The anti-intellectual State

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

One of the impressions that really stuck with me looking back on the past year is how our people seemingly are against intellectuals or any form of genuine intellectualism. This prejudice is actually quite subtle, disguised as it is indeed by the numerous public discussions being held in every form of media now available in the country. But the bias against is certainly there and responsibility for this lies with our so-called "intellectuals."

Last year’s national elections had a very anti-intellectual bias. Academic credentials were either a) taken against the candidate or b) immediately disregarded due to some imaginary or unproven personal failing of the candidate. This was quite interesting for so many reasons. In a world where information is created and travels in speeds previously unimaginable, to now consider learning as something unnecessary is incredible. A sizable number of national leaders in other countries have quite respectable academic credentials. Obama, Cameron, Vejjajiva, Lee, Merkel, Medvedev, Singh, to name a few, all had top-level world-class educations. Admittedly, not all are doing really well in office, but that is the point: considering the difficulties of the job, then all the more reason to seek even better, more prepared, more learned individuals for public positions.

In our case, the twisted reasoning goes like this: since bar topnotcher Marcos or Georgetown educated economist Arroyo were seen as unsatisfactory by a certain group of people, therefore we should seek leaders that don’t have the same academic caliber. Which is stupid. Accepting the argument that Marcos and Arroyo, with their experience and education, were unable to do the job well, then the proper (and sane) thinking would be to seek individuals with even better experience and training, plus other attributes necessary in a national leader: integrity (including having respect for our history and institutions), competence (which includes the ability to select able people), and a clear vision (and know-how) of where he wants to take the country to. To say that no Filipino like that exists belittles the Filipino and is offensive. It only means that we weren’t willing to seek hard enough and are content with the easy, albeit myopic, choices.

But going beyond the elections, why the anti-intellectual bias? I talked years ago to a successful liquor businessman who bragged about his refusing to read the classics (through time I’d discover his attitude to be shared by many Filipinos). Rousseau? Drucker? Aquinas? De la Costa? Who cares? For him, they’re irrelevant to his business. Instead, he expressed eagerness to getting advice from elder businessmen friends ("kasi practical daw siya"). Obviously, to learn from one’s elders is good. But to disregard the actual pieces of wisdom from the known giants of humanity is absurd, shortsighted, and idiotic. Undoubtedly, good advice is good advice, whether it be from the neighborhood barber or Pope Benedict XVI. But to proudly disregard the wisdom of men who made themselves immortal through their stupendous achievements in favor of the opinions of people who just happened to possess wealth (which is but a mere pittance compared to the wealth of businessmen from our neighboring countries) out of companies that will no longer exist 30, 50 years from now is profoundly bizarre.

But indeed, the reason for this anti-intellectual bias lies with our "intellectuals" themselves. I mean: do we even have real intellectuals? There’s this well-known management professor (later government official) who lectured constantly against oligarchs only to spinelessly end up covering for their corruption. A columnist happily namedrops Rawls or Chomsky for no useful purpose except to release hot air. He once analyzed a recently elected public official (acknowledged of humble origins) and weirdly concluded, due to etymological reasons, that he’s an "ilustrado." Even assuming that’s correct, what was the point? Then there’s this economist whose idea of public debate is to screech and scream against those who dissent from her views. It’s ridiculous to lecture as if one is the fount of infallible knowledge when, after all those years spent in government or academe giving economic advice, the Philippines is still in its economic quagmire.

Intellectuals are there to encourage the greater populace to think critically and objectively, to think calmly and methodically, to discuss politely, to like thinking (and learning), and to think for a purpose. Not paralyze people into inaction or scream loads of esoteric data in order to shut them up. In the end, our people have no respect for intellectuals (as well as politicians) because those who pretend to being it are merely into one huge ego trip and treat being an intellectual as a performance for people’s entertainment. They serve no purpose other than as a diversion during coffee breaks or cocktails. Intellectuals should exhort people to unify their actions with their thoughts, demand responsibility and accountability, all rooted in realistic and doable considerations. Above all, intellectuals should practice what they preach. Otherwise, they’re just encouraging the country to be basket cases like them.