Sunday, August 06, 2006

the Anti-Intellectualism of the Right

These are confusing times. There is willful manipulation of labels and words in an all-out, concerted attempt to either give them new meanings and associations not implied by their definitions or to rid them of the same...all in an effort to rally political support. At times we are hard-pressed to find any meaningful discourse amidst the sensationalism and side-stepping of real issues by the mainstream media.

Examples of this abound such as references to "liberal elite" despite the party most aligned with progressive ideals being out of power in all 3 branches of federal government. The reality is that the elite in our country are anything except liberal but this obvious, unavoidable fact does not deter many from promoting the unreality.

This brings to mind an excerpt from one of Ron Suskinds more prolific reviews on the Bush presidency titled Without a Doubt:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's
displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

In recent years there has been a movement that might best be classified as anti-intellectual, rejecting on moral grounds, a great deal of scientific and fact. Stem cells, evolution, and a great deal of sound scientific knowledge on the environment. As with efforts to reinforce mis-preceptions via semantic distortions (often leveraged in support of certain anti-intellectual agenda) the stakes are raised when outright misinformation and distortions are employed.

One doesn't need to do much research (though more reasearch certainly exposes lies and distortions) at all to understand the politics involved. A few icons of the religious right and hired corporate experts are standing in opposition to the best science that our culture has to offer. The whole of academia, consisting of those in our society who have dedicated their lives to finding truth in our physical world have been dismissed as fruitcakes. So there are clear choices and we must make them:

· The likes of Falwell and Robertson or the findings of our most esteemed and knowledgeable academics?
· The unanimous findings of the entire worlds climatolgists or the claims of a couple of dubiously credentialed hired-guns bought and paid for by corporate energy interests?
· Those in power who would enact into policy, as political payoff, laws that assuage the worst fundamentalist fears and paranoia of the right or men and women of reason who embrace modernity?
· The equivalent of the US Taliban or Progressives?

There is a naive, unexamined, and voluptious assurance in the image of conservatism as an ideology that upholds all that is good and decent but even that is not an accurate definition. The reality of the practice of conservatism is altogether different but this is what we get as a nation as long as we let the likes of Ann Coulter and Karl Rove (hardly respected thinkers of our day) define our choices for us. Conservatism, at its core, upholds traditional ideals and favors gradual change yet we now see the most fundamental traditions and tenets of our founding fathers being questioned by those who call themselves conservatives. Sparing you the litany of examples, the separation of church and state is the most noteworthy.

What used to be the fringe, lunatic right is now mainstream conservatism. Almost daily, Republican talking points emanate from notable politicians, icons and pundits that question the core values and principles our country was founded upon in attempts to redfine the well-known intent of our "founding fathers"....yet again, clear proof that the "reality" of the right is anything that its most extreme constituents would like it to be.

Having been raised Christian and college-educated I personally find no contradiction between religion and science or for that matter that the behavior of stem cells or sub-atomic particles are not all part of the magnificent creation that is our universe.

Perhaps your background or perspective is different but surely most can understand why someone with similar beliefs might question whether the fundamentalist streak in our culture is not something altogether different than what it purports to be. Maybe it is just a host of irrational fears wrapped in religious icons. This conclusion is even further reinforced when one examines the entire spectrum of religious thought in our country. Quite simply, the fact is that fundamentalists do not "own" religion. Quite often they usurp it in order to reinforce a host of irrational fears and beliefs having very little to do with the message of Christ.

I came across a review of a book that I'm considering purchasing. I was impressed by the way the themes mentioned above are nothing new. Anti-intellectualism has reared its ugly head in the past and the collision of ideals inherent in the way it both arose and subsided might well shed some light into what we can expect in this latest reincarnation.

The review is by Sam Tanenhaus, editor of NYTimes Book Review. The book is Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography by David S. Brown. Tanenhaus refers to Hofstader as postwar liberalism's exemplary intellectual. Hofstadter (1916-1970) considered himself largely an essayist rather than a historian but that does not make his writing any less compelling, among them two Pulitzer Prize winners. Lest those of the extreme right make Hofstadter out to be extreme it should be noted that he railed against some so-called progressive writings by historians of his day depicting framers of the Constitution as oligarchs intent on securing their financial interests.
A brief survey of his most notable writing offers a glimpse into what he considered to be the most pressing issues of his time and seem no less relevant today:

· Social Darwinism in American Political Thought
· The American Political Tradition
· The Age of Reform
· Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Tanenhaus cites an interesting alternate context offered by Hofstadter that challenged the influence of what he termed "conflict history". Tanenhaus writes in his review of Brown's book on Hofstadter, regarding Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition:

Hofstadter wrote a brief introduction that challenged the precepts of “conflict history” :

advanced by the progressive historians, many of them Midwesterners steeped
in the romance of the frontier. In narratives pitting “the people” against “the
interests,” they had dramatized what they saw as the tensions between the
forward-looking Western ethos and the settled prejudices of the East.

