Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Few strains run quite as deep in the American psyche as a pervasive anti-intellectualism that has somehow inverted the notion that all people are equal before the law and possessed of the same unalienable rights into the currently fashionable fake egalitarianism that lies at the heart of so much nonsense. There is a subset of Americans that reflexively recoils at “so-called experts” who “think they know more than we do.” Well I’m sorry, Goober, but lots of people know more than you do about a lot of things. And herewith, the latest example of how this idea metastasizes. From Dan Coats, the man appointed by the President to be his point man in assuring the confirmation of Harriet Miers:

“If great intellectual powerhouse is a qualification to be a member of the court and represent the American people and the wishes of the American people and to interpret the Constitution, then I think we have a court so skewed on the intellectual side that we may not be getting representation of America as a whole,” Mr. Coats said in a CNN interview.

Mr. Specter, asked about that remark, laughed and wondered if it was “another Hruska quote” – a reference to an oft-quoted comment by the late Roman Hruska, a Republican senator from Nebraska, who defended G. Harrold Carswell, a Supreme Court nominee who was rejected by the Senate. “Even if he is mediocre,” Mr. Hruska said, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

Our Supreme Court justices are “skewed on the intellectual side”? Such imbecility is almost impossible to parody. What would you prefer, Mr. Coats, a Supreme Court that “looks like America”, maybe with a hairdresser, a steelworker and an accountant on it? The Hruska quote nails it perfectly. This anti-intellectualism is nothing more than how the mediocre make themselves feel better about their ignorance.

And the contradictions at the core of our culture make it all the more ridiculous. We crow constantly about how in America everyone has the right to better themselves through education, but if they become an expert in something by going all the way to their PhD, there is a huge segment of the population that immediately looks at them with a jaundiced eye. Suddenly they become a “pointy-headed intellectual” who may be “book smart” but surely must lack “common sense”, or at least that’s what they tell themselves.

In a legal sense, I am an egalitarian to the core. The rule of law must apply equally to the rich and the poor, the smart and the stupid, regardless of color, religious, sexual orientation, and any other irrelevant characteristic. Beyond that, I agree completely with William Henry when he wrote:

In the pursuit of egalitarianism, an ideal wrenched far beyond what the founding fathers took it to mean, we have willfully blinded ourselves to home truths those solons well understood, not least the simple fact that some people are better than others – smarter, harder working, more learned, more productive, harder to replace. Some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal. Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study.

The American antipathy toward this idea is made manifest in a thousand different ways, from grade schools that refuse to give out failing grades for fear of damaging the student’s self-esteem to the ubiquity of karaoke machines, with their unspoken assumption that the average person is just a star waiting to be discovered. It has reached even into that bastion of elitism, the Ivy League, where a full two-thirds of students now graduate “with honors”. The more we descend into this lunacy, the closer we get to Garrison Keillor’s mythical land where “all the children are above average.”


  1. #1 Brian Wenhold
    October 10, 2005

    I know! NASA should only hire engineers that have poor math skills and consult the magic 8-ball when they get in a jam with a tough problem. The practice of hiring qualified employees with relevant experience is unpatriotic you know.

    Perchance the anti-intellectuals would have a change of heart when contemplating the requisite qualifications of their airline pilot.

  2. #2 Pieter B
    October 10, 2005

    I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood, frequently thumped for being a “smott-ass,” and if I had saved a dollar for every time I heard “Where’dya learn dat — out of a BOOK or somepin’?” I’d have retired when I was 50. The strange thing was that quite a few of the same kids who occcasionally pounded on me for being “too smart” would come to me when they had questions nobody else could answer.

  3. #3 Matthew
    October 10, 2005

    Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study.

    that’s taking things entirely too far, to say the least.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    October 10, 2005


    I think it is a perfectly true statement and to support it, I will look to our own past. Was our own culture better or worse when it included the institution of slavery? I would argue it is better by any sane measure (and moral accomplishment is, for both Henry and myself, absolutely a measure of cultural accomplishment.

  5. #5 Matthew
    October 10, 2005

    Well if that’s all he meant, then that’s fine. I took it as a rather eurocentric statement though. Is U.S. and european cultures more worthy of study because they have achieved more industrial development? If so I take offense to that as a student of a non-western culture. But I haven’t read his book so I don’t know much about what it is he’s proposing here.

  6. #6 decrepitoldfool
    October 10, 2005

    Matthew, you took “accomplished” to mean only industrial/material accomplishments – after the rest of the quote emphasized intelligence, hard work, values and art. But you can call me a Eurocentrist anyway if you like. I don’t find anything admirable in ancient superstitions or technical (traditional) cultures that have made no advancements in hundreds of years.

  7. #7 Michael "Sotek" Ralston
    October 10, 2005

    My personal view on the superiority of cultures compared to one another is a little bit tricky to articulate.

    Basically: I think that we can compare two *similar* cultures and say one is superior to the other.

    I don’t think that we can usefully compare dissimilar cultures in the same sense.

