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Ian Buruma writes about politics and culture for a variety of major publications—most frequently for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Corriere della[…]

If the French political thinker and historian returned to the modern-day U.S., he would find that some of his most pessimistic predictions have come true.

Question: Why is intellectualism met with suspicion rnhere in the U.S.?

Ian Buruma:  I think it may have rnsomething to do with the myth... or at least the ideal of egalitarianismrn that it’s better to be a regular guy with sort of good standing in the rncommunity, good character and so on than to be an egghead.  Eggheads arern suspected and that is not just American culture.  I think that was truern traditionally in Britain as well and there is something to be said for rnit.  I mean there are many unpleasant effects of that kind of rnphilistinism. But the good thing is that ideas can be dangerous.  rnIntellectuals are dangerous when you give them too much power because rnthey tend to take ideas to their extreme, and they’re not practical rnpeople on the whole. And it’s good I think to be a little suspicious of rntaking any idea to its extreme and it is probably better to have people rnin power who are more practical and who know the art of compromise.

rn What would de Tocqueville say if he could see us now?

Ianrn Buruma: Well I think he would be on the hand probably shocked rnbecause some of his... possibly some of his worst, his most pessimistic rnpredictions would seem to have come true in that he was on the one hand rnin favor of democracy and he admired American democracy, but he was rnfrightened of the possible consequences.  He thought it could lead to rntremendous vulgarity and so on and I think he probably would see that.  rnHe would also see a much less conformist population probably than the rnone he saw, depending on where he would travel of course. And I think hern probably would be rather shocked by the tone of the public figures, of rnthe politicians who are probably less, little less high minded than the rnones he encountered when he was there.

Recorded April 21, 2010