SUZANNE HARRINGTON: Anti-intellectualism is a load of waffle

The conservative elite encourage anti-intellectualism because it maintains an unsustainable status quo, writes Suzanne Harrington

STOP me if you’ve heard this before. Many years ago, the late comic genius, Bill Hicks, was in Tennessee in a waffle restaurant. He took out a book and began reading. ‘What are you reading for’? asked the waffle waitress. Not, ‘what are you reading?’, Hicks recounted, ‘but what are you reading FOR’? “I guess I read for a lot of reasons,” he said. “And the main one is that I don’t end up being a fuckin’ waffle waitress.” It’s probably just as well Hicks is dead, because the possibility of a waffle waitress running the White House would have killed him. Since his death, in 1994, a thick layer of stupidity has spread across the entire US, if not the whole of Western civilisation.

Or anti-intellectualism, as it’s politely known, defined as “a hostility or indifference to culture and intellectual reasoning,” says the Oxford Dictionary, but, then, who bothers with dictionaries anymore? Or any kind of books? Why read, when you have selfie sticks, Instagram, and reality TV?

28% of American adults have not read a book in the past year. One quarter deny the existence of climate change, and one third don’t accept evolution as scientific fact (they believe in the literal wham-bam creationist myth). This anti-intellectualism is encouraged by the right wing elite — the Republican party has turned the word ‘intellectual’ into an insult.

Former presidential also-ran, Rick Santorum, accused US president Barack Obama of being a “snob”, because he wished that all Americans could go to college. Donald Trump, the anti-intellectual’s anti-intellectual, has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but you’d never think it. In France, land of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, ‘intellectual’ is a compliment. Yet nearer home, we have all kinds of words to denote our suspicion of people who read, think, and resist the flow of Kardashian-flavoured vacuity.

Clever clogs, smartypants, boffin, brainiac, bookworm, swot, nerd — and that’s just for kids. For adults, this mutates into pretentious, know-it-all, po-faced, dull. “He’s such an intellectual,” delivered scathingly, is an undeniable insult. Why? Why are reading, thinking, and questioning regarded with such suspicion by so many?

Anti-intellectualism is the hallmark of totalitarianism — just ask the ghost of anyone killed by the Khmer Rouge for wearing glasses, that sure sign of intellectualism. If you want a stark overview of how far anti-intellectualism can go, read Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, about being banished, under Mao, to a farm in the arse end of China, for owning a few books. But that could hardly happen in our shiny, liberal democracy, could it?

The conservative elite encourage anti-intellectualism because it maintains an unsustainable status quo – for now. Things cannot continue as they are. But, hey, put down that book and look at Kim Kardashian’s bum. What are you reading for?


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