Joel Stein and The Childish Approach To Knowledge
Joel Stein reminds us just how important a statement Richard Hofstadter made in his seminal 1963 work, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." This reoccurring theme we see throughout American history of folks aiming their disdain at intellectuals, "elites", and deep thinkers is at the core of Stein’s recent LA Times Column entitled, "The Language of Snobbery".
Wrote Stein, "When wine drinkers tell me they taste notes of cherries, tobacco and
rose petals, usually all I can detect is a whole lot of jackass. The
language of sommeliers, winemakers, sellers and writers has devolved
into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me
Well, I’ll tell you what I smell: An insecure jackass who can’t stand the idea that others are more capable than he and interested enough in a topic to actually deploy the English language to dig deeper into their area of interest.
I wonder if Stein likes to mock physicists or archaeologists that use a language he doesn’t quite understand?
I’ve never really understood why certain folks feel a need to denigrate those whose interests seem just a bit too obscure for their tastes. Again, I think the best explanation is found in Hofstadter’s critique of social institutions and the impact that urbanization had on our once-rural people.
There still exists among some in America a bias against intellect, the unfamiliar, the life of the mind and cosmopolitan impulses. This bias has a distinct evangelical protestant underpinning and usually takes the shape of morality lectures and the advancement, as we seen in Stein’s work, of a "Cult of Practicality".
Stein wants wine writers and reviewers to let him "know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft,
hot with alcohol, mineraly, watery or has a long finish."
But once a writer gets beyond these practical aspects of a wine, according to Stein, it’s nothing more than a "devolution into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me nothing."
What Stein fails to recognize is that this criticism of his is improperly aimed at the folks who offer a list of obscure smells and tastes to describe a wine. In fact, it’s a criticism of his own inferior abilities. And this goes back to the Cult of Anti-Intellectualism. Rather than appreciate what he does not know and understand, Stein is more content to label that body of unaccumulated knowledge no more than another group’s vice.
It’s a childish and very American approach to knowledge.
A very nice response to Stein’s column by Arthur Przebinda and printed in the LA Times can be found HERE