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 joined The New York Times as a film critic in January 2000, and was named a chief critic in 2004. Previously, Mr. Scott had been the lead Sunday book reviewer for Newsday and a frequent contributor to Slate, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.
Mr. Scott was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism in 2010, the same year he served as co-host (with Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune) on the last season of "At the Movies," the syndicated film-reviewing program started by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
A frequent presence on radio and television, Mr. Scott is Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University and the author of Better Living Through Criticism (2016, Penguin Press).
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.
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