Canada’s CTV: Discussing the Role of Anti-Intellectualism in the US Election

I discussed the role of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. presidential election with Anne-Marie Mediwake of Canada’s CTV this week. Nice that Canadian media is interested in this issue. Too bad we can’t say the same about U.S. media, which of course is part of the problem. The interview can be seen at this link.


‘Anti-intellectualism’ passes the 2 million mark

Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America, a piece I wrote last year for Psychology Today, has gone platinum, passing the two million views milestone this week. The article was written in the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June, and it went viral immediately, passing one million views in about two days. It’s still circulating well, as it seems to become relevant whenever there is a mass shooting (which, unfortunately, is frequently) and whenever politicians or the media remind us of the lowest-common-denominator character of the American policy debate (which also is frequently). The article can be found at this link.

Why Patriotism Won’t Heal a Divided America

Conservative columnist David Brooks, lamenting the “weakening of the social fabric” in modern society, has called for a renewed appreciation of our interconnectedness, telling readers that Americans should work on “widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides.”

Admirable goals, to be sure, and Brooks gushes as he expands on the idea. He envisions America as a country of brotherhood and sisterhood where relationships throughout society, across the gamut of demographic sectors, are redefined for the purpose of “strengthening social solidarity.”

“The social fabric will be repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants,” Brooks writes. This idea of “covenants” is key, he explains, as it reflects a newfound connection causing otherwise disparate peoples to “understand they are part of one another.”

Such high-minded rhetoric isn’t particularly controversial—few would question the noble goal of building a greater sense of togetherness between people—but it also should be properly understood as an expression of ideals, not real solutions. In fact, though liberals are often criticized as being unrealistic dreamers, the label aptly fits the conservative Brooks here, as he neglects to provide even a remotely plausible strategy for attaining the solidarity that he describes.

Closer consideration reveals the true incongruity of Brooks’s grand vision. As large masses of individuals struggle to exist on poverty wages, for example, are they expected to somehow feel a “circle of attachment” with the middle and upper management of the multinational corporation for which the toil? And shame of the young woman who feels resentment, rather than amicable kinship, toward the judgmental religious fundamentalists who obstruct her access to reproductive care. Ditto for the African-American convict who doesn’t feel affinity toward police and others who steered him toward a prison-industrial complex that demoralizes him. And that gay couple that doesn’t embrace the politicians who insist on bestowing second-class citizenship on them? Hey folks, you’ve got covenants, did you forget?

Brooks is unable to explain how any broad sense of togetherness might be attained within a society as deeply divided as ours, but when he tries to do so he gravitates to conservative assumptions that reveal the bankruptcy of his vision. One prescription he suggests, for example, is to “revive patriotism” and “offer an updated love of America” in order to bring us closer as a society.

The conclusion that patriotism can save America is perhaps predictable coming from a conservative, but is nevertheless incredibly naïve. Considering that large segments of the population—not just of this country, but of the world—feel that American patriotism has reached irrational and dangerous levels, there’s little chance that this will be the common ground that unites us.

Brooks, being a level-headed New York Times columnist, would no doubt insist that his definition of “reviving patriotism” is benevolent, not necessarily nationalistic and militaristic—none of those unseemly “greatest-nation-in-the-history-of-the-world” mantras here, but instead a healthy, enriching patriotism to bring out the best in everyone. In an effort to make just such an argument, Brooks even quotes a liberal, Senator Corey Booker, who defines patriotism in grandiose terms as “love of country, which necessitates love of each other, that we have to be a nation that aspires for love, which recognizes that you have worth and dignity and I need you. You are part of my whole, part of the promise of this country.”

Again, this is beautiful and elegant language, but it’s an ideal and not a reality. Asked to define patriotism, relatively few Americans would choose such inclusive language. Look no further than contemporary political events, where notions of patriotism are of course prominent, and one frequently sees exclusion as a defining characteristic, with people of color and religious minorities targeted for mistreatment.

