Wednesday, September 28, 2005

“I’m With Stupid”

What has happened to the brains in this country?

Not that long ago — certainly within my lifetime — America lapped the world in science and intellectual advancement. We led the world in medicine, computers, chemistry, and just about every scientific field known to mankind. We conquered polio, we invented the transistor and the microchip — without which your average cell phone would be the size of the Washington Monument — and went from Explorer I to the moon in eleven years. At the New York World’s Fair in 1964 we cheerfully touted science under the benign benevolence of great corporations like GE, DuPont (“Better living through chemistry”), IBM, Bell Labs, and Johnson Wax as the the answer to all of our problems. Intellectual exploration and the high arts were respected fields of study that challenged everyone — not just the rich and elite — to think and explore. Say what you will about the “counter-culture” and hippies of the 1960’s, it was a time of artistic and scientific exploration and expression that hadn’t been seen in a very long time. Of course we found out that it wasn’t all roses and moonbeams, but even taking into account all the failures and missteps, we still made advances and brought about some of the most amazing changes to our world since at least the time of the Renaissance.

Today we’re battling over teaching evolution in schools. Science is derided by both sides of the political spectrum as a tool of the corporate exploiters or atheists. Anti-intellectualists — the “Know-Nothings” — are in full cry because each new scientific development or advance threatens a cozy way of life, or worse kills a myth or exposes an old lie. Science has become political; when life begins is no longer a debate for the laboratory but a party platform, and when and how the universe began is now subject to debate not based on evidence seen in the telescopes on Kitt Peak but on the poetry in Genesis. Scientists and their crediblity — and their employment — are being held to a litmus test based not on their research but on their private beliefs. The last time that happened, America was the beneficiary; thinkers like Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and others were forced to leave their native countries and come here because they were judged unworthy of holding their posts by the leaders of their countries. That was in the 1930’s when the Nazis forced them out.

There has always been an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in this country, and we’ve seen it rise and fall, just as we did at the end of the 19th century when the backlash to Reconstruction was replaced by the age of Progressivism in the 1910’s and 1920’s (led, by the way, by such diverse people as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). Each time we hope that once and for all ignorance and intolerance will be swept away; that our cultural and scientific advancements will not only benefit all of us but somehow elevate us so that the old ways and beliefs will never pose a threat to our growth as a society and civilization. Yet there are always setbacks that make us wonder whether or not we’ve moved an inch. In fact, it looks today like some of us are actually proud of the fact that we’re not especially bright or intellectually challenged. Reality shows on television that offer a thousand bucks to somebody who will eat a bug are not much higher up on the scale than a schoolyard dare, and the latest advancement in broadband technology is not only a way to put the world at your fingertips through Google but it also provides the fastest way to download porn. School boards are being challenged not only to provide the basics in education for their students but decide whether or not the kids can read a book because it shows gays and lesbians in a positive light. This is what we have come to: asking a branch of the government to decide that it’s okay for a child to learn that Heather has two mommies.

What bothers me the most is that this new wave of anti-intellectualism is being advanced not just by the people who are afraid of progress but by the people who are supposed to be leading us into the future. They’re listening to the Know-Nothings, the mythologists, and the preachers who fear that science and thought will destroy their beliefs and their powerbase of rich fools who send them money. Our president thinks “the jury is still out” on evolution. Scientific research is edited for political purposes. Intellectual disengagement — “I don’t read much” — and “bold action” and sycophancy rather than thoughtful discussion and debate is the new rule.

Fortunately, nature and evolution have a way of forcing progress on us, and we always manage, however awkwardly, to survive. I have no doubt that we are on the verge of realizing that the celebration of the ordinary and short-sighted has left us behind in many ways and we will move forward. There will always be steps back — Anna Nicole Smith in the Supreme Court is just one sign — but without them, we’ll never be able to gauge how much progress we’ve made.