Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The low-information style in Hofstadter commentary

Since I dislike the intellectual poses of the Right-Thinking sorts, I have a natural sympathy for much of this essay on liberal smugness by Emmett Rensin.  Not all liberals are smug (and I don't disagree with all liberals) but I hate the happy-shiny smug liberal cool kids.  So I was primed to like this essay, and there's a lot to like.  For instance, this, on the denial that value judgments are real:
The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style's first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from "imposing their morals" like the bad guys do.
Since "is/ought" has been a recent interest of this blog, I approve!

Then they had to go and put this in:
The smug style has always existed in American liberalism, but it wasn't always so totalizing. Lionel Trilling claimed, as far back as 1950, that liberalism "is not only the dominant, but even the sole intellectual tradition," that "the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse ... do not express themselves in ideas, but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."
Richard Hofstadter, the historian whose most famous work, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, this essay exists in some obvious reference to, advanced a similar line in writing not so well-remembered today. His then-influential history writing drips with disdain for rubes who regard themselves as victimized by economics and history, who have failed to maintain correct political attitudes.
Hofstadter's writing does contain considerable disdain for right-wing populism of many sorts.  If the only thing you've ever read by Hofstadter is The Paranoid Style in American Politics then it would be easy to read him as being part of the smug left.  However, if you read Anti-Intellectualism in American Life you'll see that he aimed far more fire at progressive educational ideas (most of them coming from lefty egalitarian impulses) than he ever aimed at conservatives and rubes.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a leftist who's more favorable toward the religion of the Puritans.

It is a hallmark of the Right-Thinking smug types (whom Rensin rightly derides) that they've all read exactly one work by Hofstadter, and it's The Paranoid Style in American Politics.  Unfortunately, Rensin has also read only one work by Hofstadter.  If you read a wider swath of his work you'll see that he's hardly convinced of the rightness of one "side" in our culture war.

1 comment:

doctorem said...

I'm feeling pretty smug right now because I've never read any Hofstadter.