Friday, April 13, 2018

The Return of Anti-Intelletualism in American Life

Richard Hofstadter was probably the greatest historian of the GI generation, although his early death from leukemia in 1970, at the age of 54, allowed Arthur Schlesinger to eclipse him in the public eye.  While he believed very deeply in the achievements of the New Deal, whose pragmatism he praised in his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Age of Reform, he always had a keen idea for the darker sides of the American character, having begun his career with another very interesting and timely book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915.  At the time of his death he was working on a grand scale history of the United States from colonial times to the present, and his widow published a few early chapters posthumously.  Recently I have returned to his second Pulitzer prize winner, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which appeared in that critical year of 1965.

Near the beginning of his book, Hofstadter distinguished between "intelligence," which Americans always praised, and "intellect," a quality that had come under attack from Republicans in the Eisenhower era--not, as his book aimed to show, for the first time.  "Intellect," he wrote, ". . .is the critical, creative and contemplative side of mind.  Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.  Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole."  Intellectuals, one might conclude, see issues in broad perspective, and not least in broad historical perspective, as Hofstadter constantly did and as I continually try to do here and elsewhere.

Tracing the ups and downs of intellectuals through the history of the American Republic, Hofstadter made many interesting findings.  He traced the roots of American intellectualism to New England Calvinism, whose early American adherents spent their Sundays listening to erudite sermons in church and discussing scripture at home.  He found in the early republic an association between intellectualism and class, and he found a turning point in history in 1828, when the quite anti-intellectual Jacksonians drove John Quincy Adams, one of our most intellectual presidents, out of office.  The Jacksonians, from the president on down, specifically argued that wisdom and virtue resided among the people, not the educated elite, and it is no accident therefore that Jackson is one of Donald Trump's favorite Presidents.  The conflict between intellectuals and "real Americans" became more explicit after the Civil War, when orthodox Republican politicians tried to hold the line against civil service reformers, who wanted to introduce competitive examinations to staff federal, state and local governments.  It was the spirit of civil service reform that triumphed, of course, in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, and that helped create the America of Hofstadter's young adulthood, into which I was born.

Before taking the struggle further, I would like to introduce--or, really, re-introduce--another perspective on these issues into the discussion. It comes from another of my favorite historians, Henry Adams, and I already discussed it here at some length back in 2005.  I quote from that earlier post:

"Specifically, I re-opened the Presidential address which he mailed to the American Historical Association in 1894 from the South Seas, entitled 'The Tendency of History.' . . .Adams referred also to Darwin's influence, and suggested that history in the last 35 years or so had been trying to turn itself into a science. Within fifty years, he speculated, historians would probably attain this goal, and lay out the immutable laws which history was destined to follow--and he could imagine only three conclusions that the new science might reach. 

"First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude 'that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years,' but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove 'that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion,' but in that case, the science would commit suicide.

"Adams's formulation of the problem showed the clear influence of Social Darwinism, since he assumed that one of these three possible conclusions must triumph. That, we can see now, was a mistake. In fact, these three world views--which might be described as the Utopian, the stoic, and the religious--have been at war for the whole of western recorded history. What is emerging now is that the struggle is not over, and the outcomes which we believed to be final can easily be overturned."

Nearly a decade and a half have passed since I wrote those words, and new evidence has accumulated.  We can now, it seems to me, be a little more definite about what has happened in the more than half a century since Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

At the time Hofstadter was writing, it seems to me, one version of Adams' socialist, or Utopian, vision, had triumphed.  That is not to say that the United States in 1965 was a socialist nation--it was not--but rather to recognize that there was a consensus around the idea that the health and happiness of individuals could not be separated from that of their fellow citizens, and that our society and government were common enterprises working for the good of us all.  Only such a view would allow for the 91% marginal tax rates that had been levied on very rich Americans for several decades (but which, signally, had just been reduced to about 70% in 1964).  That view also held, critically, that a healthy economy was one in which working class standards of living were rising, and that the maintenance of full employment and strong economic growth was the duty of the federal government.  Those views had spread throughout the advanced West in the wake of the Second World War, and the official views of the Communist world also stressed that individuals only progressed within a social and economic framework--as it happened, a much more constricting one.  The nation's journalists and universities included a few dissenters such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Milton Friedman (whom my Economics 1 section man dismissed in 1966 as a crank), but Goldwater's defeat had shown that the vast majority of the American people felt otherwise.

Now it will have undoubtedly occurred to many reasons that anti-intellectualism is running rampant in the United States once again now, and that it includes a widespread disregard for the idea of objective truth and even for science.  Indeed, one of Adams's alternative views--the religious one--has made a very impressive comeback in our politics since Hofstadter, to the extent that prominent Republicans pay at least lip service to various aspects of it as a matter of course.  I would argue that that anti-intellectualism has grown principally as a reaction to the mid-century triumph of the idea of the common good which I described above, driven by the desire of wealthy people to increase their wealth regardless of the consequences for others.  The biggest problem that they have faced is this: the mid-century economists were right.  A relatively egalitarian economy such as we enjoyed then is better for us all, resting on firmer foundations, providing a broader tax base for public goods, and fueling consumer demand, the most powerful engine of economic growth.  But because wealthy Americans such as the Koch brothers did not want such an economy, they have had to argue the opposite. 

