Arthur the Aardvark, Brexit, and the Global Force of Anti-Intellectualism

By Adithya Sivakumar

Do you all remember Arthur the Aardvark? The eight-year-old who cruised around with his friends through the streets of Elwood City navigating the struggles of being a third-grader? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just take comfort that Arthur has been lauded as one of the finest examples of children’s television programming in the last decade, as well as being “just straight up awesome” (Sivakumar et al., 2006).


However, I’d like to turn your attention to one particular episode of this show. “Prove It,” episode four from the fourth season of Arthur, which concerned Arthur’s wonderful sister D.W. and her attempt to get her brother to take her to a science museum. In order to do so, she starts a museum in her own backyard, promoting theories such as the H in H2O stands for hose, and the ocean is created by sand moving so fast it turns into liquid. Annoyed and terrified about the effect D.W.’s “science” is having on the impressionable neighborhood children, Arthur takes her to the museum to show her how science actually works, thereby fulfilling her ulterior motives.


When I first watched this show as a young child, I have to admit, I was angry. How could D.W. promote such bogus science? How could people believe her? She had turned her back on reasoning and the very pillars of the discipline she claimed to espouse, all in order to achieve a mischievous end goal. No one would actually do that in real life, right?


Fast-forward a decade later to June 23, 2016. As the votes for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (E.U.) came towards a close, I experienced many of the same emotions as I did when I was in elementary school after that Arthur episode. How could the “Leave” campaign promote such grand anti-immigration sentiment? How could the British believe them? Why did they not follow the advice of countless organizations, foreign governments, and heads of state to stay for their own economic security? Was the attempt to bring Europe together after World War II all for nothing?


In both instances, I never realized the magnitude of the inequality that led to these drastic actions. For the children in Arthur, they had not been educated about all the intricacies of science, causing them to find some sort of refuge in D.W.’s explanations. In Britain, analysis showed that the town that had the most percentage of residents in favor of leaving the European Union, Boston, earned low incomes and had only 1 in 3 people carry formal qualifications. Leaving the European Union was not a large loss for these voters, as they had failed to see the benefits of European integration. In the town of Lambeth, where voters chose overwhelmingly to stay in the E.U. , incomes were more than 10,000 pounds more than the average voter in Boston, and there were twice as many professionals. These results indicate a widespread gap in socioeconomic status and education, a gap that in turn has affected how people respond to political commentary.


In one instance during the Brexit campaign debates, when confronted with reports that respected organizations and groups had pointed out recommended against leaving the European Union, “Leave” campaigner and U.K. Justice Secretary Michael Gove said, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organizations… with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”


And that, folks, speaks volumes.


This statement elucidates a large factor in the majority of the U.K. rejecting the overtures of U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, and other seemingly respected individuals and institutions: anti-intellectualism. The establishment commonly uses academia and intellectualism to support their claims, which may or may not lead to good results. The establishment might use scientific data to push forward claims of global warming or the efficacy of vaccines, but those opposed to the establishment conflate these scientific positions into a larger establishment narrative, and therefore reject them in alarming numbers. That being said, academia and government do not always have a beneficial goal in mind. The theory of eugenics pushed in intellectual circles in the early 20th century can be regarded as a driving factor for the implementation of the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924 in the United States.


Additionally, socioeconomic gaps exist worldwide and have manifested in similar ways politically, mainly in a distaste for the establishment and for experts. In the Philippines, this led to the election of Rodrigo Duterte, whose campaign was based on his anti-crime campaign to purge the nation of criminals in any manner possible, implying the reintroduction of vigilante death squads that he oversaw as mayor of the city of Davao.  Disgusted with crime and perceived inaction by establishment parties, voters swept Duterte into office, despite calls to stop him from the incumbent government and human rights organizations concerned with his previous record of extrajudicial killings. In Austria, a far-right candidate who proclaimed “Islam has no place in Austria,” lost the presidential election by 0.6%, a movement attributed to anti-immigration sentiment in the wake of the influx of refugees into the European Union; his opposing candidate, also an outsider was backed by the chancellor of Austria, as well as the supporters of the two major parties in the country. In fact, an Austrian constitutional court has just invalidated the election results, leading to another potential grab for power for the aforementioned candidate.


Why should all this affect you? If you are a college student at Vanderbilt University at this moment, you are a target of anti-intellectualism. An academic institution such as Vanderbilt is largely seen as elitist, even with the diversity of opinions that are harbored on this campus. We have the privilege of being educated here, but that does not mean we have the privilege of flaunting our education over others. Education can bring us into respected positions, but these positions often may give off an air of elitism that goes widely unrecognized, so whenever we attempt to espouse a position, we fail to realize that our opinion will inherently carry more weight than one given by a person that did not have an opportunity to pursue an education. This, in turn, causes resentment and rejection of those considered “educated.”


These actions have dire consequences, especially in light of how the UKIP, the major party in favor of leaving the European Union, convinced many voters to chose to leave the EU by primarily emphasizing fears of immigration. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, stated in response to a question about the similarity of his campaign and that of Donald Trump that “The problem you’ve got in the U.S. is illegal immigration. Our problem is legal immigration to half a billion people.” Compounded with posters proclaiming refugees as undesirable, many voters choosing Brexit did say their decision was influenced by immigration, a sentiment that certainly reverberates across the Atlantic. By using scapegoating instead of educated, well-reasoned arguments, political forces are able to tap into inner prejudices and divisions between different groups (evidenced by the uptick in hate crimes against minorities and immigrants across the U.K. after votes were counted),  and therefore using them to achieve a political goal.


Education is a privilege. Our best goal and hope for this generation and the broken political world is to prevent academia from being distorted and being derided, a hope that can only be accomplished with discarding a sense of elitism, recognizing our privilege, and attempting to have thoughtful, civil, and educational debates with others concerning issues surrounding politics and other disciplines. The longer we disregard populist sentiments, the easier it is for groups and individuals to exploit divides within communities, causing false information being fed not only to the innocent neighborhood children of Arthur, but also to vast segments of our population, leading to life-changing moments like that in Britain.

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