the roots of populism
Who Gets To Be an Intellectual?

Conservatives are rightly lambasting the Washington Post for describing the Yale computer scientist and polymath David Gerlenter as “fiercely anti-intellectual” in a headline because he is right-of-center and a candidate for a job in the Trump administration. Yuval Levin:

Gelernter, a pioneering computer scientist at Yale, author of an extraordinary range of books, and about the most learned person you could hope to find in the wild, is apparently being considered for the role of White House science advisor. But it seems he has written critically about both Barack Obama and liberal academics. Worse yet, the Post’s Sarah Kaplan informs us, “Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hadn’t heard of Gelernter until Tuesday.” Imagine that.

We don’t have much to add on the merits: Gerlenter is clearly a top-flight intellectual and the Post‘s headline reflects exactly the type of transparent knee-jerk bias that is causing the mainstream media’s credibility to plummet and making it far less effective as a check against the potential abuses of a Trump administration.

The irony of this story is that there clearly is a great deal of anti-intellectualism at play in the Trumpian right. Jacksonian populism flows from gut and instinct, not academic deliberation. And yet the Post directed the slur at an accomplished scientist.

Liberals tend to blame Republican anti-intellectualism on the right’s own fever swamps and paranoia and prejudices. But the Gerlenter affair highlights another reason why conservatives tends to view intellectuals with suspicion: Because in the halls of elite newspapers and the Ivory Tower, the term is often understood to exclude right-wing thinkers by definition. If the category “intellectual” only encompasses those on the Left, then it is only natural that right-wing populists would turn it into a slur.

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