If  we are to utilize patriotism to “widen our circle of attachment” as Brooks suggests, then it would seem that, at a minimum, the language of patriotism should be as inclusive as possible. Instead, however, America since the 1950s has chosen to utilize highly religious language to define patriotism, especially for children. Each day students from coast to coast perform a flag-salute exercise that tells them the nation is “under God,” words added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Around the same time, the term “In God We Trust” was made the national motto. In recent years, thanks to religious conservatives who are relentless in promoting their beliefs in the public arena, we now see “In God We Trust” wording being erected on public buildings and pasted onto police cruisers all over the country.

Suffice it to say that this is hardly the path to harmonious social relations in our diverse land.

Like Brooks, progressives are capable of having optimistic visions of a better, more unified country. But our vision is accompanied by the knowledge that such togetherness cannot be attained via hopeful rhetoric that amounts to little more than saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” Even optimists must concede that this country is currently bitterly divided, that it’s due to numerous factors—anti-intellectualism, economic insecurity, racism, sexism, and many others—and that significant change will not come easily.

Real healing will require the assertion of humanistic values that actually exalt our common humanity and encourage a society that works cooperatively and fairly. And it certainly won’t come, as Brooks suggests, through happy talk.

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Photo by Elvert Barnes


Pledging Allegiance: Does It Instill Healthy Values or Toxic Nationalism?

My experience in helping students who have been mistreated for exercising their constitutional right to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance has opened my eyes to what the daily exercise is doing to our national psyche. Far from instilling a healthy and benign patriotism, it instead nurtures a dangerous nationalism and militarism. I write about this phenomenon in my latest Salon piece, which can be found at this link.

The Week in Stupid: Cowboy Up!

The Week in Stupid, which debuted last week, was a big hit. Apparently there’s comfort in knowing that, while anti-intellectualism abounds in America, there is also a sizable demographic that understands that laughter (or perhaps snark?) is the best medicine. Yes, they’re crazy out there, but at least we can appreciate the underlying absurdity of it all.

This week, our search for stupid brings us to cowboy country, where we find not just one example of American anti-intellectualism, but a stupefying chain of it running from a cowboy preacher to the local media to the population at large.


Our story begins on the dusty plains of Oklahoma, where a horseback cowboy pastor is riding into town, hoping to deliver his plaque of the Ten Commandments to the state’s governor. As KSWO-TV explains in this story, pastor John Riggs is on this pilgrimage, along with a posse of his church members, because he’s disappointed that Oklahoma removed a Ten Commandments monument from its state capitol grounds. Riggs is hoping the governor will accept his plaque as a replacement, which is unlikely given that the removal of the original monument came pursuant to a court order that declared it unconstitutional.

To the Cowboy Church minister, the Ten Commandments represent the values upon which America was founded. That claim is easily refuted, as the American framers took great care to leave God out of the Constitution and were influenced primarily by Enlightement philosophers who saw little value in Old Testament theology. Nevertheless, revealing the motivation for his hundred-mile horseback journey, the preaching cowboy tells the reporter, “I want my kids to grow up in an America that glorifies and honors God, not something out in left field.”

Well, from out here in left field, a horseback pastor and church members crossing the Great Plains with the Ten Commandments seems pretty silly, and a careful look at this pastor’s plaque (shown below) makes it even more so. By committing the sin of trying to edit God’s Holy Word, the pastor created a plaque that seems to paraphrase the first commandment right (“Do Not Have Other Gods”) but then goes terribly awry. The plaque can be read to command the faithful to “Make Graven Images,” to “Commit Adultery” and “Commit Murder,” and to “Steal” and “Covet.” Sounds like Old Jehovah is in one of His moods again!

Source: KSWO

Now, this may seem like we’re picking on the poor cowboy pastor, but it could be argued that the real award for anti-intellectualism here should go to the KSWO, which found our western hero’s religious mission newsworthy. Oklahoma ranks in the top ten states for violent crime, has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country, and is otherwise plagued by numerous social problems. Nevertheless, a cowboy playing Moses makes the news. Go figure. It’s hard to believe there weren’t more important stories waiting to be covered.

