

Opinion by Sam Wolfe
May 30, 2017, 12:42 a.m.

A year before the 2016 presidential election, cartoonist and amateur pundit Scott Adams, creator of the Kafkaesque corporate satire, Dilbert, told friends that by Election Day he would have 100,000 Twitter followers. “Sometimes I even scare myself” he crowed on Twitter on the day before Trump’s victory, alongside a screenshot flaunting his 99.3K followers.

There’s no record of how many followers Adams had before making this prediction, and hence technically no proof that this was a stunning call. But I’m inclined to believe his implication — that this was a stunning jump. You see, Adams’s swelling popularity has less to do with his comics — amusing though they are — and a lot more to do with his foray into politics. Having written books on the art of “persuasion,” Adams drew attention to himself by announcing on his blog, before the primary season had begun, that the polls were wrong and that Trump, a “master persuader,” was going to win.

In doing so, Adams joined a host of amateur intellectuals who found common cause in Trump, a candidate who repeatedly and proudly gives conventional intellectuals the middle finger. These intellectuals each have their own enemies — Steve Bannon’s administrative state, Nassim Taleb’s “Intellectual Yet Idiots,” Curtis Yarvin’s Cathedral. But their ire stems from the same place — a dissatisfaction, even hatred, for the intellectual class that dominates public discourse.

Their complaints about conventional intellectuals are as variegated as they are colorful (Taleb wins the prize for the zaniest grievance — that today’s intellectuals don’t deadlift). There are common threads that deserve scrutiny, though. The loudest complaint is that journalists, politicians, academics etc. share a set of shibboleths that taint everything that they discuss or write about. The conglomerate of newspapers, think tanks and bureaucrats are all blinded, these thinkers argue, by their unquestioning embrace of “globalism” (read: free trade and immigration), their moral and cultural relativism and a basic aversion to inward-looking criticism. These accusations of groupthink have deeper philosophical roots, too. Peter Thiel, a revered figure among the anti-intellectual intellectuals, has raised similar critiques inspired by Stanford philosopher René Girard, whose concept of mimetic theory documented the extent to which we are liable to mimic one another.

It is also no coincidence that everybody I have listed leans, to varying degrees, to the right (Taleb’s congeries of political positions perhaps excepted). Frankly put, the right has had little in the way of new ideas since Bill Buckley. The blend of foreign policy hawkishness, supply-side economics, and religious social conservatism served the right well for a time, but it became glaringly clear last year that this was no longer a winning brand.

Trump’s rise and the explosion of the alt-right provided the ideal intellectual climate for a new variety of heterodox, right-leaning thought. Moreover, the Internet has progressively razed the barriers to entry into public discourse, meaning that maverick writers like Mike Cernovich and Milo Yiannopoulos need not have elite degrees to command rabid followings. Having an established name, as in the case of Taleb and Adams, certainly helps, but is no requirement.

So are their complaints legitimate? To an extent, sure. Their complaints about the ideological homogeneity that young people encounter at college are particularly well-founded. Right wing and libertarian thinkers are a rarity in college course syllabi, and rarer still among the college faculty themselves. It’s a step further to say that we college students are being indoctrinated, but there’s certainly a lamentable lack of ideological diversity in the material we learn. Similarly, their gripes about the “elites” are well-worn now but remain somewhat reasonable, particularly when Mitch McConnell, in a farcical display of obliviousness to the world outside Capitol Hill, suggested the other day that a vote for Trump was a vote for the Republican establishment.

They are also now an undeniable part of the media landscape. There’s an awkward disjunction in public dialogue, where mainstream news outlets occasionally devote a profile to these thinkers, but generally don’t want to give them too much oxygen, while these people openly despise the mainstream media and rarely give them any attention at all (except, say, to let themselves be profiled by them). But the fact is that they remain an option for commentary and news, and are, increasingly, the only option some people will turn to.

So you don’t have to embrace Mike Cernovich’s ideas about masculinity, or stop recycling because of Scott Adams’s climate change skepticism, or attend a Milo event to think these people are somewhat worth reading. You might love free trade, gender equality, carbon taxes, open borders and much else besides, and still it would be worth paying attention to these figures. If you care at all about your civic duty and the health of the country, understanding what other people think — and why they might not be so fond of the intellectuals you admire — is your responsibility.


Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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