Weird & Güd - When Forgetting is Peril or Privilege

Old lessons always appear as new teachers.

I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.

The Weird

Questioning the intelligence of your opponent is one of the easier approaches people take toward ideas they don’t like. Convenient accusations of being “brainwashed” or just plain stupid let us off the hook for dealing with the more complex—possibly even understandable—reasons people have for their beliefs.

How and when someone insults their opponent’s intelligence often does more to expose their worldview than it does to denigrate their opponent’s.

When #BelieveScience has become a battle cry, who we decide is and isn’t anti-intellectual is more complicated than just condemning the nearest climate change denier.

The U.S. is the first world’s favorite punching bag. Americans are easy to hate, with our bold rejection of the metric system (#AllSystemsofMeasurementMatter) and our high stakes reality TV politics.

What makes the U.S. such a sore thumb is exactly what made the U.S. at all—the common man. He might not be pretty, well-spoken, use kilograms, or even know all the branches of his own government, but he is the core of America, whether you like it or not.

Like all successful immigrants do, we’ve forgotten where we came from.

Amid our success and a new tier of American-styled elites, it’s easy to forget America stands apart from its much older cousin countries in its inherently anti-intellectual origins. Unlike the European countries people left behind for the New World, there was no centuries-old upper class of aristocrats in baby America. The wealthiest and “well-bred” weren’t eager to cram into wooden boats for over a month with peasants seeking a better life in an untamed land.

Thomas Sowell explains how the anti-intellectual ethos so often associated with the U.S. is no accident:

Most of the white population of colonial America arrived as indentured servants and the black population as slaves. Later waves of immigrants were disproportionately peasants and proletarians, even when they came from Western Europe...
The rise of American society to pre-eminence, as an economic, political, and military power, was thus the triumph of the common man, and a slap across the face to the presumptions of the arrogant, whether an elite of blood or books.

The disdain America draws for its crass and brash culture isn’t new.
For most of its history, an innate distrust of the man who could do nothing with his hands but only with his words was closely tied to a distrust of the very class of people early Americans fled.

Yet today, that upper class whose hands are never dirtied are home-grown.

Rather than sneer across the ocean at those stuffy elites, today Americans sneer at each other, but the accusations of anti-intellectualism still often come from elites, whether in status or simply in mind.

After all, it’s republicans who were polled in 2017 as thinking universities are having a negative impact on the country.

Barring that universities had their own earlier, microcosmic versions of the political chaos that mirrored the 2020 riots and current culture wars, conservative distrust of higher education along with the tendency to reject climate change and prioritize religious doctrine over scientific theory, it would seem Anti-Intellectual is the modern-day Dunce Cap conservatives are destined to wear.

It’s seductively easy to scoff at the simple-minded, bible-clutching conservative and his distrust of all that book learnin’ in the universities.

Is the only kind of anti-intellectualism the kind that comes from the working class? Or is there a line of thought so rigid, so disinterested in any truth or discovery, that it can be called anti-intellectual no matter who espouses it?

Here’s the part where you’re tasked with deciding what anti-intellectual really means. Can someone who pays tens of thousands to attend university, uses high vocabulary, and reads vastly more books than the average American, ever be anti-intellectual?

Certainly no backwoods bumpkin, philosopher of science and epistemologist Larry Laudan believes those same universities that republicans were shamed as anti-intellectual for distrusting are themselves beset by a pernicious anti-intellectualism.

Intellectualism isn’t synonymous with education if that education is designed to disprove the existence of truth and denigrate the pursuit of that truth.

In his 1990 book Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science (yes—1990), Laudan criticized the postmodern and poststructuralist philosophies dominating American universities:

…the displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter, by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is—second only to American political campaigns—the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.

The stereotype of the anti-intellectual breaks down in the face of university students who believe debate is dangerous, educated elites who believe shame and economic punishment are justice for disagreeable ideas, and perhaps even a media culture that believes the most important aspect of conveying information isn’t truth or accuracy, but outcomes and safety.

The history of who we decide is and isn’t anti-intellectual ranges freely across culture and politics, too. Both fascism and communism have tried to protect their people from the dangerous and decadent work of intellectuals. The idea that virtue belonged solely to the common man and not the haughty intellectual is yet another example of demonizing the pursuit of knowledge when that pursuit threatens power.

As far back as imperialist China, free speech suppression and book burnings were the tools used by the Qin Dynasty to combat dangerous ideas—an immortal boogeyman. No mention of anti-intellectualism is complete without a nod to the anti-intellectual Olympics of the Cultural Revolution, where students helped take professor-punishing and book burning to perfection (as in, total destruction).

Anti-intellectualism is one of those sneaky, shape-shifting rhetorical devices that can be called upon to tarnish any opponent. The term is used so broadly and in such bad faith that the accusation itself is meaningless mud-throwing.

Yet, one truth that comes out of the history of anti-intellectualism doesn’t take a college degree to see:

Obstructing and condemning the free pursuit of truth and the exchange of ideas is the only definition of anti-intellectualism that remains constant across time and politics.

The Güd

Do you ever plan out the details of an escape into a new life of anonymity? Your new town, your new career, the way you’ll definitely become a morning person or a skilled lute player.

Am I just divulging my own fantasies? Are these anyone’s fantasies anymore? In a globally connected, digitally immortalized world, does the appeal of “starting over” still exist?

Usually laws and regulations relating to technology are gently dystopian in name, so the E.U.’s battle with Google over what’s come to be poetically known as The Right to Be Forgotten has always caught my eye.

Who wants to be forgotten?

In the era of influencers, when being at the top of search results can mean major success, and everything we post is digitally cluttered with those ugly internet-blue hashtags in the hopes of being found—who is fighting for the right to be forgotten?

Though we’ve all become the star of our own self-directed online reality shows, the value of privacy hasn’t totally expired just yet.

The Right to Be Forgotten is a complicated, messy, and ongoing debate—mostly between regulators in the E.U. and Google—about whether citizens have the right to request information about themselves be removed from search results.

It’s easy to see how this argument goes both ways. If you’ve ever been convicted of a crime, posted a bad joke, or shared a video that didn’t age well, unlike the healing hands of time, the callous data gathering of a search engine never forgets. Even if your crime is expunged, potential employers can find your crimes on the village square’s stone tablet—Google.

Should you be able to request inaccurate or harmful data be removed from public view? Google finally conceded to the E.U. and allows people to request removal, but only grants that removal after a mysterious review process.

What shouldn’t be forgotten? Google fought back against forgetting as a human right to defend access to information as a human right. They claimed to worry that authoritarian governments would use the legislation to hide their crimes.

Of the arguments against The Right to Be Forgotten, dictators opting to file a request to have their human rights atrocities removed from search results after Google’s review process is probably the weakest.

A better argument against The Right to Be Forgotten is why the concept hasn’t caught on in the United States: a little right that goes by the name of free speech.

The laws that should structure a society aren’t always obvious. Society is an imperfect experiment of emphasis on different values.

Do you prefer a society where someone who’s committed a serious crime is able to start over with no news articles forever trailing them? Or do you prefer a society where a journalist’s articles are routinely expunged from existence?

The answer isn’t easy, but the question will become inescapable in a few decades when the generations raised with permanent publication tools in their pockets learn that in the digital world, time does not heal all wounds.

I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.

I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me; share my work or donate to help keep me going.