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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Anti-intellectualism again

Some months ago, one of my freshmen year roommates, who remains a friend and regular reader, suggested that I take a look at Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter was the greatest historian of the GI generation, and his death, in his early 50s, in the early 1970s was a great tragedy for our intellectual ilfe. He had a grasp of all of American history--indeed, he had started a general history of the US, a few chapters of which were published after his death--and he was fascinated by the disconnects between political rhetoric and what was actually happening in different areas. This particular book, written in the 1960s, only went up to the 1960s, and I am not going to do it anything like justice this morning, but the latter half of the book, from the civil war until the middle of the last century, seemed to me particularly relevant in light of current events.

Hofstadter suggested that there had always been a wide gap between educated Americans and the average man (or woman) in our culture, but he identified ebbs and flows. Never, he suggested, was the gap wider than in the post-civil war period. The war had united moralistic intellectuals with the common people, and the North had achieved its short-term objectives of restoring the union and the abolition of slavery. But Hofstadter effectively makes the point that to the New England elite, in particular, the war seemed to have brought little if any greater good within 12 years of its completion. Not only had the end of Reconstruction left former slaves in a new form of subjugation, but northern politics was now dominated by corporate corruption and big-city bosses. Civil service reform--the selection of public officials by merit--became the reformers' principal cause, but was violently opposed by politicians exalting the common man over the effeminate bookworm. (Present day historians would have you believe that only Boomers discovered the significance of gender in history, but that is clearly not the case.) Only the murder of President Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker started the country down the path to a professional civil service, and it was a very modest step. The corporate elite that ruled the country seemed to enjoy the idea that the common man knew best, and the first politician to begin to reverse the trend was the Harvard educated amateur historian, Theodore Roosevelt, whose elevation to the Presidency was, of course, pretty much of an accident. By 1900, however the new Missionary generation (born 1863-84) was voting. It was very well educated and believed in the use of the intellect to better society. In 1912 Roosevelt and former college president and historian Woodrow Wilson won a huge majority of the popular between them, and Wilson took office and presided over the first Reform Administration. As I have said before, there is indeed a logic to Glenn Beck's demonization of Progressivism in general and Woodrow Wilson in particular.

The First World War discredited Wilson and Progressivism for a decade, but Herbert Hoover was certainly a representative of this new tradition, and under the New Deal it really came into its own. It aroused violent opposition among many well-to-do Americans, but the mass of the people welcomed FDR's scientific and inspiring approach to the problems the country faced, and the idea of government as problem-solver remained entrenched for nearly half a century--the most remarkable half century, I would argue, in the whole history of American political life. By the 1970s, however, the alliance between academics and government was crumbling. Now it is just about dead, and are very close, in our own way, to where the country was on these issues during the Gilded Age.

From at least the time of Ronald Reagan onward the Republican Party has been frankly and openly anti-intellectual, railing against Washington bureaucrats who think they know what is best for the average American, and particularly against the mainstream media, which they have seen as dominated by an educated elite. An interesting trend began with Reagan: when the educated elite derided his intellectual ability, his supporters turned this into an advantage. No one could have dreamt then, however, how far this trend would go. Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell have given new meaning to the idea that dumber is better. (O'Donnell isn't going to be elected, but Palin's career is far from over.) And one very influential part of the intellectual elite--neoconservatives--have actually jumped on this bandwagon. When I mentioned this to a well-known centrist Republican two years ago, he remarked that neoconservatives clearly preferred candidates of limited vision, such as George W. Bush, so that they could fill in gaps on their blank slates. Bill Kristol met Palin on a necon cruise to Alaska a year or two before the 2008 elections and, apparently, fell in love.

And thus, today, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, the simplest arithmetical facts make absolutely no impression upon the body politic. Today's papers report that we lost jobs last month because of a big drop in state and local government employment--which up until now had been helped by the Obama stimulus. Stimulus, however, has become a dirty word, and there will be no new one any time soon. As Paul Krugman eloquently pointed out yesterday, Governor Christie of New Jersey--a hero to his fellow Times columnist David Brooks--made one of the stupidest decisions in American history by canceling a plan for a new railroad tunnel under the Hudson, a desperately needed piece of infrastructure that would have put many, many people to work. (Today's paper says that Christie, thank heaven, is trying to find a way to reverse that decision.) When the media attack Tea Party candidates for obvious mistatements--Sharon Angle, who is likely to defeat Harry Reid in Nevada, just said Sharia law now governs Dearborn, Michigan--they retort that the media doesn't want to debate the real issues, like taxes. And for the moment, at least, it seems that all this would work.

