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Anti-Intellectualism: An Overview of an American Tradition

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


While American culture has been in an tumultuous state since the George W Bush era, it has seen a major increase over the last four years while under Donald Trump. Since his surprise victory to the office of President of the United States in 2016, progressive and not a few conservative Americans have been consistently caught off guard by his seemingly random actions and statements. Everything from backing out of international treaties covering environmental issues and threatening to pull out of NATO, to shrugging off progressive American values of a nation open to all in favor of his ‘America first’ policy while banning Muslims from certain countries, to the haphazard and confusing response to COVID, Trump became a chaotic force of political nature.

Much of this was to the despair of progressive Americans, while many conservative Americans happily cheered him on and their Republican representatives seemingly forced to go along for the ride lest they lose their positions, with few exceptions like McCain. What the Left came to realize was not just that the President didn’t value established, proven truths that the world recognized, but half of their fellow citizens as well. According to the as of 2019, that 80 percent of the population still brought into un-scientific ideas, and many Americans, still continued to plan events and go outside despite still wearing masks, floored and infuriated them: also much to the glee of many conservatives.

Therefore an old term begin to re-surface to the fore of the American consciousness: anti-intellectualism.


In the mainstream’s mind, the definition of anti-intellectualism boiled down to the willful ignorance and denial of scientific facts about the world around them and the issues confronting it. So global warming, COVID, and environmental conservation all fell under this umbrella, among others. However, unbeknownst to many, being an anti-intellectual is much more nuanced, complex, and older than just saying the Earth is flat while your neighborhood is burning to the ground. In fact, the philosophy goes all the way back to the foundation of the United States. America had always prided itself more on its ruggedness and independence more than its intellect and expertise in specific areas.

When European refugees arrived here in the 15th century, they were fleeing many of the political, religious, and social structures that they left behind. Yes, they still had loyalty to kings for a while, but they were now half a world away along with their systems of control. More importantly, they were abandoning the upper-class hierarchy that stifled the religious and political values they wanted to practice.

Old Europe by this time had evolved from a mess of petty kingdoms vying for control over each other, to world empires that had become more tightly organized and structured playing global chess. Within these contexts, there was little room for differing practices and ingenuity.

Some examples that tried are: The centuries-long wars between Protestantism and Catholicism are well known, but there were also the Anabaptists who were persecuted by both, as well as the Cathars, who were completely exterminated during the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century for their different theologies on Jesus Christ.

Political intrigues were in a state where they all required the allegiances of citizens under them, whether they liked or not, so as to buffer themselves from external threats like the Turkish Empire and competing European powers. They were dependent on their centuries-old structures such as the rule of kings and nobility to maintain and hold the line, while expanding their influence. Refusing to do so often leading to bloody wars. Those up top of the society who held these responsibilities and ruled became elitist, often out of touch with the sufferings of the common people.

The first colonists sought to escape this endless cycle and thus when they arrived, they brought with them a centuries-developed mistrust of anything resembling that oppressive and stagnating system. Things associated with it included wealth, entitlement of special treatment based on inheritance, class separation from the common people, and being much more educated than their subjects as they had better access to teachers and books that the people did not because of their position and wealth.

Some of this should start to sound familiar.

The image of the pioneer has been a staple of American society and the image that most of the world had of the country up until the 20th century.

The image of the pioneer has been a staple of American society and the image that most of the world had of the country up until the 20th century.

Roughing it

While America’s first leaders were indeed well-educated, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, they were not flaunted as such to fellow Americans, save for the houses they had and slaves if they owned any. They were not as segregated and claimed kinship with the common people as many of them had to work for what they had and nothing in the beginning was inherited. It was even common place for politicians to be veterans of the Revolutionary War. Coupled with its religious priorities of hard work, this humility of coming from nothing and becoming what you wanted to be became a staple of the American mentality and has remained so to this day. It is in fact one of the few things that all Americans across racial, economic, and political divides actually share: work for your happiness, earn your keep, and what’s yours is yours. It is how we see everything in America from our individual bodies, to the homes we live in, the property we own, and the vehicles we drive. And it is something that all people who have come here since have adopted as well.

As the frontiers and conflicts with Native Americans and Mexicans increased, so did the essentialist idea take root that an true American was not a pretty puffed up nobleman or a well-dressed and well mannered spokesman. It was a person (usually male) who worked hard or fought for little and created more. Perhaps well-spoken in public, but still having an air of being dirty, scruffy, and hardened from their toil.

