Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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

Part One

In his essay on the death of expertise Tom Nichols quotes Richard Hofstadter. This is not surprising. Ever since Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) he has been the go-to expert for pundits and partisans when lamenting America’s short-comings in all things cultural.

Hofstadter’s career and writings have a great deal to say about the role of intellectuals and experts in modern America. As is often the case, the real lesson is not the message that Hofstadter and his fans meant to send.


This is the Hofstadter quote that Nichols uses to launch his Kulturekampf on Trumpian America:

In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government. Today he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of vital and intricate issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired competence to judge most of them.
Two things stand out about Hofstadter’s “argument”. First, it showcases his go-to move: Hofstadter never debates when he can denigrate and dismiss. (We’ll return to this point shortly.)

Even more striking is the rhetorical legerdemain he uses to set up his straw man. The common man is helpless without the magical gifts of technology that the intellectual elites of have given him. The toaster and the coffee pot are mysteries beyond his comprehension so therefore he is not competent to judge the major issues of the day.

Hofstadter expects us to believe that the folks at Vox and the Atlantic are competent to rule over the rest of American because they have expertise and are not baffled modern technology.

Seriously, does anyone really think that Ta-Nehisi Coates can explain multi-port electronic fuel injection? How many writers at Vox can even change the oil in their cars?

Victor Davis Hanson:

Technology has deluded the modern West. We equate widespread knowledge of how to use an iPad with collective wisdom. Because a rare, brilliantly inventive mind from Caltech or MIT can craft a device undreamed of in the age of Einstein, we assume that we all warrant a share in his genius, as if our generation has trumped Einstein’s. We deserve no such kudos unless animals at the zoo that find delight in their rote enjoyment of their hoops and bars can be credited with the architect’s sophisticated zoological design.

We don’t need more technocrats who fool us that their Ivy League law degrees are synonymous with wisdom. They can be, but now are more likely not much more than tickets that allow an Eric Holder or Timothy Geithner into the first-class seating.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

These self-described members of the “intelligenzia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.
James Kwak:

Yale Law School is undeniably an elite institution, the undisputed number one school in a field that is intensely (and toxically) hierarchical. Also, because it is a law schoolas opposed to other elite institutions such as West Point or the UConn women’s basketball teamit is filled with people who have never had any idea of what they wanted to do other than be successful and gain access to the best opportunities out there.


Hofstadter is remembered as a prose stylist of distinction. His mode of argument is also distinctive and much copied. He was one of the leading practioners of the “I’m smartyou are crazy and stupid” polemical style. It’s a style is still beloved by I-Y-Is even to this day and a style that sometimes appears in Nichol’s writing and twitter feed.

RH relied heavily on sociology, psychology, and other social science. To some extent, this was a mark of his restless mind and intellectual curiosity. It also reflects a lazy, perhaps agoraphobic historian. (We’ll get to this later.) But those fields also gave Hofstadter a vocabulary with which to malign opponents rather than engage them.

Fred Siegel:

History and events could be bathed in the certainties that came from dismissing one's opponents as insufficiently deferential and psychologically stunted.
Christopher Lasch, a student of Hofstadter, noted of his teacher and his allies, “instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.”

This is a rhetorical trick still beloved by I-Y-Is. It is the antithesis of the rigorous, intellectually honest mode of argument Taleb discusses here:

The Facts are True, the News is Fake
It is also a form of argument that has roots in totalitarianism.

Jacques Barzun:

To deprecate an idea or explain it away by finding (i.e. guessing) the reason why it is held is the prevailing form of polemics in the twentieth century. We owe it to the popularity of Freud and Marx, whose systems imply that any resistance to them proves how right they are. Agree or disagree, it is all one; dispute a Freudian interpretation of Nietzsche and the act shows your 'defense mechanism' at work. Similarly, any opinion contrary to Marxism-Leninism reveals only the fraudulent bourgeois thought. This perversion of the sense in which ideas are instrumental to the new obscurantism in the garb of high theory.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

Hannah Arendt had it right. She said one of the great advantages of the totalitarian elites of the Twenties and Thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.
Milan Kundera:

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.

Part two: Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"

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