    I suspect this stems from a streak of cultural relativism – two “similar” cultures will share largely similar values, so one can evaluate how well they meet those values and compare apples to apples, while trying to compare dissimilar cultures is more apples to oranges.

  8. #8 Tony
    October 10, 2005

    I think comparing cultures in this way is inherently fraught with pitfalls in a way that comparing ideas isn’t. That evolution by natural selection is a better idea scientifically than intelligent design is self-evident.

    But the case for cultures should be much more nuanced. The American Indians were technologically primitive, but to the extent they revered nature and prized themselves on living sustainably, surely they are more “advanced” than Western culture, with its focus (and blindspot) on constant expansionism (both geographically, economically and in managing resources).

    There’s also a sense in which comparing cultures is apples and oranges. Western culture is always seeking a goal (wealth, heaven, etc.) and this drives us to ever bigger and better material things. But the Buddhist idea of circularity could teach us a lot about quality of life.

  9. #9 Tony
    October 10, 2005

    Stock: Hadn’t read your post before sending my comment out. I think we’d agree.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    October 10, 2005

    I think there are some ways in which one can clearly distinguish between cultures. A culture which accepts slavery is worse than a culture which does not. For me, that’s pretty much “period. End of discussion.” A society that punishes dissent is worse than a society that allows dissent. A society that maximizes individual freedom is better than a society that doesn’t. To me, these things are self-evident and undeniable.

  11. #11 spyder
    October 10, 2005

    From Umberto Eco’s Eternal Fascism essay.

    1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition: As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message….If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge — that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

    2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism: Both Fascists and Nazis worshipped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon blood and earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

    3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake: Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Hermann Goering’s fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play (“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” and “universities are nests of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

    4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism: In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.


  12. #12 Ginger Yellow
    October 11, 2005

    “There are some ways in which one can clearly distinguish between cultures. A culture which accepts slavery is worse than a culture which does not. For me, that’s pretty much “period. End of discussion.” A society that punishes dissent is worse than a society that allows dissent. A society that maximizes individual freedom is better than a society that doesn’t. To me, these things are self-evident and undeniable.”

    What about a society which doesn’t accept slavery but punishes dissent, vs a society which accepts slavery but doesn’t punish dissent? These things can’t be taken in isolation, at least when comparing cultures.

    Also, why are “more accomplished” societies necessarily more worthy of study? Shouldn’t we look at where society has gone wrong to try to learn from our mistakes?

  13. #13 Gretchen
    October 11, 2005

    The quote didn’t say anything about better or worse. It said “more accomplished,” and “therefore more worthy of study.”

    I’m not sure what it means to say that a culture is more accomplished…there are so many different areas in which that could be evaluated, it’s almost a vacuous measure.

    However, I mainly question the idea that even if cultures are more accomplished, they are more worthy of study. Arguably the exact opposite is true– we should study most those cultures in which great travesties have occurred, so that we may be able to prevent history from repeating itself.

    In any case, I think all cultures are worthy of study, just like all species of animal. That’s not pseudo-egalitarianism, but rather just a recognition that each example of humans living together is a microcosm (macrocosm?) of human nature, and thus has something to teach us.

  14. #14 raj
    October 11, 2005

    I’m going to turn it around. Miers may or may not be a legal heavyweight, but that should not be the issue. It may very well be that, if she had had the appropriate opportunities–which, given her age, it is apparent that she did not, she might have excelled. Maybe so. May not. But we will never know.

    The issue for me isn’t her qualifications. The issue for me is why Bush selected her, obviously in disregard for any apparently demonstrated superiority. As far as I can tell, someone looked down the hall, noticed that she was a woman, and instantly nominated her. It isn’t unusual. It happens here in Massachusetts quite often: the politicians do a nationwide search and discover that the optimal candidate for a position is the person sitting down the hall. If you think I am kidding, I am not.

    I will not denigrate Miers. I don’t know her. She may have served at the helm of the Texas Lottery Commission quite well. Does that mean that she should be named a justice of the US Supreme Court? No. But that should not suggest that she is a dunce, either.

    The Hruska quotation in regards Harold Carswell is well known, it it is probable that is says more about Hruska than Carswell.

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    October 11, 2005

    As I said in response to a similar statement on In The Agora, I would not agree that some cultures are more worthy of study, in the abstract, than others, but this is primarily because I think study is an end unto itself and is always valuable. In a specific context, say if one is studying the relationship of labor to capital, clearly some cultures would be more relevant to study than others, but that’s not what Henry is talking about here, nor what I’m talking about.

    I’ll also note that “more accomplished”, in the context of Henry’s entire thesis, means more than industrial or economic accomplishment.

  16. #16 mark
    October 11, 2005

    I was amused when the village idiot from Dover, commenting on the creationism controversy there, said “We’re under assualt by the educated and intellectual segment of society.”

  17. #17 raj
    October 11, 2005

    Mark, I laughed when I read that, too.

    Ed, it is not unreasonable to study cultures. But there is a difference between studying a culture and adoptimg its tenets.

    Anthropology is basically the study of various cultures.

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