What Happened to American Intellectualism?

There was a time when American universities were leaders in innovative thought, when America was a beacon of enlightenment in an unenlightened world.  I don’t think you would say this is true today. For one thing, the protection of dissent, which used to be so sacred to American intellectuals, is all but abandoned.

I’ve been trying to figure out what happened. Why are so many Americans trapped in an intellectual Dark Age?

Today, mainstream America leans toward ancient and disproved theories like those of Adam Smith. And in many communities you are branded a heretic if you dare to question religious, social or intellectual dogma. Fresh perspectives and bold new ideas are not just unwelcome but are treated with hostility.

The media are pilloried if they challenge the status quo, which they do with increasing caution. The “liberal press” is long gone. Now, the “corporate press” generally regurgitates the stale concepts and ideas of a brainwashed audience.

When I lived in Canada many decades ago, it was Canada that was stodgy and conventional; the United States was brash and exciting. But today’s Canadians are far ahead of Americans in their willingness to accept new ideas and contemplate the possibility of change.

One reason for this is an organized crusade by American conservatives, funded by the super-rich and driven by their cat’s paws in Congress.

I am sure you know about the House Un-American Activities Committee back in the Fifties. This group managed to drive many of America’s brightest academics into exile or out of work. Some of the persecuted academics, like mathematics instructor Chandler Davis, found refuge in Canada. Davis spent six months in the Danbury federal penitentiary for refusing to cooperate with the HUAC before heading across the border to become a professor at the University of Toronto.

A similar kind of exodus occurred in the Sixties when thousands of bright young men and women fled to Canada to escape the Vietnam draft. Some of these refugees ended up in Canada’s academic community, adding to the country’s intellectual resources and helping to shape the national psyche.

At the same time, a cabal of powerful American conservatives set out to capture American public opinion. They established right-wing “think tanks” to spoon feed their philosophy to the media, and endowed chairs at various universities to plant the seeds of conservatism in the minds of future generations. It was a long-term project,which is now bearing fruit.

The result is that at least half of Americans regard Darwinian economics as a means of bringing back “self reliance.” They are so steeped in right-wing dogma that they shrink in terror from words they cannot even define – words like “socialism” for example.

Sadly, through happenstance and design, the events of the past half century have created an environment in which “American intellectualism” is in danger of becoming an oxymoron.

The most frightening aspect of this phenomenon is that it is self-perpetuating. As the conservatives become more dominant, they are able to brainwash the public more effectively. And by stifling dissent, they are ever more efficient at spreading their ideas.