To Hofstadter this dynamic evaded the larger truth that “almost the entire
span of American history under the present Constitution has coincided with the
rise and spread of modern industrial capitalism,” with the result that just
about everyone, all across the political spectrum, and up and down the economic
ladder, joined the contest for riches. Even the most divisive conflicts unfolded
within this “common climate of American opinion,” shaped by a universal “belief
in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value
of competition.”

There are always unquestioned assumptions in our culture and there are always insights attained at either the personal or national levels through introspection, history, and a good look in the mirror. Any fuller understanding of America and how the rest of the world perceives us relies upon understanding just what our assumptions are and how we might be different from those in other cultures.

Hofstadter considered American politics to be a continual eruption of hostility, grievances, resentments and anxieties. Anti-Intellectuallism in American Politics is characterized as a "wide-ranging meditiation on Philistinism in American religionism, politics, business and education." (def of philistinism , a good word, applicable to present times).

In the Age of Reform Hofstadter characterized turn of the century reform movements -- rural populism and urban progressivism as :

...retreats from modernism, retrograde protests on the part of those “bypassed
and humiliated by the advance of industrialism.” What appeared to be
forward-looking programs were in reality rear-guard campaigns to restore
America to the “sacred” conditions of its rural infancy, when it had been “a
homogeneous Yankee civilization.”

Among the majority of issues distracting us from the ones directly relating to survival of mankind (i.e. war and the environment), it does seems curious when issues of separation of church and state and reproductive rights are being argued solely on the basis of religious dogma. In reality, Christianity is largely the religion of this "homogeneous Yankee civilization."

As with a lot of the governmental re-engineering of the 60's and earlier, Hofstadter was wary when thinkers worked in concert with doers. That seems fair-minded enough and no doubt if Hofstadter was alive today the emergence of so-called, off-the-beaten-path Neo-Con "thinkers" such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle would be equally disturbing.

The book describes Hofstadter as an anatomist of the materialist tradition and one who explored in a systematic way the "sociological penumbraof political life." Tanenhaus refers to this as "the murky substratum fo desires and impulses that underlay the surface pageantry of American politics." Hofstadter, among others "attempted to decode the signals sent by right-wing anti-Communists as they inveighed against the dangers of global Communism but opposed efforts, including the Marshall Plan, to shore up vulnerable European democracies." Hofstadter was impressed by a 1950 survey of contemporary American attitudes titled "The Authoritarian Personality" and attempted to uncover the hidden sources of McCarthyism.

From the Tanenhaus review:

McCarthyism, Hofstadter argued, was best understood not as a political
movement but as a cultural phenomenon. In what would become his most famous
formulation, he identified two distinct types of political protest. In dire
economic times, for instance the depressions of the 1890’s and the 1930’s, the
dispossessed banded together “to reform the inequities in our economic and
social system.” This was an example of “interest politics.” But in times of
prosperity, when social mobility increased and “the rootlessness and
heterogeneity of American life” left many behind, the losers indulged in a
different kind of protest, fixated on the search for scapegoats. This was
“status politics.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Much of this seems as relevant today as it has ever been.

Hofstadter was distressed at the defeat of Adlai Stevenson at the hands to Dwight Eisenhower, consodering it a defeat of American intellectuals and intellectualism itself. Tanenhaus describes:

The election also marked a striking transformation in Hofstadter’s
interpretations of the American past. The mordant anatomist of the materialist
tradition now set off on a new quest: to make sense of the nation’s recurrent
outbreaks of irrationality and illiberalism — the “periodical psychic sprees
that purport to be moral crusades,” the “revolt against modernity,” the
“paranoid style in American politics.”

Regarding the outbreak of moral crusades, Tanenhaus, citing Brown citing Hostadter (convoluted, I know...) writes:

In the boom years of the 1920’s, for instance, millions of small-town and
rural “native stock” Americans, alarmed by the ascendancy of the country’s
pluralistic urban culture, had embraced the organized bigotry of the Ku Klux
Klan and flocked to the punitive crusades of anti-evolutionism and Prohibition.
The pattern was being repeated in the 1950’s, also a boom period, only now it
was a curious alliance of upwardly mobile white ethnics (many of them Catholics)
and downwardly sinking displaced WASPs, who looked to secure their status as
authentic Americans by converging upon “liberals, critics and nonconformists of
various sorts, as well as Communists and suspected Communists.”

For those who would like to read the review here is a link. It might requires paid access to NYTimes site:

For those interested in the book, click on this title for the Amazon page, replete with more reviews etc:

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography by David S. Brown

I agree with much of the content of the review. Today it is as evident as ever that all in politics in public discourse are not all they pretend to be. There are hidden agenda, mis-directions, and political play for support that is often cloaked as something other than what it is. A great deal of the review, and presumably the book, resonate with and gives credence to the hypothesis that much of the current "status politics" we observe almost daily, though purporting to be value-based, might well emanate not from religion but from a sordid collection of fears...of loss, of change, of multi-culturalism and religious pluralism.

I plan to purchase the book where it will occupy position #10 in the queue on my nightstand.


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