America's Allergy to Intellect — Why It Keeps Flaring Up

America's Allergy to Intellect — Why It Keeps Flaring Up

By WNYC Studios

Notes from America

Tuesday, 16 May

Talking to Trump voters during the campaign, we'd sometimes hear what felt like a unified sentiment bubbling up beneath the popular, and populist, reasons for supporting their candidate. Retired truck mechanic Fiore Napolitano from Long Island put it this way: "You talk to these idiots, supposed to be doctors and this and that, scientists, they got [expletive] for brains," he said. "They have no common sense.” Trump was Napolitano's man because he did not speak like a credentialed expert or someone with an Ivy League degree — the type of person whose depth of learning might actually make them dumb. About those kinds of people, Napolitano added, "I got more brains in my little thumb."

What's up, America? Why the qualms about erudition and expertise? Where does this wariness spring from, and what role did it play in the rise of Donald Trump — opposed by just about every intellectual associated with either party but whose supporters simply did not care about that?

Connie and Fiore Napolitano at a roadside hot dog stand off Montauk Highway in Suffolk County. (Chris Arnade )

In this episode, we tell the story of anti-intellectualism in America life.

We talk to the learned and those who loathe them, including writers and commentators, a neuroscientist and a gun shop owner in a red-voting part of upstate New York. We quote a fiery pamphlet penned by a yeoman farmer from the Revolutionary Era, and we delve into the book that describes and frames this issue better and more enduringly than any other. We also explore insights by the author of that book, a Columbia University professor who wore a bow tie and Clark Kent glasses and whose grad students recalled that "he was continually hitching up his sagging trousers."

A real egghead, in other words.

Susan Jacoby is author of the 2008 book, "The Age of American Unreason," which she is revising for republication this fall. "New examples of unreason keep cropping up every minute," she quipped to WNYC Studios. She says the current tensions in our politics would surprise no one with a grasp of this country's history. "When people talk about two Americas today, wide-eyed, as though this were something new or we are more culturally divided now than we were 150 years ago or after the American Revolution, they're wrong," she declared before talking about the Puritans and their love of books.

Jim O’Grady walks us through the centuries-long debate about intellectualism, elitism, and our reverence for the common man.

Episode Contributors:

Kai Wright

Jim O'Grady

Karen Frillmann

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