A constant thread of anti-intellectualism runs through the mass media. Mass media writers seem to embrace anti-intellectual assumptions: They pretend that simple math is hard. They call good students “over-achievers” and “nerds” (a derogatory term now embraced by many who are academically inclined, just as many GLBT have embraced “queer”). “Smart” characters such as the four fictional “Big Bang” scientists are depicted as inept with women, uncool and uncoordinated. Science writers demean their own profession.
A recent New York Times Book Review provides a stunning example of anti-intellectualism embedded into the premise of an article. It’s in a book review of a biography of the 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge, whose eccentricities bordered on madness, is known for setting up a row of cameras to take a series of photographs that showed how a horse runs. His work helped to develop the conceptual framework for motion pictures, which are created by taking photographs so fast that when played back one after another at the speed they were taken will produce the illusion of movement.
Here is how the book reviewer, Candace Millard, opens her piece:
Genius, it seems, is almost always accompanied by eccentricity, if not madness. Those rare instances of genuine brilliance that we find scattered throughout history — in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, the mathematical equations of John Nash — often appear to have come at great cost to the minds that produced them. The work of Eadweard Muybridge is no exception.
Setting aside the question of whether Muybridge is a case of genuine brilliance or just a good and innovative photographer, let’s examine this paragraph: Millard uses the common propaganda trick of selecting only the details that help her case. She lists a composer, painter and mathematician. But what about Bach, Picasso and Isaac Newton? These men were all quite happy and completely normal. Or Mozart, Titian and Bertrand Russell (who, BTW, was quite the ladies’ man)? Or Charles Ives, Turner and Gauss? Interestingly enough, in the case of the painters and mathematicians, the names I have thrown out are usually considered to be much more important—greater geniuses—than the ones who Millard uses to try to make her case.
Yes some geniuses have lived unhappy lives or suffered from mental illness. Others like Albert Einstein have had their small eccentricities, but so do we all.
It is just not true, however, that “genius is almost always accompanied by eccentricity, if not madness,” as Millard states. In insisting on this point and then graduating Muybridge to the top rank of intellects to provide additional proof of it, Millard continues the long-time American myth of the mad or cursed genius.
As a piece of fiction, the mad genius works well in a classic Aristotelian way, because like the fictional Nash in the 2001 movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” the genius is undone by himself, a case of twisted hubris. But it’s no more than a myth, as false and odious as the myth that Jews or Chinese are smart or that African-Americans are not.
The myth of the mad genius is part of the ideology of anti-intellectualism that the mass media promulgate on an almost daily basis. I’m going to speculate that the mass media keep the myth of the mad genius and other manifestations of anti-intellectualism alive because denigration of intellectual activity is a form of social control. The media and its owners want people to focus on buying stuff. They want people’s minds to remain undeveloped, so that they become good-little sheep-like consumers. They want the intellectual to be an outsider, someone off in his own little world that has nothing to do with the bigger more important world of mindless consumerism.
The media owners may also want to reserve the top jobs for their own kind, which is hard to do in a meritocracy unless you can discourage poor kids from seeking true knowledge in school (as opposed to credentials). They want a world in which money and not knowledge rules.