The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


RIchard Hofstadter is one of the most important American historians of the past fifty years. THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS and especially ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE are his best-known works, and I finally (in my belated program to autodidacticize myself into an American Studies M.A.) got around to reading ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. It's not eye-opening in any way; it doesn't take a genius historian to argue that American culture and society have strong, and frequently dominant, strains of anti-intellectualism, and although it was the Eisenhower-Adlai Stevenson race that provided Hofstadter's contemporary example of anti-intellectualism in politics it's pretty easy to lay Kerry-Bush or Gore-Bush on top of that without really having to change anything. Hofstadter's book is remarkable for its easy way with a broad spectrum of American life. It shows great familiarity with the Puritan clergy, with Dewey's education theories and their implementation, with the Jacksonian revolution in American politics. I realize that he must have had a small army of research assistants, but even at that, even if he's just the orchestrator, he put together a pretty seamless book. It's one of those books where I feel like I didn't have my mind changed in any way--I certainly believe that anti-intellectualism is powerful in American life, is dominant today and has been through most of our history, and I also could have provided the broad outlines of anti-intellectualism in evangelical religion, populist politics, and American public education--but I feel like Hofstadter's book is so well-researched, so exhaustive and comprehensive, that I do feel like I've learned a great deal even though I still know what I knew before (if that makes any sense).

No historic trend, such as anti-intellectualism, is ever completely dominant, and it's important to see it today as a rhetorical device meant to appeal to the American polity. Now, I have no doubts that George W is an anti-intellectual, that all of his "I don't read" self-presentation is actually true, but it's just as true that he's populated his administration with a bunch of intellectuals, pretentious Ivy Leaguers and U. Chicago types like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, and the like. Bush is no Huey Long, and couldn't have gotten where he is if he was.

Hofstadter's views on American anti-intellectualism--his clear, well-reasoned, and utterly sensible explanation of its history and contemporary manifestations--are frequently cited today. In one example, Todd Gitlin, one of the most important of today's links between the New York Intellectuals, the 1960s New Left, and leftists of today, wrote an article in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION just after W was elected in 2000, predictably if accurately seeing Bush's election as confirmation of the continuing validity of Hofstadter's ideas. And it's not just his ideas on anti-intellectualism that keep his name coming up in the conversation. In fact, his insights on the "paranoid style" of American politics are probably even more often brought up (the original 1864 article that led to the book is available here)--here's a article on the moronic "war on Christmas" canard that uses Hofstadter.

Anti-intellectualism, ironically (or perhaps not), is disturbingly powerful these days on university campuses. A University of Montana professor bemoans it here, and the WASHINGTON TIMES--the WASHINGTON TIMES!!! Rev. Moon's organ!--even sees anti-intellectualism in Harvard's recent ouster of Lawrence Summers from his post as president.


Post a Comment

<< Home