The triumph of anti-intellectualism

By Çağlar Ezikoğlu

With thousands of academics detained in Turkey, the number growing almost daily, free speech increasingly endangered in European nations under stringent anti-terror laws, and finally the rise of the so-called Alt-Right movement in Trump’s America, a new wave of anti-intellectualism is sweeping the globe.

Source: Hürriyet Daily News

Campaigning for the American presidency, Donald Trump confessed to never having read any presidential biographies and has no time to read generally: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.

In interviews, the now president-elect Trump has said that he makes his decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” He believes that experts often “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and that in contrast, people respect his ability to quickly and instinctively reach the right decision: “A lot of people said, ‘man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’ “

Trump’s successful campaign for the highest office in America, with an explicit rejection of traditional expertise, raises troubling questions about the style and depth of his political approach.

This rejection of intellectual influences can be situated in a decline in the integrity of electoral politics taking place across the globe. This recent rise of anti-intellectualism, characterised by a rejection of commentators, as well as the institutions like universities and the media that traditionally disseminate knowledge, requires renewed attention. Yet this is not a new phenomenon. The dynamics of anti-intellectualism go as far back as ancient Rome, and tracing its historical roots can offer clues to its rise in world politics today.

The Reincarnation of Cato the Elder

Anti-intellectualism has always had populist roots. Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Elder, was a famous, conservative Roman senator-consul, and one the first anti-intellectual politicians to leave a mark on the historical record. His anti-intellectualism was based on anti-Hellenism, which saw Greek ideas and Greek philosophy as a threat to Roman tradition. As the ancient Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46- c. 119 A.D.) recorded:

“[Cato] was wholly averse to philosophy, and made mock of all Greek culture and training, out of patriotic zeal. He says, for instance, that Socrates was a mighty prattler… [and] a turbulent windbag”.

The biggest problem for Cato’s governance of Ancient Rome was the popularity of Greek philosophers like Carneades, who gave public lectures on philosophical topics, attracting large and generally young, audiences. He recalled the ideas of the sophists, and showed the importance of philosophical ideas and tradition in his speeches. While Cato the Elder, a traditionalist, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual was suspicious of foreign influences.

This contrast has been used by American sociologist Barrington Moore to describe ‘Catonism’: a reactionary response to modernization that has appeared throughout European history, most notoriously as a critical part of Nazi ideology in Germany.

On May 10, 1933, the principal German student body organised a book‐burning festival. In university towns across the country, students consigned to the flames books that were considered a ‘threat’ to the Germanic traditions, many of them written by prominent Jewish scholars and authors. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, would later claim after this festival that: “The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended.”

The Brotherhood of Anti-Intellectualism

The economic crisis of the 1930s, and the subsequent crisis of modernization produced authoritarian regimes in Europe that were flush with Moore’s definition of Catonism. Today, we face a similar conjuncture, with both liberal democracy and globalization thrown into crisis across the world.

This has, however, had one positive outcome. According to orientalist scholars like Bernard Lewis, the anti-intellectual authoritarian leader survives only in Muslim countries, relying on an intrinsic part of Islamic identity. Scholars like Dallas Roark claim that the history of Islam has been one of anti-intellectualism. Arguing that while early Islamic scholars inherited a vast body of information from the Greeks, they did little with it, an anti-intellectual tradition that persists till today. While others like Michael Rubin, give the example of Erdoğan’s governance in Turkey as an example of the incompatibility between Islam and western intellectualism. Rubin believes that intellectualism is a core principle of liberalism and secularism, and that Erdoğan’s style of rule and the way he appeals his supporters Islamic sentiments, puts him in conflict with these values. Another orientalist scholar, Barry Rubin, argues that Turkey’s slide into intolerance, repression, extremism and a radical foreign policy stems from the AKP’s Islamic identity. Could these scholars be right? Does Erdoğan’s anti-intellectualism come from an anti-intellectual trend within Islamic thought?