Meanwhile, something else has happened: the academy--particularly the Humanities, including history, and the social sciences--lost interest in the use of knowledge to better society and in particular the lot of the average man. It turned inward, creating a species of scholarship as removed from the world as Medieval scholasticism. In so doing it has done much to confirm the anti-intellectualism of the right. To have its ideas respected, the academy will have to attack the problems of the general public.

Krugman said the other day that he could find little reason for hope, and I can't either--not for a long time, anyway. I have been pointing out parallels between the Gilded Age and our own time for some time. If these are accurate, then salvation will only come from a generation as yet unborn, the new Prophet generation that will enter elementary school when our current crisis is definitely over. (And "over" does not mean that things will have gotten better, only that we have effectively given up on any significant changes.) The Missionary generation, the subject of my current research, reshaped the nation and the world in ways that the Gilded Age could never have dreamed of. Boomers have undone their work and it does not seem that there will be any Boomer savior to reverse the trend. History, however, lasts a long time. It is time for me now to quote another passage from Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel, a passage about Stendhal, who wrote in the Restoration period after the French revolution and the Napoleonic era, a time when reaction seemed to be in the ascendant all over Europe.

"In French literature," Lukacs writes, "Stendhal is the last great representative of the heroic ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. His criticism of the present, his picture of the past rest essentially on this critical contrasting of the two great phases of bourgeois society. The implacable nature of this criticism has its roots in the living experience of the past heroic period and in the unshaken belief--despite all skepticism--that the development of history will yet lead to a renewal of this great period."

And so it will again, no matter how many or how few of us live to see it. I would like to think that, somehow, Krugman might see this post.


Anonymous said...

How to explain this phenomenon?

Perhaps the professional specialization resulting in a lack, even among the so-called educated, of general knowledge, of history, literature, the arts.

Also the spread of mass media distractions has dumbed down the debate enormously to sound bites and visuals. Attention spans have shortened enormously. You can count commericals and pauises between and how long the commercials are, etc. to get a feel for this. Videos have become dominant and music has become simplified to a rhythmic beat.

What people need is quiet and lack of pressure to make money and then they can think deeply and enjoy life and the arts and history and lieterature(even simple folk culture as has always been the case in populations). The corporations have taken this away from us by pressure ot earn money and distractions in form of entertainment.

Anonymous said...

"Cleveland vs. Wall Street" was created by a Swiss director.
The people of Cleveland, as well as the press, were/are aware of the movie.

You can read more here:

Anonymous said...

Interview with the author of the film "Cleveland vs. Wall Street".

Cleveland takes on Wall Street in Cannes


partisan said...

I think your comment on the humanites is a bit of a cheap shot. Yes, we all hate deconstructionists, but it's not as if in the fifties people were rushing out to read the New Critics or Erich Aucherbach. Plenty of historians write on subjects that are directly relevant to people's lives. Whether it is Leslie Reagan on abortion, or Rickie Solinger on unwed motherhood, you can only say they don't deal with problems of the average man if you think children are conceived by parthogenesis. The problem that books, to choose a very short list, by Nancy Maclean on affirmative action, Thomas Sugrue on northern civil rights, Nelson Lichtenstein on Wal-Mart, Stephanie Coontz or Nancy Cott on marriage, Matthew Connelly on the population control movement, Kim Phillips-Fein on businessmen against the New Deal, or Colin Gordon on health insurance is not that they are unreadable or poorly documented or wildly radical. Compare their public profile with the late Stephen Ambrose. Even before the controversies with plagiarism, he was hardly the cutting edge of historical scholarship. Yet he had a certain prominence because he was reliably centrist, and he wrote on the only two historical subjects that much of the middlebrow culture has any interest in: war and presidential biographies. Although there is much of value in American scholarship it has to be filtered through a ruthless and dogmatic right, an opportunistic pseudo-contrarian centre, powerful media ogliopolies and a host of intellectual taboos whose effect is to define intellectual honesty as granting conservatism every indulgence. One could go on about specific highbrow journals, such as the corruption of The New Republic by Martin Peretz's anti-Asian bigotry, or the New York Review of Books hostility to new blood.

Bozon said...


Great summation. Thanks for publishing this essay.

I also had read passages of Hofstadter myself, back in the 70s.

