Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"

On Richard Hofstadter: Part Two


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.

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-deprecating 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."


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

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Nixon's the One

This speech by Ben Stein at the Nixon Library is well worth watching. Stein has always been a defender of RN and here he gives a passionate, full-throated defense of the man and his presidency.

Two especially interesting points in this speech. 1. Stein defends RN against the accusations of anti-Semitism. 2.) He has an interesting theory about the role sadism played in the attacks on Nixon.

Also interesting is this talk by Geoff Shepard on how the Watergate investigation went off the rails.


Watergate and history

Friday, April 21, 2017

Poets and Kommissars

Chekisty and poets were drawn to each other like stoats and rabbits-- often with fatal consequences for the latter. They found common ground: the need for fame, an image of themselves as crusaders, creative frustration, membership of a vanguard, scorn for the bourgeoisie, an inability to discuss their work with common mortals. There was an easily bridged gap between between the symbolist poet who aimed to epater le bourgeois and the checkist who stood the bourgeois up against the wall.
Donald Rayfield

Auden was not eccentric. The poets of the thirties were intoxicated with the idea of violence. You could not be sincere unless you were prepared to have blood on your hands. For Day Lewis it was the hour of the knife, for Spender light was to be brought to life by bringing death to the age-long exploiters. 'We're much ruder,' boasted Day Lewis writing to his scavenger press baron, 'and we're learning to shoot.'
Noel Annan

First, last, and always, the real politics of Bloomsbury was a search for elite cultural power in England.
Stephen Koch

Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or are you against us.
Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"If I find you doing something, I will help you, but if I find you doing nothing, only God will help you."
Gen. George C. Marshall

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rejoice! He is risen!

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

And they remembered his words,

And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.

It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Luke 24: 1-12

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Wood and nails and colored eggs"

First Posted 22 March 2005

This passage from Martin Bell's remarkable little book The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images seems especially timely this Easter season.

God raised Jesus from the dead to the end that we should be clear-once and for all-that there is nothing more important than being human. Our lives have eternal significance. And no one-absolutely no one-is expendable.

Colored Eggs

Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.

This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all-and so it will be necessary to color the eggs in our hearts.

This Easter there is a hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.

And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.

At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then he simply raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs

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"

Sunday, April 09, 2017

One hundred years ago

Gary Sheffield:

At 5.30 a.m. on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the British and Canadian infantry ‘hopped the bags’ and advanced through a snowstorm. Fifteen minutes earlier German batteries had been bombarded with poison gas. Like artillery, machine gun tactics had increased in sophistication since the beginning of the war.[414] Massed machine guns fired a barrage over the heads of the attacking infantry, while forty tanks rumbled into action alongside. The first day of Arras was highly successful. At Vimy Ridge, with the support of nine Heavy Artillery Groups (seven of them British) the Canadians captured most of this formidable position with little difficulty, although at the cost of 11,000 casualties.
Cyril Falls, the author of the British official history of the battle (and an officer in the war) wrote:"‘Easter Monday of the year 1917 must be accounted from the British point of view one of the great days of the War" The first day of the Battle of Arras was, in his view, "among the heaviest blows struck by British arms in the Western theatre of war."

As with everything on the Western Front, the cost in casualties was high.


The BEF’s daily loss rate of 4,076 at Arras was greater than the Somme (2,943), Passchendaele (2,323), or the Hundred Days battles of 1918 (3,645)