Richard Hofstadter Saw This Coming


So I hit my limit recently with the Trumpies. It was an exchange on Facebook, which as a forum for political discourse, really ought to be better than it is. You can post data and graphs and all the tools of rational argument, and yet there I was playing chess with a chimp. They don’t care that your Queen is dominating the center of the board, they just want to fling shit in your general direction. And by shit I mean links to Breitbart and World News Daily. I’ll send an article by Joseph Stiglitz. They’ll respond with a clip of Alex Jones. Why? Because Chelsea Clinton has horns. How can I not know this?

I was discussing this wth Cate Kennedy the other night, the renown Australian author and colleague on the MFA faculty at Pacific, and we decided that argung with Trumpies was like:

– walking into doors

– punching yourself in the face

– baking a cake for a celiac

– talking to someone for 10 minutes before you realize they’re actually on another call

– putting money into a broken meter

 – getting a Royal Flush in poker, and just when you’re about to clean up, the other person puts their cards down and yells “SNAP!”

That last one was Cate’s. She’s a renown Australian author. I think that after this election, we’ll see in the Top Five Regrets of the Dying: “I spent too long debating with Trump supporters.”

Anyway – my limit. My Trumpie friend sent me a short YouTube video that argued that Trump wasn’t mocking that disabled reporter in that clip we’ve all seen a thousand times. Apparently that’s just how he moves his hands when he talks. I shit you not. In fact, it was the liberal media that took something innocent and distorted it into something malicious and hateful etc etc. Here’s the video if you’re interested.

This wasn’t just a difference of opinion. This was a form of contempt for the norms of argument, or even conversation. A denial of our common reality. One minute, we’re playing soccer, the next she’s picking up the ball, running to the car park and throwing it into the road – and pretending we’re still playing. There’s no attempt to use data and reason, all the tools of persuasion and debate. For this Trumpie, the tools themselves are defunct. The whole intellectual tradition of arriving at a point of view, it’s all for shit.

paranoid-style-3  anti-intellectualism-in-american-life  paranoid-style-1

The Nostradamus of American dumbfuckery, Richard Hofstadter, saw this shitshow coming fifty years ago. His classics are Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) for which he won his second Pulitzer, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and as a certain pumpkin faced dumbfuck might say, “he called it!”  In the last two decades on the right, we’ve seen an elevation of ignorance over expertise to such a degree that a lack of qualifications is considered the ultimate qualification – from George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, to Louie Gohmert, Steve King, Michele Bachmann and ultimately Trump. The bar keeps lowering from one mouthbreather to the next. They’re as confident as they are uninformed. They elevate gut over brain, feeling over fact. And, as Hofstadter writes, this tradition goes way back to the birth of this country, where a kind of primitivist myth was forged:

“America was settled by men and women who found the most striking thing on the American strand not in the rude social forms that were taking shape here, but in the world of nature and of savages. The escape from civilization to Arcadia, from Europe to nature, was perpetuated in repeated escapes from the East to the West, from the settled world to the frontier. Again and again the American mind turned fretfully against the encroachments of organized society which were felt to be an effort to reimpose what had been once thrown off.”

In the 20th century, intellectuals fell under particular suspicion. They’d gotten some big things wrong after all – liberal intellectuals had supported the USSR, denying its totalitarian tendencies. So there was a resurgence of this loathing for thinkers and experts that chimed with national myths – that America was a country of business, of practical professional men of action who lived off ideas, not for them. And that in comparison, the intellectual, writes Hofstadter, was “a self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot. An anemic bleeding heart.”

Joining the businessman on this cultural pedestal was the so-called “common man”. The uneducated but decent ordinary fellow who viewed these experts with resentment and loathing. “All of us are economists by necessity,” wrote Frank Chodorove, author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, “since all of us are engaged in making a living, which economics is all about.” And religion, as you’d expect, made things worse. Billy Graham would assail the universities: “you can stick a public school and university in the middle of every block of every city in America and you will never keep America from rotting morally by mere intellectual education.”

The heartland of America is where the culture of anti-intellectualism flourished. Inward looking, nativist, sheltered by geography and fundamentalist in faith, it was where the Republican party found its base after the Southern Strategy of the mid-60s.  In 1964 Barry Goldwater opposed civil rights, and overnight the south turned Republican, the north Democrat, and the party of big business and free markets was now pandering to the rural God-fearin’ “values voters” and stoking their resentment of the Ivy League elites. Cue Ted Cruz, a Princeton man with a Harvard Law background, palling around with Duck Dynasty.

Hofstadter’s summation of how intellectualism was crushed in this country is powerful stuff. Tell me this doesn’t explain how we became this Idiocracy nation, in which a man like Trump could triumph over a woman like Clinton.

“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the purely theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual is lost.”

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.