One of the themes surrounding the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court is that she’s an academic egghead with no practical experience. While this particular nomination has had the unusual feature of leftist purists being even more brutal towards a Democratic nomination than right-wing purists, the egghead pejoratives are a particular favorite of the right wing.
But I have never been able to understand the reflexive antipathy of conservatives — even so-called conservative intellectuals — towards the idea of intelligence as applied to policy. Anti-intellectualism — in both the sense of hostility towards intellectuals and hostility towards intelligence generally — seems to be a growing feature of conservatism in America.
Part of the problem may lie in the often-deliberate exclusion of conservatives from academia. The emergence of higher education as a bastion of group-think interrupted only briefly by the occasional outburst of controversy between liberal Democrats and the growing contingents of Greens and avowed Marxists has resulted in a petulant “you can’t fire us, we quit” attitude from many conservatives. “Intellectual” has become conservative code for “Marxist”, and thus no self-respecting conservative wants to claim to be an intellectual. Moreover, conservatives (and moderates) who do seek to join the academy often find both open and covert discrimination blocking their way. The academic liberalism that began in the “Free Speech Movement” has become far more repressive, authoritarian, and intolerant than the conservative establishment it was reacting to in the 1950s.
But that alone is not enough to explain the hostility towards intellect that continues to grow in conservatism even beyond the niche areas of academia-society relations. The rise of Sarah Palin’s particular brand of populism has elevated ignorance and a lack of curiosity about the world from excusable vice to openly-embraced virtue. Being smart and well-informed among a certain brand of Republicans (and an awful lot of Paul-ite libertarian types as well) isn’t just suspicious, it’s perceived as actively bad. Talk show hosts like Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh constantly go out of their way to insult anyone with an I.Q. over 100. This is ironic and hypocritical in Ingraham’s case, in light of her roots as a conservative dissenter at Dartmouth in the 1990s.
It doesn’t make sense. Conservatism has a sound intellectual case to make on a wide range of issues, especially including government spending, the perverse incentives produced by poorly-designed government programs like health care “reform”, and the vital role of free speech and expression. Why limit their own weapons?
Stop bashing the “faculty lounge”, conservatives. Try storming into it. When you do, you might find that the liberal behemoth is a paper tiger. But in the mean time, don’t expect me to dislike Kagan just because she’s too intelligent or academic. I like that in a Supreme Court nominee. And so should you.
And anyway, if Glenn Greenwald can’t stand her, isn’t that alone enough reason to like her at least a little?