Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reading Journal: "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"

Eight years ago, as stunned liberals began to collect Bushisms as evidence of the new President's low intellectual wattage, sociologist Todd Gitlin offered the election of Bush as evidence of a "renaissance of anti-intellectualism" in America. Bush was enthusiastically embraced by a sufficiently large portion of the electorate despite being a man "of little discernible achievement, [and] little knowledge of the world or curiosity about it." To put Bush into the context of the history of American anti-intellectualism, Gitlin provided a brief review of Richard Hofstadter's 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter's book provides and excellent primer for considering the relationship between intellect and American democracy.

Hofstadter, a historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was writing in the aftermath of the McCarthy era, when scores of intellectuals on the left were hounded for alleged Communist activities. The 1950s would seem to have been another high water mark for American anti-intellectualism. In 1952, the erudite and well-spoken Adlai Stevenson was defeated by Eisenhower, with his "fumbling inarticulateness" and his "crass" running mate, Richard Nixon. A deep reaction had set in against the New Deal and the liberal intellectuals who had helped to nail it into place.

With this as background, Hofstadter looked back at the history of anti-intellectualism in America, identifying four main currents contributing to the anti-intellectual tradition: evangelical religion, the rise of popular democracy, the pragmatism of American business, and the excesses of progressive education. The United States had been founded by intellectuals. The Founding Fathers were, for the most part, classically educated, polymathic gentlemen who were in a unique position to combine intellect with political power. But since the founding years of the republic, the expansion of popular democracy, particularly in the Jacksonian era, brought intellectuals into an uneasy relationship with politics and public life. The political influence of intellectuals has waxed and waned, but there has developed an enduring popular suspicion of "eggheads" (evidently a coinage of the 1952 campaign), and an enduring alienation of intellectuals from public life.

As Hofstadter writes: "Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: they have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces."

Hofstadter is brilliant at synthesizing ideas and coming up with beautifully apt turns of phrase. Talking about how the success of the industrial system and the rise of large, impersonal corporations made it more difficult for businessmen to attain the culture-hero status of earlier captains of industry like Carnegie and Ford, Hofstadter writes: "Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men."

Hofstadter is remarkably balanced. There are things that he condemns, but for the most part, he does so with a great deal of understanding and a lack of acerbity. In a revealing statement, he talks of older intellectuals of the 1950s who, "like anyone who is given to contemplating the complexities of things, ...have lost the posture of militancy." Hofstadter is clearly on the side of the intellectual, but not of the intellectual who devolves into an ideologue. His chief scorn is reserved for the Manicheanism of the "fundamentalist mind," which "looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly...scorns compromises...and can tolerate no ambiguity." Long before George W. Bush and his neoconservative and fundamentalist allies were provoking the scorn of the reality-based community, Hofstadter wrote presciently: "The issues of the actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armageddon, an ultimate reality, in which any reference to day-by-day actualities has the character of an allegorical illustration, and not of the empirical evidence that ordinary men offer for ordinary conclusions." Although Hofstadter's book is a year older than I am, it remains remarkably fresh.

Throughout the 2008 Presidential election season, the Harvard-educated intellectual "elitism" of Barack Obama was pitted against the populist appeal of the GOP and its homespun avatars, Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. The anti-intellectualism of the Bush years seemed again ascendant. Even before Palin and Plumber appeared on the scene, commentators like Susan Jacoby were bemoaning "the dumbing of America." America's attention span is shrinking, Jacoby claims, Americans are reading less, and science is continually under siege from the religious right and its political allies. American culture has become increasingly crass and materialistic, and politics has reflected that crassness. When Sarah Palin appeared on the scene, even a conservative pundit like Peggy Noonan was moved to call Palin's candidacy "a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics."

In the afterglow of Obama's election, there seems to be a new rapprochement between intellectuals and American democracy. Mark Lilla wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Palin circus illustrated the "perils of populist chic" and the pitfalls for conservatives of pandering to the basest anti-intellectual instincts of American society. Meanwhile, even the conservative columnist David Brooks was allowing himself to be impressed by the brain power of Obama's official circle.

Hofstadter knew that these things were cyclical. The anti-intellectual strain in American democracy is unlikely to become extinct. But it's fascinating to read Hofstadter's book, published almost half a century ago, and realize that—as an egghead might put it—plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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