One of the biggest discoveries I made while traveling in England with my family was the universality of modern dilemmas. On both sides of the pond, mothers are struggling with decisions about returning to work, couples struggle with whether to live in the suburbs or closer to town. Conversely, one of the differences in daily life that seemed the most distinct to me was the insertion of intellectual life into daily routine. Actually, insertion is the wrong word. Insertion indicates a deliberate or forced addition of intellectual activities or thought into the culture, which it is not. Leisurely pursuits such as reading and attending lectures are part of the fabric of middle and upper class society in England and other parts of the world. It made me wonder how America seems to have skipped that trait.
In a recent piece on The Atlantic Wire it was reported that a film called “Snowpiercer” is delayed in coming to the United States. The science fiction film centers around the inhabitants of a futuristic train that serves as an “allegory for human existence as we see it in the here and now.” It’s a huge hit in Korea, where it broke box office records. Most of the cast is American or British—well known, Oscar-winning actors, at that. One would imagine that the idea of Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer sharing a screen would have Americans chomping at the bit to get to this. But, the film has been held up indefinitely. Could it be a MPAA-rating issue? Are there money problems? No. The movie has yet to reach American theaters because Harvey Weinstein’s production company wants to cut 20 minutes off of the 126-minute film in order to make it a “more traditional action movie.” In other words, they want to dumb it down for the American audience.
The United States has shown so little respect for intellectualism throughout the years—said by some to date back to the nineteenth century—that any casual glance or study of philosophical ideas, such as in “Snowpiercer”, is automatically dismissed. Daniel J. Rigney, who was a sociologist at St. Mary’s University in Houston, developed a theory of American anti-intellectualism based on Richard Hofstadter’s book, Antiintellectualism In American Life, which won a 1964 Pulitzer Prize. Rigney’s theory outlines three types of anti-intellectualism that go something like this:
“Religious antirationalism”- Emotion is warm and feeling—of the heart, and therefore good, while reason is cold and unfeeling—dealing with evidence and not the heart, and is therefore bad.
“Populist anti-elitism”- The view of the general public that anything having to do with “old money” or perceived cronyism is to be viewed with suspicion.
“Unreflective instrumentalism”- the idea that knowledge is worthless unless it immediately leads to monetary or material gain or rewards that are tangible.
Today, these terms are manifested in our media and leisure activities. While book clubs remain a strong activity in the US with over 5 million people taking part, in many cases these are watered-down events involving fluffy, easy literature that many members forget to read, instead showing up for wine and precious time with friends. Book clubs seem mostly the women’s equivalent to poker night in many cases. Television has become a wild distraction of yelling commentators, base comedy, and canned storylines (a sentiment that I’ve also found to be universal). Politicians pride themselves on out folks-ing each other because if a candidate were to give an empirical analysis of the economic and social issues he or she would be lucky to gain the votes of anyone outside of his or her family members. Someone who is outwardly academic is saddled with the derogatory “nerd” status. We aren’t supposed to be egg-heads, always with our nose stuck in books, going to events that expand our knowledge. Such things are suspect.
In London, one of the first things I noticed is that it seemed as though everyone had a book in their hand. Some of the people that I met told me about their book clubs and the fun they had with witty, heated discussions of the month’s topic. Men and women alike participated in many clubs.
Where I live, if someone were to walk into a cocktail party and say that she had recently been to an event centered around the reading of a short story her statement would be met with raised eyebrows. Maybe there would be a curious question about the event, but it wouldn’t be likely. In London, I went to such an event and scolded myself for my shock at the way everyone there seemed to look like a supermodel or prolific arbiter of style. As the event’s host, a prominent journalist and novelist, read a Julian Barnes story, everyone was on the edge of their seat—both because the story was so well-crafted and because the woman reading it was a cultural rock star. England is full of writers, but the ones who become well known are revered in a way that I wish could be found outside of New York. No one asks these people, “Are you still writing?” because their professions are considered valid, respectable and enviable. Female writers seem to be especially revered.
London isn’t a utopia of cultural respect, by any means. Misogyny is rampant. It was toward the end of our time in England that Caroline Ciraldo-Perez was receiving a flood of rape and death threats via Twitter for daring lead a campaign to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. And while a modern female writer can be revered for her ideas, it still comes with a double standard. While picking over lamb and fattoush salad with a friend one evening in Exmouth Market I mentioned the way female writers seemed to be held in higher esteem. He laughed. “The problem is what happens to the women writers later,” he said before filling me in that there tends to be some discrimination in these circles when women writers begin to lose their youthful patina. The pressure to be pretty is just as strong in London as in America, but over there the pressure is coupled with that of being an intellectual heavyweight. If a woman loses her looks, she must have lost her brain, as well.
While America’s history of skepticism for the learned has resulted in the assumption that we’re too stupid to handle a true science fiction film, it would be unfair to say that we’re completely lacking. Our university systems allow for more choices in academic study and research opportunities than in many countries. Internationals still clamor to come take advantage of the opportunity to figure out an academic path for themselves. Almost 80% of adults in the US report having read at least one book in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center. Somehow we’ve managed to create our own double standard by creating endless possibilities for stretching our minds while simultaneously holding ourselves back from the fruits of such activity.
Americans are known for their reluctance to disagree. All over the world we’re known for thinking everything is “awesome” or “great” to the point of silliness. Conversely, England is in love with the art of discourse, which is evidenced by the grand shows that are the televised debates of the House of Commons. As a country we’re extremely sensitive to perceived affronts to the point of stunted conversations, while a tough skin and barbed humor is required to get through a lively dinner party in South Kensington. While these differences in manners probably have much to do with the two countries’ approach to intellectualism—one has to have an intellectual opinion in order to refute a point, after all—it would be refreshing to live in an America that celebrates its diversity by continuing to learn about what fuels the different patterns of thought that reside here.
Shani Gilchrist is the founder of CamilleMaurice.com, a blog that quickly gained acclaim for it's conversational style and honest analysis of topics relating to the lifestyles we choose. Through the blog and her magazine work, Shani has interviewed and profiled some of the best creative minds in the arts and design, including New York Times best selling author Jane Green, designer Tobi Fairley and jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves.