Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"


On Richard Hofstadter: Part Two


i

Anti-intellectalism in American Life (AIiAL) may be Hofstadter's most famous work. It is especially popular with pundits who love to name-check the book when they disparage the sort people who vote for Trump and Brexit.

The book may have appeared in the 1960s but its origin story goes back to 1952. Hofstadter was not just disappointed in the victory of Dwight Eisenhower, he was traumatized. He went so Madly for Adlai that he saw the election result in stark, apocalyptic terms:

a repudiation by plebiscite of American intellectuals and of intellect itself.

The campaign of 1952 dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism in the opposing candidates. On one side was Adlai Stevenson, a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history. On the other was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate, harnessed to the unpalatable Nixon.

Eisenhower's decisive victory was taken both by the intellectuals themselves and by their critics as a measure of their repudiation by America.
According to Sam Tannenhaus, the 1952 election gave Hofstatdter his central thesis for AIiAL:

The fundamental division within America was not between Democrats and Republicans, nor between liberals and conservatives, but between clear-eyed intellectuals and benighted philistines, between the rational elite and the impassioned mob.
Hofstadter's reaction to Ike's victory epitomizes the most egregious blunders and blindspots of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot when they write about most things intellectual.

1. They really aren't very good at identifying intelligence in other people.
2. The I-Y-Is are seduced by style and self-referential biases.
3. Moral outrage is never far below the surface of their detached dispassionate analysis.

As of consequence…..

4 (a) They over-value the capabilities of people who talk and act like them and who share their political views
4 (b) They are blind to the abilities of those who are not like them or who disagree with them. They cannot believe that 'those people' act in good faith or have valid arguments or intellectual heft.
ii

For Hofstadter, the 1952 election was a titanic struggle between the Army of Intellect and the Forces of Ignorance.

Representing Intellect was a New Deal lawyer who became a governor thanks to the Cook County Democratic machine. Everyone knew he was brilliant because he gave witty speeches and made self-decrecating jokes. Arrayed against this Hero of the Intellectuals was the man who commanded:

1. The largest army in US history.
2. The most complex and high-stakes military operation in history.
3. The most successful wartime coalition since Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession.
It was this absurd false dichotomy - smart Adlai and dumb Ike - that was the genesis for AIiAL.

Stevenson knew how to sprinkle aphorisms and wry observations into his speeches. Adlai the politician was a lot like Hofstadter the historian. But that wasn't the only reason Hofstadter was moved to political activism during the campaign. In 1952 he was pro-Stevenson because he was convinced that the survival of liberalism depended on defeating Eisenhower. And for him the survival of liberalism was synonymous with the survival of America.

Over the next ten years the names changed but the melodramatic struggle remained central to Hofstadter's narrative. Leftwing politics morphed into Intellect; Ike's brand of moderate Republicanism became Ignorance and Resentment.

What remained constant was that Richard Hofstadter and people like him were always the heroes in the stories Richard Hofstadter wrote.

And who could contest that narrative? Hofstadter was a celebrated historian and esteemed public intellectual. He was the expert's expert. Only a budding Know Nothing would be so gauche as to question his dicta.

Not to mention-his narrative was useful to the IYIs in the press and academia. It is always easier to name-check Hofstadter than to formulate coherent arguments. It takes a lot of energy, intelligence, and integrity to rebut an opponent in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is child's play to toss around "paranoid style" and "anti-intellectualism."

Related:

Richard Hofstadter: The I-Y-I's intellectual for all seasons

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create


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