I was not so sympathetic to e.g. Allan Bloom's book, The Closing..., on more recent intellectual history.

I will refer to some things I have been noting re causes: there has long been an intellectual compartmentalization, with not just one or two causes, which has caused the discrediting of intellectuals of all kinds.

When the compartmentalized intellectual's pronouncements prove false, for various reasons, the field, or subfield, loses intellectual face.

It is also connected, just one cause, with a visceral turning away from all specialists, even though so many of us, not even intellectuals, are inevitably 'specialists' of one stripe or other.

Take, just one example, many medical doctors, their discipline itself based on exact science, dating of archaeological matter, etc., yet they sometimes embrace a creationist cosmogony beginning 12.5 thousand years ago, despite the exact science contradiction. They also embrace an anti intellectualism inconsistent with their very discipline's underlying tenets.

This is just one of the most glaring examples; there are many others, from all specialist fields, of specialists repudiating intellectual other specialists assertions or constructions.

Another aspect, to which I have alluded, has been the large extent to which liberal democratic politics, and its free market, have been allowed, and have thus been enabled, to overtake and control disciplinary criteria, and meritocratic principles, by money, influence, and progressive transformations in various industries and professions.

The big market players have tended to overpower the professions, the trades, farmers, and other specialists who might have exercised some meritocratic or professional or guild sense to the marketplace; this type of overbearing influence shows itself no more plainly than in such events as the mortgage-backed security debacle.

This is not at all a new thing. For example, I especially enjoyed Jonathan Steinberg's Teaching Company talk on Frederick The Great, his treatment of experts at his court.

There are various other causes to which one might advert, but can't monopolize another site with more of them. This even was perhaps too much of a 'comment'.

So many remarks here invite comment, but space is at a premium.

all the best,

Anonymous said...

For me the real irony is that the Progressive Wilson introduced institutional racism to American perhaps more than any American President .

David Kaiser said...

Two of these comments call for a specific response, which does not mean that I don't appreciate the others.

I think that Partisan, while attempting to refute my point, actually confirmed it. With the exception of the book mentioned about businessmen and FDR and the health care book, neither of which I know, all the works she mentioned deal with issues in one's personal life. Now personal lives are important, as are race and gender issues, but so is the economic shape of society as a whole. Molly Ivins apparently remarked that the greatest story of the last half century was that blacks, women and gays had won to participate in American life. So they have--but is it such an honor to participate, especially at the highest levels, in US institutions as they have evolved? Do abortion rights really compensate the average American woman for the continuing decline in her economic status? What's more important, the proliferation of black professionals or the end of good-paying industrial jobs in our major cities? I was also talking, by the way, about economists, most of whom have become total free-marketeers.

Mac's comment about Wilson is a bit of a stretch--racism had been growing in virulence for decades when he took office. He did, however, segregate government office buildings in DC for the first time, and he certainly was a virulent racist himself. Yet in the whole first half of the twentieth century there were quite a few southern politicians who were at least publicly racist but highly progressive on economic issues.

partisan said...

I fear I must still disagree with you. Lichtenstein's work on Wal-Mart obviously deals with economic issues. Solinger and Reagan are well aware how class hampers abortion rights and unwed motherhood. Coontz's three books on the family devote considerable attention to how the second Gilded Age shows much Republican pro-family rhetoric mean-spirited moralistic cant. Sugrue's histories of Detroit, the Northern Civil Rights Movement and his lectures on Obama are hardly stories of unequivocal triumph. While not blaming everything on a blind "white racism," Sugrue argues that both the New Deal order and the civil rights movement met its failures because most whites did not want to support a genuinely just solution to such pre-emininently political questions as education, housing and employment. One may disagree with this, but one simply can't ignore it on the ground that it is irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

“We should not underestimate these fiscal
challenges,” Bernanke said. “Failing to
respond to them would endanger our economic

Rather than responding, however, President Barack
Obama wants to continue spending.

In fact, his proposed budget calls for America’s
$13 trillion debt to grow by an average
of $1.06 trillion each year over the next ten years.
Amazingly, even this massive incursion
of new debt is not enough for some of his allies.
In a recent column in the Financial Times
entitled, “America needs stimulus, not virtue,” liberal financier George Soros argues that
there is a “strong case for further stimulus.”

“To cut government spending at a time of large-
scale unemployment would be to ignore the
lessons of history,” Soros writes, arguing in favor
of additional taxpayer-funded largesse aimed
at rectifying “the imbalance between consumption
and investment.”

