Intellectuals are scary.

This is more of a pointing something out post than an in-depth analysis post. I don’t know that I have much to say about this article in yesterday’s L.A. Times, that Jon Wiener didn’t already say in The Nation yesterday evening. But I can’t stop being bothered by it.

No matter how many times I read the article (and I’ve skimmed it a lot of times because I found it hard to really focus – I kept getting annoyed) it seems that the subtext is that being in the same place where ideas are is bad and dangerous. Voluntarily being in a place where there are ideas that challenge your beliefs means you are not to be trusted. And really, that subtext is so close to the surface that it might as well be text. I mean, the article is framed so that the point is the reactions of “Palestinian leaders” but it reads a lot more like “look what Barack Obama did.”

I would probably just be rolling my eyes about the corporate media and thinking about something else, though, if it hadn’t been for the comment thread on the Nation post. There aren’t many comments (at least not now) but there’s a small thread there that seems to be drawing parallels between going to a lecture and… drinking. And not just going to a lecture – going to a lecture by EDWARD SAID.

I don’t care what you think of Orientalism — this is a person whose work has had massive reverberations across a lot of disciplines. His ideas, his work shape how we talk about things, how we think about things. Even those who disagree with those ideas are working within a discourse he played a major role in defining. Said is one of those people who is so important that even if you disagree with every single thing he has ever said ever you should want to understand his thinking because understanding his thinking means understanding something about everyone else’s.

(I’m focusing on Said because that was Wiener’s focus, even if it wasn’t the L.A. Times’, and it was the comments on the Wiener piece that really got me thinking. And because I don’t know Khalidi’s work. I know he has an endowed chair at Columbia and he was at Chicago before that – so some smart people think his ideas are worth notice. I’m certain that many people hate those ideas. And I’m certain that many people love them. But the point isn’t what either of these intellectuals profess, write, argue or believe – it’s whether someone’s willingness to engage with those ideas alone tells us more about what that person believes than the things they profess, write, or argue themselves.)

And that’s why I can’t stop thinking about this story – how did we get to the place where a Presidential candidate attending a lecture by a leading public intellectual is a bad thing? Have we always been in this place? American anti-intellectualism is a well-established theme, but I don’t think we’ve always been here.

I think it has something to do with what Jon Stewart was talking about here, when he got Crossfire booted off CNN:

Because part of what’s going on in this article is the idea that if you believe X you can’t listen to or engage with Y and if you say you believe A and then you talk to someone who believes B –  you’re shifty.  Which I think is entirely connected to the difference between Crossfire debate and what Stewart meant by “debate.”  That goes beyond anti-intellectualism.

Though anti-intellectualism is in play as well.  Which is why all of this does have to do with the same ideas that keep coming up on this blog – how to help students understand academic ideas and engage with them.  How to help students learn from new ideas and new information.  How to help them see the connections between ideas – how one thinker influences another, and another.  How some questions have more than two answers, and how they can fit themselves within that complicated discourse.  It’s important stuff.  Because stuff like this in the L.A. Times – that’s what scares me.

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