Joe The Plumber seems like a nice guy. He’s easy to talk to and he probably doesn’t ask too many questions (not that he knows what he’s talking about when he does). But he isn’t just a rhetorical icon designed by clever speech writers to win your vote; he represents something much graver for this country: the death of the intellectual. Sure, he’s a handy guy you’d like to have a beer with, but what the hell would you talk to him about? Don’t worry, this isn’t an attack on the service industries of America. And to be fair, Joe sparked a media frenzy worth giving credit to — but why? What made this character such a ubiquitous image in politics and pop culture practically overnight?

We are living in a time when it has somehow become popular to be anti-intellectual. George W. Bush essentially ran on a platform of the “everyman,” and an enormous chunk of the population has since decided that gut instincts and moral convictions trump well-informed opinions. But W. could present his fancy diploma on cue and did so when appropriate. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, has taken the message to a new extreme. This is a woman who couldn’t name a single newspaper she read, and is convinced human actions aren’t responsible for global warming. The Republican party has paraded her across countless stages to prove that politicians can be relatable and that intellectual prestige is something to scoff at (just look at what happened to John Kerry).

Personally, I blame the religious right, but there are plenty of reasons to point fingers at the left, too. Obama is part of the same song and dance — he just does it better. But this isn’t an attack on particular politicians, either, because they’re not the reason we’ve come to be swayed. We can imagine their campaign strategies as symptomatic or reactionary — not necessarily the source of this new cultural paradigm.

“South Park” seems to get it: The adult world as we know it has been stripped of all common sense and intellectual curiosity, while the Stans and Kyles of the world look on in confusion and dismay at a society of morons. At least that’s the world according to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But these days, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

Professors are accused of brainwashing otherwise good-natured students to become liberal maniacs, even if studies have shown that college minds simply aren’t convinced so easily. We study celebrity gossip instead of Sontag and Kael and are spoon-fed our political news by comedy shows. We can’t even trust ourselves enough to seek out our own sources of information when we’re craving it — we let Google Reader do that for us.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this “lowbrow” kind of culture. I’m not suggesting we all run out and buy black berets to model ourselves after the Beat Generation, but I can’t help feeling starved for an academic debate some days, and I don’t think I’m alone. The issue has less to do with the rise of supposedly low culture and more to do with the lack of balance between the two. I love “The Soup” just as much as the next guy, but it’s easy to feel like the everyman attitude is replacing — and not just supplementing — a seemingly lost spirit of inquisitive and analytical reflection.

What we need is a modern renaissance. But what could possibly induce such a turnaround? I hate to sound anti-capitalist (who doesn’t appreciate a little retail therapy now and then?), but it’s hard not to blame a culture of consumption for such a prevailing faith in the material. Maybe Huxley was on to something: Consumerism isn’t just a guilty pleasure or a need to flaunt one’s social status, it’s an ongoing distraction from intellectual questioning. Targeted market groups have replaced deeper concepts of identity, and the pressure to conform can prevent us from pursuing studies that are relevant to our lives. These days, college students are more likely to go after an MBA than earn a philosophy degree, and who can blame them when that choice is so richly rewarded in our society? An emphasis on early education is key, but it’s going to take a more fundamental change in the general mindset to re-encourage a sense of respect for intellectualism, no matter what demographic you’re part of.

I have no interest in wiping out consumerism, and I’m not trying to derail our penchant for pop culture. But I do hope this generation can achieve a healthier equilibrium between the various sources of information available to us. You don’t have to shed those mass-market values, but don’t let them stop you from respecting an intelligent point of view. Have your beer with Joe The Plumber and tune out for a few hours — just don’t forget to tune back in once in a while.

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