Historian, shmistorian

I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while. Earlier this month Kevin Leman’s Civil War Memory posted about a new book revealing The Truth about the Civil War (i.e., the modern myth that secession had nothing to do with the desire to keep American Negroes in chains—my thoughts on this are here). One of the selling points: “Gordon Spencer Gantt has no accolades, holds no super diplomas, has no pedigree of published writings to impress you with. He’s an average guy, a Joe Sixpak type of guy, and he has written this book from the viewpoint of the common man.”
Now I’m hardly one to argue that having a lack of published writings is a bar to doing a good book. Or that you need a diploma to write about something; I’ve ehowed a lot of topics that I never knew crap about before I wrote the article.
But I find it interesting (and not in a good way) that Gantt’s lack of expertise is held up as a plus. And that he’s supposedly writing from “the viewpoint of the common man” rather than someone who’s seriously studied the subject.
This could reflect the right-wing’s disdain for elitists, but I think it’s the more time-honored American disdain for intellectuals and the educated (there’s some overlap, but I think they’re separate strains).
Not that being educated and trained is always a bad thing, even for anti-intellectuals. Nobody would tout a new pro football quarterback as having “no pedigree of wins to impress you, he’s a regular guy …” I don’t think anyone wants a car mechanic with no experience. But of course, those are Manly Skills for Manly Men, not cissy stuff like studying history (I guess the female equivalent would be the uneducated woman who may not be able to run a business, but she sure knows how to catch a man, and that means she outranks all them smart educated frigid bitches, don’t it?).
Why the hostility for intellectuals? I’m not sure of the root cause, but these days it takes several forms.
•Intellectuals have no practical skills! Pundit Peggy Noonan once praised Bush as a common-sense guy who would help out in a fire by making sure everyone was safe, in contrast to intellectuals who would … well, she doesn’t explain, but presumably they wouldn’t have the real-world smarts to actually do anything useful.
This crops up in Britain, too; one newspaper hailed one of the 1920s Prime Ministers with the compliment that “he doesn’t think too much.”
•Intellectuals ask questions!

My Son John (1952) is a textbook example of this. The movie reveals that the first step Commie spy Robert Walker took toward the dark side was to start questioning the Catholic Church and his parents’ beliefs. British preacher/author Charles Kingsley made the same complaint about intellectuals in the 19th century: Instead of just doing what’s obviously right and proper, they start thinking. And then they start challenging what everyone accepts is right. Which leads to point three—
•You don’t need some educated, PC intellectual to explain stuff! Anyone can see the real facts if they just open their eyes!
An awful lot of people want to believe that their preconceptions are, in fact, objective facts (some of these people are quite educated and intellectual, admittedly). Everyone we lock up in Gitmo is guilty. The Bible and the Constitution confirm my personal beliefs about the way things are. Men are naturally superior. Slavery wasn’t that bad. Communists are plotting to take over America. Men rape because they’re oversexed.
And here come the intellectuals, saying it all isn’t so. Dammit, they’re just a bunch of PC-liars, covering up truths that are as plain as the nose on your faith! Do they think they’re smarter than we are? Do they think we can’t put two and two together? (Okay, maybe resentment of “elites” does play a role).
So if someone wants to reassure the bigots of America that of course slavery wasn’t a problem and all the coloreds are just a bunch of whiners, (I admit I haven’t read the book, but the ad seems to thump a familiar drum) why would he need a degree? He’s right!
UPDATE: I realize I was remiss not including the multiple press criticisms of Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign for being Too Damn Smart. The Daily Howler has covered this repeatedly over the years, such as this 2003 post.

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7 responses to “Historian, shmistorian

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