Derrida and Dubya 

Anti-intellectualism in America

It's no big surprise that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did not produce its own article on the recent death of Jacques Derrida, probably the most influential intellectual of the late 20th century. Instead, the paper condensed the New York Times' 2,100-word obituary into 444 words, accenting the confusion Derrida created, rather than his contribution.

Not that the AJC's editing wasn't true to the Times obituary. It generally was so disparaging of the French inventor of deconstruction that it prompted more than 1,200 American academics, architects, artists, musicians and writers to sign a letter of protest by the time of this writing (you can join them at www.humanities.uci.edu/remembering_jd/).

The Wall Street Journal's Roger Kimball was even more insulting. He described Derrida's philosophy as both immoral and inevitably unintelligible. The New Republic Online was right there with both papers, posturing xenophobically about those French intellectuals with the same enthusiasm that led the U.S. Congress cafeteria to rename french fries "freedom fries" when France wouldn't invade Iraq with us.

Ironically, although it's true that Derrida's work has never attained the popularity in Europe that it has here, the European press was much more thoughtful in its appraisal. Online editions of the London Times and the Guardian both debunked the usual misrepresentations of Derrida. Indeed, they made the point -- completely obvious in the articles in the American press -- that those who attack Derrida most virulently usually have never read him, depending instead on the most sensationalized generalizations of his work.

I'm not going to fully debate the merits of Derrida's oeuvre. I'm interested in how so much American reporting of his death is another reflection of the anti-intellectualism rampant in our country these days.

That has been painfully obvious since the ascension of George Bush to the presidency. I'm not among those who consider the president inherently stupid. But Bush is without question a virtual incarnation of anti-intellectualism, whose defining characteristic is always to assume that things are simpler than they are -- the very antithesis of Derrida's deconstruction, which presumes there is always more to be revealed because everything excludes something whose absence can eventually undermine it. Thus, Derrida's analysis requires continual skepticism.

The anti-intellectual typically exhibits little curiosity about other perspectives and no skepticism about his own positions. When confronted, the absence of curiosity is often filled by hostility. We've seen that repeatedly in Bush's debates with John Kerry. Often smirking and bursting into anger, Bush expressed his contempt for any nuance expressed by Kerry as "flip-flopping." It's a particularly effective strategy now of course, when fear of terrorism makes it especially attractive to think of the world in absolute terms of good and evil.

Never mind that Bush has failed to fully fund Homeland Security and inaugurated a bankrupting war against Iraq, which we now know had no weapons of mass destruction, no significant ties to al-Qaeda and posed no threat to U.S. security. To the stultifyingly simple-minded, the fact that Saddam Hussein may have wanted to develop WMD is sufficient, retrospectively, to erase the fact that the American people were hornswoggled into a $120 billion boondoggle that has killed and injured thousands of young Americans. What matters in the world of the anti-intellectual is that he can wrap himself in a blind ideology that lays claim to the absolute truth even when it is undermined by fact and causes needless suffering.

Of course, that brings up one of the legitimate concerns with Derrida's philosophy -- that it robs us of a sense of absolute truth. But in actuality the very fact that we can never be 100 percent certain of what is true led Derrida to a nearly obsessive concern with ethics and morality. His work is in large part an effort to demonstrate that blind belief, whether political or religious, does very little to unite people. Instead, he proposes that by learning to fully embrace uncertainty and difference, we can learn to treat one another with greater respect. Then, as can happen when analyzing a literary text that at first seems incomprehensible, we learn to relate differently to what formerly intimidated us.

There have been few recent attempts to explain anti-intellectualism in America, probably because its mention immediately earns one characterization as an "elitist." Although it is definitely aggravated by the current climate of fear, the anti-intellectual perspective has always been with us. I think it probably is rooted in the pragmatism that eventually created corporate culture. In last week's debate, Bush's rants about education pointed that way. No matter what economic criticism Kerry made, Bush began ranting that education was the answer. Of course, no intellectual is going to oppose the virtue of education, but it is telling that Bush regards its function so pragmatically. A true education should create a thinking, questioning citizen -- not just a worker.

Derrida demonstrated how ideologies undermine themselves when confronted with reality. That's certainly what we saw in George Bush's often sputtering debate performances. Whether the American people can detach from their fear long enough to see the hollowness and failures of his anti-intellectual ideology remains to be seen.

Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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