KSWO might argue that such news stories get great ratings in Oklahoma, thus justifying mindless journalism covering cowboy theology, at least on a commercial basis. If that’s true, if this is the kind of “news” that the people of Oklahoma demand from their media, then this week’s stupid recognition should go not to the pastor, not to KSWO, but to the Oklahoma population at large.

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Photo source: KSWO site.  (Upper photo is a screen shot of video.)

Remember, you can send your nominations for The Week in Stupid via the Contact link above.




The Week in Stupid

The Week in Stupid is a new feature that will highlight some of the more grandiose exhibitions of anti-intellectualism occurring in contemporary America. As anyone who observes the cultural landscape knows, America has a proud tradition of delivering inexplicable idiocy in the public arena. This is especially so in the realm of politics, where irrational statements and actions can be an asset in many parts of the country, but it also can be found in other areas: schools, media, and throughout popular culture.

The Week in Stupid will document some (but certainly not all) of this ongoing American tradition, with hopes that calling attention to it might prompt more of us to consider what can be done about it. Of course, with the topic being anti-intellectualism in American society, we’ll have a vast pool of material from which to select, so the hardest part of writing this column might be deciding which candidates for inclusion make the cut and which don’t.

Below are our inaugural entries, three examples of anti-intellectualism in America today. All took place within the last week, showing that Americans never have to wait long for the next act of buffoonery. Taking us on a tour of the Bible Belt, with stops in Florida, Texas, and Mississippi, here they are:



Prayer in public schools was declared unconstitutional over fifty years ago, but sometimes public officials just can’t help themselves. Almost always motivated by a need to put their Christianity on display for their constituents, some school committee members ignore the law and try to slip in a prayer to start their meetings. Since this isn’t so uncommon, the fact that the Okaloosa County school board in Florida started its meeting with a prayer this week would hardly be noteworthy—but this was no simple prayer.

As the video above shows, this school board meeting erupted into a full-fledged revival, with singing, preaching, and pretty much everything that you’d expect in a Sunday morning evangelical service. It seems the Christian community saw that a non-Christian invocation was going to be offered, and this resulted in a bombast of religious expression from the Christian faithful, who apparently thought that only their religion would be promoted at the meetings. After watching how this school board conducts business, one has to feel sorry for the kids of Okaloosa County.




It’s perhaps no surprise that Texas would make the inaugural issue of The Week in Stupid. The state’s governor, Gregg Abbott, this week declared his “full support” for placing the words “In God We Trust” on police cruisers. As I’ve written elsewhere, religious conservatives have launched a campaign to post “In God We Trust” everywhere and anywhere, an obvious effort to resist secularism and portray America as a Christian nation. Abbott, apparently oblivious to the fact that many of his constituents do not trust in God, ardently endorses this invidious practice. As the successor to a governor who launched a presidential campaign with a public prayer rally, who in turn had succeeded a governor who became known as one of the most anti-intellectual American presidents of all time, Abbott seems to be following in the footsteps of his predecessors.




Our final entry this week comes from Mississippi, where public school teacher Rick Hammarstrom, who moonlights as a Baptist preacher, told his students that atheists have their own day, “It’s called April Fool’s Day, because you are a fool if you don’t believe in God.”

Well, as they say, it takes one to know one. Hammarstrom, a history teacher, reportedly makes a regular practice of promoting his theology and denigrating atheists in the classroom, and this upset at least one of his students, who turned to us at the American Humanist Association for assistance. We sent a letter to the school district (which has already been found to be in contempt of a consent decree requiring it to operate within the bounds of the Establishment Clause). We’re still awaiting the district’s response.

Until next time, that’s The Week in Stupid.


(Note: If you have examples of American anti-intellectualism that you would like to submit to this column, please send them via the contact page.)


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