As the country grew older and a new hierarchy slowly grew, this original attitude was still something Americans clung to. Along with that dependency however, also came the distrust of anything coming off as higher than thou and entitled: elitist. While philosophy flowered in Europe up through the 17th to 20th centuries, Americans generally preferred more tangible ideas. Philosophies that would translate into action rather than a cabal sitting on their pompous asses trying to maintain control.

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This was one of the reasons why slavery and specifically the philosophy of abolitionism proved a thorn in the side other US from the get go. It was an idea that all people should be free and not be forced and born into slavery, while it’s actions directly challenged the South’s belief that their religious piety, humble origins, and racial/cultural otherness of Africans justified the keeping of their African slaves. While their own actions created a society built of those millions of people that they did not even regard as human beings.

Southerners grew to regard the North with the same suspicion and distrust that both had of Europe: people from on high using their intelligence and power to rule of their individuality. All of this of course while ignoring Blacks and Native Americans-whose own humanity was ignored from the beginning. This only increased after the American Civil War as the South was now turned into a war-torn landscape with its society and economy shattered, and the backbones of that system now legally freed, while the distant North continued to prosper unabated.

"Love of godhood is a result of intellectual organization, oh you materialist!"

— Charles Dawrin, quotation from his secret notebook

Intellectual Serpents

On other fronts, increasing scientific knowledge was readily accepted, as long as it was something that could be applied. Medicine and technology to develop the land and to kill other humans easily fell into these categories. Few cared or knew about the blossoming ideas in Europe. However, the theory of evolution from Charles Darwin in 1859 was an entirely different story. Not only was it pretty much useless to American farmers and frontiersmen in the mid and far west, but was heretical to one of the foundational pillars of American identity. Even if many Americans weren’t actively religious or closet atheists.

Say what you want about religion, but the one thing that it always has over science is the certainty and comfort it provides to a person’s and society’s existence. A sense of forward-facing purpose rather than just existing for existence sake and shit just randomly happening to you for no reason at all.

The American Industrial Revolution also falls under the applicable science category, despite it becoming one of the driving forces for American scientific and social developments in other areas. Everything from the creation of steel to how to make a Coca Cola. The era forced the development of progressive child-labor laws and the first unions to treat factory workers as human beings instead of fleshy and expendable machines. It saw railroads changing the nature of travel that also changed the nature of communication between people. It also saw the first creation of a national refuge for nature in Yellowstone National Park.

Even religion didn’t escape the rise of intellectualism for long as the development of archaeology overseas forced the question more and more of the historical roots of early Christianity. This is often referred to as the ‘historical Jesus’. More and more theologians were becoming versed in these educational-focused and less spiritual approaches to their faith.

Yet, this led many regular Christians and church leaders to reject it as it demystified their faith, feeling less personal and more systematic and scientific. Moreover this era also saw the splitting up of multiple denominations and a growing prominence on the supernatural aspects of the faith. Being scientific was seen as a threat to that as it lacked blind faith in God. Even without the supernatural, this suspicion towards theology still exists, despite its growing prominence.

When studying for my Masters degree, I found the reverse to also be true. Language and styles I had to use in my papers were counterproductive to the goal of my degree which was to help communicate the ideas to the people. Yet the methods were barely known or heard of among the people. It was important only to the circle of intellectuals who passed and failed future professors. People who held the expertise. The very expertise that led many Christians to regard them as arrogant elites.

Anti-intellectualism really begins to morph into its modern incarnation as the wealth gap grows across the country. Urban centers like New York and Philadelphia grew richer from the rise of industry, their own legacies, and becoming centers of commerce. More far flung areas like the south and the west became more defined by their continuing efforts to establish themselves in the new areas of the continent. Even as they began to grow their own urban centers in the late 19th and early 20th century, the east coast still had the head start over them, with the exceptions of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Being unhindered since the American Revolution, I believe this allowed the east coast to become fertile ground for higher scientific ideas and higher philosophies to establish themselves. And this is where the divide has largely been.

Chris Rock in 1996's Bring the Pain on the ignorance of some Black people in the American cities

You’re Just Like Me

This is the overview of the historical context of American anti-intellectualisms’ origins, with the latter developments bleeding into today’s incarnation. There is another side to this argument however: a counter put forth that progressives, for all their posturing as the champions of science and expertise, are also just as anti-intellectual as their opponents.

