One point that supporters of Prime Minister Imran Khan really like to assert is that, “he is a self-made man.” They insist that the country should be led by people like him and not by those who were ‘born into wealth and power.’

According to the American historian Richard Hofstadter, such views are largely aired by the middle-classes. To Hofstadter, this view also has an element of ‘anti-intellectualism.’ In his 1963 book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter writes that, as the middle-class manages to attain political influence, it develops a strong dislike for what it sees as a ‘political elite.’ But since this elite has more access to better avenues of education, the middle-class also develops an anti-intellectual attitude, insisting that, as a ruler, a self-made man is better than a better educated man. 

Khan’s core support comes from Pakistan’s middle-classes. And even though he graduated from the prestigious Oxford University, he is more articulate when speaking about cricket — a sport that once turned him into a star — than about anything related to what he is supposed to be addressing as the country’s prime minister.

But many of his supporters do not have a problem with this, especially in contrast to his equally well-educated opponents, Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz, who sound a lot more articulate in matters of politics. To Khan’s supporters, these two are from ‘dynastic elites’ who cannot relate to the sentiments of the ‘common people’ like a self-made man can. 

It’s another matter that Khan is not the kind of self-made man that his supporters would like people to believe. He came from a well-to-do family that had roots in the country’s military-bureaucracy establishment. He went to prestigious educational institutions and spent most his youth as a socialite in London. Indeed, whereas the Bhutto and Sharif offsprings were born in wealth and power which is aiding their climb in politics, Khan’s political ambitions were carefully nurtured by the military-establishment. 

An anti-intellectual attitude is often part and parcel of a politically influential middle-class that has a strong dislike for what it sees as a ‘political elite’

Nevertheless, perhaps conscious of the fact that his personality is not suited to support an intellectual bent, Khan has positioned himself as a self-made man who appeals to the ways of the ‘common people.’ He doesn’t.

For example, wearing the national dress and using common everyday Urdu lingo does not cut it anymore. It did when the former PM Z.A. Bhutto did the same. But years after his demise in 1979, such ‘populist’ antics have become a worn-out cliche. The difference between the two is that Bhutto was a bonafide intellectual. Even his idea to present himself as a ‘people’s man’ was born from a rigorous intellectual scheme. However, Khan does appeal to that particular middle-class disposition that Hofstadter was writing about. 

When he attempts to sound profound, his views usually appear to be a mishmash of theories of certain Islamic and so-called ‘post-colonial’ scholars. The result is rhetoric that actually ends up smacking of anti-intellectualism. 

So what is anti-intellectualism? It is understood to be a view that is hostile to intellectuals. According to Walter E. Houghton, in the 1952 edition of the Journal of History of Ideas, the term’s first known usage dates back to 1881 in England, when science and ideas such as the ‘separation of religion and the state’, and the ‘supremacy of reason’ had gained momentum.

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This triggered resentment in certain sections of the British society who began to suspect that intellectuals were formulating these ideas to undermine the importance of theology and long-held traditions.

According to the American historian Robert D. Cross, as populism started to become a major theme in American politics in the early 20th century, some mainstream politicians politicised anti-intellectualism as a way to portray themselves as men of the people. For example, US presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodward Wilson (1913-1921) insisted that ‘character was more important than intellect.’ 

Across the 20th century, the politicised strand of anti-intellectualism was active in various regions. Communist regimes in China, the Soviet Union and Cambodia systematically eliminated intellectuals after describing them as remnants of overthrown bourgeoisie cultures. In Germany, the far-right intelligentsia differentiated between ‘passive intellectuals’ and ‘active intellectuals.’ Apparently, the passive intellectuals were abstract and thus useless whereas the active ones were ‘men of action.’ Hundreds of so-called passive intellectuals were harassed, exiled or killed in Nazi Germany. 

In the 1950s, intellectuals in the US began to be suspected by firebrand members of the Republican Party of serving the interests of communist Russia. In former East Pakistan, hundreds of intellectuals were violently targeted for supporting Bengali nationalism.

But whereas these forms of anti-intellectualism were emerging from established political forces from both the left and the right, according to the American historian of science Michael Shermer, a more curious idea of anti-intellectualism began to develop within Western academia.

In the September 1, 2017 issue of Scientific American, Shermer writes that this was because ‘postmodernism’ had begun to ‘hijack’ various academic disciplines in the 1990s. 

Postmodernism emerged in the 20th century as a critique of modernism. It derided modernism as a destructive force that had used its ideas of secularism, democracy, economic progress, science and reason as tools of subjugation. Shermer writes that, by the 1990s, postmodernism was positing that there was no objective truth and that science and empirical facts are tools of oppression. This is when even the celebrated leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky began to warn that postmodernism had turned anti-science.

‘Post-colonialism’ or the critique of the remnants of Western colonialism was very much a product of postmodernism as well. Oliver Lovesey in his book The Postcolonial Intellectual and the historian Arif Dirlik in the 1994 issue of The Critical Inquiry, take to task post-colonialism as a discipline now populated by non-white groups of academics who found themselves in positions of privilege in Western universities.

Lovesey quotes the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as saying, “Post-colonialism is the invention of some rich guys from India who saw that they could make a good career in top Western universities by playing on the guilt of white liberals.”

Imran Khan is a classic example of how postmodernism and post-colonialism have become cynical anti-intellectual pursuits. Khan often reminds us that social and economic progress should not be undertaken to please the West because that smacks of a colonial mindset.

So, as his regime presides over a nosediving economy and severe political polarisation, the PM was recently reported (in the January 22 issue of The Friday Times) as discussing with his ministers whether he should mandate the wearing of the dupatta by all women TV anchors. Go figure. 

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 7th, 2021

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