In The U.S., Coronavirus Ran Wild Due To A Culture Awash In Anti-Intellectualism

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"Substituting rhetoric and culture war politics for expertise is dangerous."

Writing in The Washington Post, American Politics professor Laura Ellyn Smith argues that the skepticism about science and distrust of experts long permeating American culture have exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 in the United States.

  • In particular, the “Bible Belt, which stretches from South Carolina, through the Deep South, west across Texas and Arizona, has seen high numbers of cases,” Smith writes, noting that these states tended to adopt “early reopening plans and hands-off measures.”
  • She pointed to the recent “ban by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on local mask requirements,” which “reflect[s] a cultural emphasis on prioritizing freedom from government dictate — and an anti-science bias rooted in the history of the region.”

Many people have resisted even simple measures — including social distancing and the now highly politicized wearing of masks — that public health officials indicated might be enough to contain the novel coronavirus.

  • “In some Florida localities, for example, opponents of requirements to wear masks claimed that the idea of their providing protection was based on “pseudoscience,’” Smith writes. “During a court hearing to consider mandating mask-wearing in Palm Beach County, opponents told lawmakers, ‘You are not God,’ citing how those who support masks ‘want to throw God’s wonderful breathing system out.’”
  • Smith notes that “while this phenomenon is deeply historically rooted, covid-19 is exposing how dangerous it can be to public health when expert recommendations are ignored and undermined.”

Anti-intellectualism “became rooted in Southern culture and politics with the Scopes Trial, popularly known as the Monkey Trial, in 1925 in Dayton, Tenn.,” Smith explains.

The trial stemmed from the modernism rising in the post-World War I era. Southern whites felt that these changes challenged their way of life, including seeing the teaching of evolution as an attack on traditional values. They moved aggressively to retain socio-cultural control in a time of transformative change by limiting modern influences.

Tennessee accordingly passed the Butler Act in 1925, which banned the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools. In demonstrating that all humans descended from apes, teaching evolution undermined the belief in white superiority that defined the Jim Crow South. A Dayton businessman emboldened teacher John Scopes to challenge the law in the hopes that the ensuing controversy would attract new business to town.

  • In the end, “Scopes would be convicted of violating the Butler Act, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality,” Smith writes.
  • But nevertheless, “the Monkey Trial became mythologized in the Bible Belt,” and “The intensity of the trial breathed new life into the anti-evolution movement, coupled with an emphasis on biblical literalism, which found a home among evangelicals who began to define Southern culture and, eventually with Billy Graham’s support of Richard Nixon, came to define Southern politics.”
  • In the years that followed, “Anti-intellectualism drew strength from the gathering of religious fundamentalists whose mission to spread their beliefs became more public as southern Whites responded to changes that occurred as the result of the civil rights movement.”
  • During the 1960s, as they sensed their monopoly on politics and culture under threat, “White evangelicals clung to biblical literalism and embraced anti-intellectualism as a refuge,” Smith writes. And “In the 1980s and 1990s, egged on by a rising conservative media, southern White evangelicals, who increasingly became the base of the Republican Party, came to associate intellectualism and science with coastal elites who looked down upon them and scorned their values.”

Now as the country faces a devastating public health crisis, the dangers of anti-intellectualism are on full display, Smith observes:

Covid-19 is proving that an unwillingness to listen to doctors and scientists can do great harm. Religious freedom and public health aren’t actually incompatible. But countering the anti-science bias that has become a stalking horse for the culture wars is crucial to creating better policies and allowing citizens to make the best possible choices for themselves and for society.

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