The short answer is no. There are striking similarities between illiberal leaders no matter where they are currently gaining strength in the world. We see Cato the Elder reincarnated in Erdoğan, but also in the likes of Trump, Putin, and France’s Marine Le Pen. Like all of these figures, Erdoğan characterizes himself as a ‘doer’ not a ‘thinker’. In one example, during his campaign in the 2014 presidential election, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu (another candidate) was emphasizing his international experience, to which Erdoğan replied that Turkey needs a president, not a diplomat. When İhsanoğlu highlighted that he speaks three languages, Erdoğan quickly dismissed him by saying: “Oh, he speaks three languages? That’s great, but you see, we are looking for someone to run the country here and we already have plenty of translators.”

Erdoğan, like Cato the Elder and, it would seem, like Donald Trump, is not fond of intellectuals, elites or academics. This may explain why, despite Trump’s virulent Islamophobia, Erdoğan and his supporters were pleased by the businessman’s victory in US election. As far as their authoritarian, populist leadership style goes, the two men seem to be soul mates.

While from a marketing perspective Trump recognizes some value in being associated with prestigious universities like Harvard or Stanford, it’s not clear that he thinks of universities, and academia in general, as valuable spaces of learning and opportunity. But members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) go even further. Environment and Urbanization Minister, Mehmet Özhaseki, claimed that most ‘traitors’ – the word for anyone accused of being involved in July’s failed coup attempt – come from the ranks of university graduates: “Look at the traitors in this country. Most of them are university graduates… The intellectuals are like (yam-yam) man-eating cannibals, they [say] anything bad about Turkey both from overseas and at [home].”

His comments point to one of the most important parts of Catonist anti-intellectualism: conservative educational policy. Cato warned of the threat of Greek or the Greek alphabets on Roman education. And Erdoğan is similarly critical of the so-called ‘alphabet revolution’, under which the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, replaced the Arabic alphabet with Latin characters in 1927.

“Although we had a very rich [Ottoman] language that was highly convenient for doing and producing science, we woke up one day and we realized that it was gone,” Erdoğan said, claiming it was not possible to study philosophy with the modern Turkish vocabulary: “You will either rely on Ottoman words or concepts from French, English or German.”

Following this Catonian logic, Turkey’s National Education Council introduced mandatory Ottoman language courses at the country’s influential religious high schools. The classes are electives in secular high schools, but the point has been made. Erdoğan is competing for the intellectual leadership of post-Kemalist Turkish secularism like Cato competed against Greek influence. 

For many commentators, the rise of anti-intellectualism in Turkey is a result of Islamic influence. However, the resurgence of anti-intellectual intolerance in the United States, and much of the so called ‘West’, brings this back up for debate.

From Ancient Rome, to authoritarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany and Salazar’s Portugal, and new populist leaders like Trump, anti-intellectual leaders are a recurring feature of history. Turkey under AKP rule is no exception; Erdoğan simply uses the conservative Catonist political discourse in a Muslim context. Regardless of religion, populist leaders from Ancient Rome to modern Turkey are increasingly using anti-intellectualism as a platform to identify with society. The danger of this being of course that it comes with greater polarization, resulting in the widespread persecution academics and journalists have been subject to. With Trump’s election, this could be a frightening look to the future for the US.


  1. November 26, 2016, 9:37 pm

    Ay kendi çok entelektüel. Senin gibi liberallarin aşağılamaları yüzünden seçildi Trump. Dayayın Amerika’nın götüne müslümanları sonra ağlayın reaksiyon var geriye diye. İki ülkenin politakalarını karşılaştırıp durmayın. Türk muhafazakarı ile Amerikan muhafazakari politik spektrum içinde aynı terminoloji “sağ” diye etiklenmiş diye aynı kola düşmüyolar. Amerikan muhafakazarligi Türk muhafakazarligina karsidir. Islam konusunda haklisin.


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