Republishing: Introduction to Hofstadter
Originally published in early 2012, this essay feels relevant to some of the things I want to say now, in 2018
Inspired by essayists of various stripes since Michel de Montaigne, most recently Dan Conley, who spent the beginning of 2011 writing an essay a day based on the writings of the Seigneur of Montaigne, I have chosen to publish my thoughts similarly. I will be writing an essay for each chapter of Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life". I do not flatter myself to suggest that my writing is as clean or as elegant as Conley's, or that I have the wherewithal to publish an essay per day, but new posts shall happen as frequently as I can manage. In chapter 1, Hofstadter introduces his topic with several "recent" examples of anti-intellectualism and then wipes them away with assurances that now, NOW that Kennedy is in office and welcomes experts and scholars to the White House again; now, NOW that the USSR has launched Sputnik and started the space race - NOW intellectuals are finally a welcome and respected segment of American society.
Even with his assurances, there are still warning signs. Education reform in the 1960s may have made inroads into the life adjustment education of the late 40s and 50s, but rhetoric suggested that rather than educating high-achieving children into thinkers who could carry forward the ideas necessary to round out the century, he says it
almost suggested that gifted children were to be regarded as resources in the cold war.
Anti-intellectualism is, as Hofstadter notes, a long-standing American tradition, stemming from pre-Revolutionary culture in some parts of the country, and as such, will never be completely gone from our society. However, current events create a cycle of anti-intellectualism and respect for expertise that weaves in and out of our history in interesting ways.
By the way, I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Of interesting note is the 1952 presidential race, between Eisenhower/Nixon on the Republican ticket and Stevenson/Sparkman on the Democratic. This race pitted a smart, witty, Princeton educated Stevenson against war-hero Eisenhower, educated at West Point and the US Naval Academy. There are many parallels between the race of 1952 and that of 2008, with one large difference: in 2008, the Ivy-educated candidate won over the war hero.
This difference will go down in history as being largely due to the recent history in both cases; in 1952, after 12 years of FDR and 4 years under Truman - 16 years of Democratic leadership in the White House - the country was ready for a change. Hoover, FDR, and Truman all brought experts into the White House, advising on public works, government efficiency, and economic and military policy. By contrast, the key issues in 1952 - the cold war and the war in Korea, the rooting out of Soviet spies and the Red Scare - combined with Eisenhower's popularity as a war hero landed him in the White House with an overwhelming popular and electoral majority. In a country where the key issues were largely military, a former 5-star General was the expert people were looking for.
By contrast, in 2008, the country had just lived through 8 years of Republican rule, following 8 years of very moderate Democrat rule, which itself followed 12 years of Republican rule - all in all, a very long conservative trend, and marking the shift between the old-style conservative party and the new. In addition, the most immediate previous administration shunned intellectualism and expertise both, demonstrating the new conservative's model of denying scientific fact in favor of rhetoric. As Charles Pierce writes, "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it."
Key issues in the 2008 election were foreign policy, the Middle East in particular, the economic recession, and a nagging question of whether or not the U.S. government had sanctioned torture and if so, what should be done about it. After winning the election by a narrow margin, Obama has filled his cabinet and staff with people chosen for their competence, not necessarily their political convenience.
Whether or not we are seeing the cyclical nature of anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter commented on remains to be seen; the Republican party is divided between the old style conservative, which had a use and appreciation for the right kinds of experts, and the new-style, which eschews expertise, as many past generations have done, as being undemocratic. We are currently in an upswing in the role of public intellectuals, but the growth of the mass media even since Hofstadter's time creates enough noise to easily drown them out.
How to play along
Because safety is a core value for me, I am asking that comments in this space avoid all the ugly things: shame, blame, judgement. I am asking that disagreement and discussion be polite, respectful, generous, and open to vulnerability.
Because community is healthy behavior, I welcome you to comment, to share your thoughts and responses and discuss this with empathy with me and with each other.