How America's Comedians Became More Intellectual than Many of Its Politicians

Anti-intellectualism isn't a random cultural event in the United States. It became an essential part of a political strategy that maligned cultural elites in favor of a more populist platform.

A.O. Scott: I feel like if you want to see anti-intellectualism on full display you can watch some presidential debates. I mean you can certainly look at our political discourse, some of it anyway, and see well thought and intellect is not held in the highest value. And I think that that concerns me a lot. There is a tradition, Richard Hofstadter wrote a book of probably 50 years ago now or more called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life where he identified this strain in politics and civic life of mistrust of expertise, of suspicion, of knowledge or of thought or of irony or of nuance. And I think in culture in the arts there's a lot of that too. There's a lot of spoon feeding, there's a lot that's just sort of easy and I think that it's important to recognize and to reward and encourage opposition to that, which can come in different places. I think there are champions of intellect and intelligence out there in the world. A lot of them are comedians. I mean we do live at a time where people like John Stewart or Larry Wilmore or Chris Rock or a Louis C.K. or Aziz Ansari, I mean a lot of people are out there, or Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham, are out there kind of saying look let's be smart. Let's think. Let's like not take things for granted. Let's not just accept what's given to us. And I think that that's very much a critical spirit and I think it lives in culture in the arts, but I think it's always embattled. I think it always needs to be defended, it needs to push back against the incentives to laziness and complacency and received opinion and received thinking and just sort of parroting whatever it is that comes at us.

I think there's a lot of anti-intellectualism in some of the opposition to Obama. I mean Obama is very interesting to me and has always been really interesting to me, ideology aside, is that he is an intellectual. He's a writer, he's a thinker and he has tried to be an effective political leader at the same time that he is someone who is aware of ironies and complexities. And to watch him and to hear him in some of his speeches try to reconcile those two things, to try to be kind of forceful and emphatic and clear and also recognize the complications and the shadings and the nuances in politics and in social life has been fascinating. And I think that there's been a strong reaction against that. I think one of the things that the Republicans have used against him and one of the things that Trump is certainly manifesting is precisely anti-intellectualism. It's a very powerful force because it saying you think you're so smart. You're making everything complicated. Everything is really simple. America is great.

Politics can be strange, but the 2016 election might just take the cake. With politicians engaging in Twitter battles, many party members crossing lines to support the candidate of another ticket, and time-honored traditions of decorum and mild-manneredness being set aflame, it makes one wonder whether the best and brightest are truly leading us forward.


As President Obama leaves office, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott has seen a new trend of anti-intellectualism emerge as he watches coverage of the impending election. Obama, Scott believes, openly presented himself as an intellectual and perhaps paid the price. Scripting complex papers and presenting issues in a nuanced way may have earned him the ire not only of the opposing party but of its constituents as well.

There remains a distinct mistrust of intellect among some politicians, who equate expert knowledge with elitist propaganda, and call instead for simple "truths" over complex data. A.O. Scott believes that it is running rampant in the Republican party, but notes that where politicians are failing in the intellect department, a new breed of intellectuals have picked up the slack: our comedians.

Aziz Ansari proves his own intelligence just trying to remind people "how words work" when they refuse to call themselves a feminist. Louis C.K is notorious for seeing the world without bias, and explaining it with very few frills. Comedians like Amy Schumer and Jim Jefferies challenge what is ingrained in society. Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become heroic figures of reason. Perhaps all you can do in politically extreme times is laugh. And vote. Please, please vote.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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