Soros neglects to point out that Obama’s “stimulus”
didn’t fund either consumption or investment
– it was a handout to public sector unions and
foreign “green corporations” coupled with a
one-year extension of salaries and benefits to
public sector employees.
It didn’t build dams, bridges or utilities – it
created a mountain of new debt while
perpetuating the same culture of entitlement that
has Europe poised to plunge off of a fiscal cliff.

Consider these numbers: Twenty million Americans
are now employed by the government.
More than 34 million Americans are receiving
Social Security and Medicare checks. Another
48 million Americans are enrolled in Medicaid – a
number that will increase rapidly as “Obamacare”
forces individuals from their private plans.


Anonymous said...

"Justice Department lawyers have argued that
decisions to forgo coverage are active choices
that have significant commercial consequences
because the uninsured often cannot afford the
medical care they inevitably need.

That shifts costs to hospitals, taxpayers and the
privately insured.

Judge Vinson disagreed. “It is not based on an
activity that they make the choice to undertake,”
he wrote. “It is based solely on citizenship and
on being alive.”

The judge also used strong language to reject the
government’s courtroom characterization of the
penalty imposed on the uninsured as a tax.

Government lawyers have argued it is a tax
because Congress is given broad authority under
the Constitution to levy taxes.

But the judge took pains to note that Congress
referred to the fines in the legislation as a penalty,
and that Mr. Obama denied it was a tax increase.

Calling it an “Alice-in-Wonderland tack,” Judge
Vinson wrote that Congress had tried to reap a political advantage during the debate by denying
it was imposing a tax, and then sought a legal
advantage in court by insisting it had done so.

Does it ever bother YOU Dr. Kaiser when
DEMOCRATS so blatantly LIE?

TOF said...

I don't think it's anti-intellectualism as much as it disenchantment and disbelief in the nostrums the so-called intellectuals have prescribed and enforced over the past twenty or thirty years now.

I'm not particularly a fan of people like Sarah Palin, but I do see that the intellectual elite have truly taken it on themselves to declare what is best for everybody -- and are failing badly. At least in the USA, a majority of people are less of the sense that they are subjects of a ruling power and can really think for themselves and make decisions for themselves. That may be somewhat misguided, but the aggregation of many small decisions seems to turn out better than a single major decision rendered from on high.

In the field I'm educated in, economics, and financial economics in particular, people of the Left, like Paul Krugman, cheapen themselves and the debate by saying whatever is convenient for the moment with, apparently, little recognition that they contradict themselves almost constantly. It has become a game to take Krugman's latest remarks and go back to his earlier mumblings to find contradictions. For example, I'm not the least bit in favor of the kind of protectionist policies currently being bandied about in DC, but they're being bandied about by people of the Left who should know better. Fed Chair Bernanke's latest Keynesian moves to shore up the economy look like a replay of the economic disasters of the FDR administration of 1935 or thereabouts

Another problem currently is the quality of education from primary right on up through college. A whole generation is being indoctrinated rather than taught some of the things they need to function successfully in contemporary society. The "education intellectuals" have little to say, really, about what makes for a quality education. I can recall some fifteen years ago, when the Ed.D. was coming under fire as being irrelevant. I agreed then and agree now. Locally, the state university set about renaming its Teachers College the College of Education and Human Sciences. Turned out to be one of those lipstick on a pig exercises.

No. I don't think the current trend is so much anti-intellectualism as it is open rebellion against the gods who have failed. Gods are not supposed to fail.

Anonymous said...

hmmm... There are always [at least] two cultures at work in a society. A *low* culture, which includes the bulk of the population, and a *high* culture, which is far better educated. Those who fight, those who work, those who pray comes to mind as an immediate cross generational/cultural example with some duration behind it.

But, I find most contemporary liberal intellectuals tediously smug, and remarkably ignorant.

The real disconnect in this society at this time is in the area of SCIENCE. To get science you need proficiency in MATH [and STATISTICS]. How many History majors become that because they can't do Calculus.

It is in Science that the major intellectual changes of our time are occurring. Evolution is a philosophical concept as well as biological, and it is based on new understanding in physics. I wager a great many *high* culture *educated* smug intellectuals can't explain even the beginnings of why that is so.

Anonymous said...

How do I contact blog author?

David Kaiser said...

To contact me simply post your email address.