As Justin Lee of posts in 2018,

“Where as the Right anti-intellectualism often presents itself as a hostility towards expertise, on the left it exists as a reflexive and uncritical acceptance of the dogma of their own intellectual class, allowing it to conflate ‘intelligence’ with ‘having the correct view of things’”

He cites Democrat and U.S. Representative, Alexandria Oscacio-Cortez as an example of this tendency, noting how despite being authentic in her presentation, still displaying a large lack of knowledge regarding economics and policy issues. Essentially, she is passionate about the issues she represents and is exposed to, but seems to know little of the details and numbers behind them. All ideas and no plan: the primary American problem regarding intellectuals.

During the 2020 elections when Louisiana went red despite its substantial Black population, I asked my cousin why he thought that was. He pointed out that it was regarding Biden’s promise to close the oil rigs offshore, a major source of employment for Blacks and Whites in the state, while offering no plan to replace them.

I have also seen other examples while taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement. While the outrage over police brutality was just and worth taking to the street for (and still is BTW), there also seem like no plan to fix that except ‘defund the police’, which also was not clarified or if there was a replacement force in mind to be implemented if they meant the complete removal of the law enforcement institution. All that mattered was the immediate emotion and the cause. And they were not allowed to be questioned, at least by my experience.

This refusal to question and examine one’s own beliefs and actions and provide adequate detail about the alternatives to what they’re protesting over, or dismiss talking to the people their actions would affect, is claimed to be the same blind ignorance and acceptance that is attributed to the conservatives.

The interesting thing about this comparison is that Americans have always been aware of these differences in one way or another, and have proudly flaunted it. Comedian Chris Rock hilariously pointed this out back in his 1996 comedy show Bring the Pain, where a Black man who got out of prison got more respect on the street than a Black man who struggled and got a Masters degree. Essentially, that if it didn’t help you survive on the streets, then no one gave a fuck. Farmers in the Midwest were not concerned about Covid because it didn’t directly affect their own communities or crops. Social justice warriors online attack people they perceive as conservative and therefore worth attacking, only use common buzzwords passed along online, with few if any doing any actual research. Often dismissing this criticism as ‘man-splaining’, ‘white-privilege’, ‘ok boomer’, or some for being some kind of traitor to the cause of progressing individual rights.

My tour guide through Morocco in 2018.  Despite having never been to the Unites States, he knew more about American history than many Americans I knew. He is one of the most educated people I've met, yet was easy to talk to.

My tour guide through Morocco in 2018. Despite having never been to the Unites States, he knew more about American history than many Americans I knew. He is one of the most educated people I've met, yet was easy to talk to.

Being an Intellectual

While I was in Morocco and France, my lack of knowledge regarding the metric system earned the ire of some people I met or had travelled with, as being proudly ignorant of how the rest of the world worked. Outside of America, there are stereotypes of American tourists being rude and uncouth that they grouped me into as an American. The perception has gotten to the point where some African journalists were comparing our election to the elections in the worst-off African countries (not all African countries).

It seemed as if the world at large regarded all Americans as elitist, anti-intellectuals. That I didn’t or refused to act in such an ‘American’ way confounded many of them.

Given these facts, anti-intellectualism is definitely a real phenomenon, but it's not a new one. Rather it's one that all Americans inherit and manifest differently depending on the person, region, and values. If anything, it isn't as much a rejection of expertise and science, but a contentment in knowing what you know and giving the finger to anyone who judges you for it or who tries to contradict and change your mind.

On the other hand, intellectualism as a counter, is the person having a belief or bias, but has also thought it out and is open to research and criticism. It has emotion, but is not controlled by them so as to not over-react.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Jamal Smith


Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on November 09, 2020:

"When studying for my Masters degree" - And with these six words You have doomed yourself in the world of many, many Americans who live in a world of "alternative facts". As You mentioned, intellectuals are not welcome. They present a reality much different than the myths they believe in.

"on the left it exists as a reflexive and uncritical acceptance of the dogma of their own intellectual class, allowing it to conflate ‘intelligence’ with ‘having the correct view of things" - Sure, we should not confuse "intellect" with "right". "Intellect" does NOT magically result in the "right" things being done but it sure does #$%^%ing help a lot. Haha!! (As supposed to being a donkey.)

"open to research and criticism" - An "intellectual" who is not open to "research and criticism" is not an "intellectual". That is why whatever school of thought You prefer, there are journals in which people write-out their research, theories, criticism of theories/research ... there is a process to being involved in scholarly work as You very well know. Walk-away from the process and You can write an opinionated piece in your local newspaper but You will no longer be accepted in a scholarly/intellectual environment.

I wish You well! I enjoyed your piece as a former history major. Cheers!

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