The irony is that with rare exceptions--those who are willing to confess their love for Ayn Rand--the super rich and their publicists and advocates do not like to challenge the mid-century orthodoxy head on and to proclaim pure social Darwinism, and survival of the economic fittest.  That is the source of intellectual deformities like supply side economics, which had to argue (and still does, through the mouth of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin) that tax cuts can pay for themselves through increased economic growth and revenue.  That is why nearly the whole economic profession began to argue that deregulation would increase everyone's wealth and that markets, not the SEC, would rein in speculative excesses.  All these authors were using their intelligence (in Hofstadter's sense, above) to promote the greed of the powerful.  The Koch brothers, as Jane Mayer showed, have also created their own beachheads within George Mason University and other institutions of higher learning, designed to turn out academic products that will support their views.  And this is also the reason for the whole industry of climate denial.

And meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, we have seen an equally strong revolt against mid-century America, one that began, I think, at Berkeley in 1964, when student leader Mario Savio drew applause by arguing that Berkeley undergraduates--who were enjoying perhaps the best higher education ever provided in the history of the world, free of charge--could be compared to black sharecroppers in Mississippi, among whom he had worked the preceding summer, because they were each, in their own way, cogs in a corrupt machine.  That led to the premise that what really defined mid-century America were racism, sexism, and homophobia, and to the corollary that the feelings of repressed groups, rather than any objective truths, must be the foundation of educational and public policy.  My own profession has tried to rewrite the history of the whole world according to those premises over the last few decades--and that is a new form of anti-intellectualism, one that begins with emotionally based conclusions and tries to make the facts fit them.  I am coming to think, actually, that the roots of these views are in their own way religious, but that must be a subject for another time.

Let me return to my comments on Henry Adams' presidential address, above, and particularly my conclusion.  What he called the socialist, the religious, and the stoic views of history will always be in competition, and any apparent triumph of any one of them will always turn out to be illusory, because they appeal to different aspects of human nature.  So do individualism on the one hand and respect for the common good on the other.  And the last, but hardly the least, critical influence on history is the generational dynamic which impels certain generations to reject the world they grow up in, regardless of how much of an advance it might represent, measured against the scale of human history.  It is our misfortune to live in a time when many things--including intellectual life--are going badly, but we must always remember, as I tried to do at the end of American Tragedy, that every era is only one part of a much larger cycle, and that the same mechanisms that have undone so much good work in the the last 50 years will, in some future time which we cannot imagine, move things back in the other direction once again.


JRW said...

Your last paragraph, especially the last sentence leaves some hope. But how do you know with certainty that there isn't a tipping point where democracy is so thoroughly defeated that your inevitable swing back won't be able to occur. This is hard problem to even try to figure out or evaluate. One may argue that "hard sciences", climate science for example is complex and some parts are super sensitive to the initial conditions, but there are ways to find a most likely outcome and there is paleohistory to look back way into the past. In history it appears to me there is more belief necessary. A thesis of recurring events - say every 80 years for the past 3 cycles is interesting, but is not really predictive to me when the events or social issues and they way they can be expressed (some sort of democracy) are changing in still unknown ways.

Bozon said...

Very interesting post. I wish I could recall details of Anti Intellectualism in American Life, but it has been very much too long now in the past.

Hofstadter's two books you refer to, interestingly enough, represent as it were dual threads of Enlightenment thought, both suggesting the efficacy of the idea of progress.

Much more here, but comments should be brief I think.

All the best

Ed Boyle said...

I recall the part of generations, textbook similar, where they described generational stereotypical behavior. The hero generation were rationalists. The othr generations were very emotional in various directions, xers are cynics, booomers optimistic, silent withdrawn. GIs experienced war and felt all emotional ups and downs so they can't be fooled and this on a national scale not like with Vietnam war. 5% of population who swung election were from people in swing states who supplied body bags. They wanted serious change, no BS. Unfortunately their protest vote did little. War experience lets people stare into personal abyss. Otherwise humans live in a personal fantasy of own making. This is why I believe America, UKas a whole are most gung ho for war, Russia least, Europe moderate, due to comparative war damage. This is pure logic, science. Stimulus, response, pavlov's dogs type of thing, burn kid's fingers on hot stove.

My generation as cynics was reaction to boomer overoptimism trying out taboos. We however benefited from new lifestyles discovered boldly by them. The reaction however by the right was just as hard. Reagan and co. saw that freedom sexually, drug use, minority crime was evil, irrational, sinful and wanted to reverse FDR, civil right, as 'punishment' on own kids and their followers to return to 50s paradise that WWII enabled.

Irreality is a family thing. Each family member picks his own so long as economic basis allows point of view to exist. I say world is flat, you say sun spots cause global warming. As long as my peer group likes this and my broader reality is untouched it is not important. Crisis experience, four horseman, sharpens the mind. The plague brought renaissance. Pax Americana was brought by Tojo, Hitler. Trump and Bolton may bring Pax Putin. He seems excessively cutious rationalist if there ever was one. All the nonsense people pout nowadays is because basic experience is not deep enough or coorrelated with each other. A common long tragedy is needed for so-called 'common sense'to prevail. Say that a huge iceberg suddenly breaks off, causes coastal swamping, destroys global coasts without warni g, kills millions, destroys economies or sun burst fries grids, crashes civilization for years. Shock for a week for one area in a cuntry is not enough. WWI changed European techno optimism forever. WWII replaced gra vity of power. Next crisis will shift power again but where, how? America is over self confident, unrealistic, over indebted. Looks bad, pride before the fall. Trump is runing headlong into the wall, egged on by xers, boomers in press, etc. Why doubt own self made reality on drugs till car crashes?