Ph.D. Octopus

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Intellectuals and The Politics of Hatred

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by Nemo

For those who don’t compulsively check for updates on Politico (i.e. those with good sense), you might have missed the link to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s fascinating recent speech on intellectuals and the politics of hatred at the Kennedy School of Government

Ben Smith lays out Trumka’s Money quote:

“Our politics have been dominated by greed and the forces of money for a generation. Now, amid the wreckage that came from that experiment, we hear the voices of hatred, of racism and homophobia. At this moment of economic pain and anger, political intellectuals face a great choice—whether to be servants or critics of economic privilege. And I think this is an important point to make here at Harvard. The economic elites at JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the other big Wall Street banks are happy to hire intellectual servants wherever they can find them. But the stronger the alliance between intellectuals and economic elites, the more the forces of hatred—of anti-intellectualism—will grow. If you want to fight the forces of hatred, you have to help empower the forces of righteous anger.

anti-intellectualism in american life

And at this moment, the labor movement is working to give voice to the justified anger of the American people. We need help. We need public intellectuals who will help design the policies that will replace the bubble economy with a real, sustainable economy that works for all of us.”

Now, I’m all in favor of Trumka’s call for intellectuals to reject the easy money that can come from serving an apologist for unfettered corporate globalization. Who wouldn’t? And, I also think it’s high time that intellectuals pay more attention to labor. Perhaps since many are now realizing that the forces of neo-liberalism are affecting their livelihoods as much as everybody else, maybe they will.

I wonder, though, if the link between anti-intellectualism and the recession are as close as Trumka makes them out to be. As Richard Hofstadter recognized several decades ago, there is a long tradition of anti-intellectualism ingrained in American history. Trumka cites the anti-Semitism of the 1930s as proof of the connection between economic downturns and the politics of hatred, but one might just as easily point to widespread xenophobia of the 1920s and the McCarthyism of the 1950s to show that the connection is not as straightforward as he makes it out to be. In addition, the economic collapse arguably made it easier for someone like Barack Obama to get elected President in the first place, since many voters rejected the deeply cynical attempts to manipulate popular discrimination for political gain that seemed to have made a bigger impact in the recent past.

Still, I appreciate Trumka’s call for intellectual engagement. Read his whole speech. It’s well worth checking out.

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Written by Julian Nemeth

April 10, 2010 at 12:02

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