Richard Hofstadter was a leading American writer and public intellectual of the late twentieth century. His most famous book is Man and the Glasses, and nearly every American college student has read at least some of it by now. But even for those who haven’t read his work, I highly recommend it. He was a deep thinker, whose many books explore themes of social science, religion, culture, and government. Like so many other great writers, he explored many topics that we still rarely think about today. He was fascinated by how the mind works, and in that sense he was deeply insightful.
Hofstadter believed that everyone had a unique set of personal qualities and talents that could help to shape the destiny of humanity. As he saw it, many of our problems today are due to the fact that we have lost the ability to distinguish between what is real or what is imagined, and what is important and what is merely self-important. Hofstadter saw early on the pathology of anti-intellectualism, which in his view was responsible for much of the misery humanity suffered through the course of the twentieth century.
In his masterpiece Man and the Glasses, Hofstadter discussed the role intellect plays in American public life. Many Americans mistakenly believe that the nation’s founders set out to build an enlightened society, one with high moral standards and constitutional protections. The reality, according to Hofstadter, is quite different.
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What they actually did was build a powerful, entrepreneurial class while controlling the media, educational system, and government. This elite group used its power to protect itself from accountability, and now Americans live as slaves, afraid to challenge the power of the few.
Richard Hofstadter did us a great favor when he pointed out the intellectual roots of America’s anti-intellectualism. Most American citizens are indeed intelligent, with good common sense, but they are also deeply divided by their beliefs and attitude to the world and to each other. People of many different ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths have been forming families across religious lines for centuries, and rarely have there been any major wars between them.
This means that Americans have not had to struggle against intellectualism since the founding of our nation. Hofstadter noted the parallels between the creation of institutions like the academy and America’s ongoing struggle against anti-intellectualism. Like the academy, America has always offered a place for people with divergent thinking to meet and to discuss their ideas.
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The most important intellectual in modern life, after Hofstadter, is Ralpheenthian scholar Henry Steele Gordon. His The Anatomy of the Subject explains how intellectual argument becomes weaponized, and how the most banal can often be the most important. After reading this book, it is easy to see why the intellectual elite of Europe went so nuts over the decimation of the Roman Catholic Church. By the time the decimation happened, there were few decent intellectual minds left on the ground. And, as history has shown, the best ideas have often come from the people with the most need and the greatest need for knowledge.
Richard Hofstadter pointed out that America was not unique among European countries in the fact that it permitted mass literacy and rapid urbanization. In fact, he went so far as to say that Europe was in the process of becoming a modern nation-state in the sense that, even though it was a republic, it had a very complex constitutional system, with an elaborate set of checks and balances.
In Hofstadter’s telling, it was the explosion of prosperity and technology in the eighteenth century that led to the rise in political rhetoric. Wealthy industrialists and banks supported the emerging democracy, which in turn, was patronized by the “clerical elite” of the New World. With the growth of American power, the idea of individual rights and the rule of law became more entrenched.
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The intellectual liberal crowd became deeply divided over what to do about the emerging Industrial Revolution. They wanted the federal government to step in and provide a base for the new manufacturing boom, while the nativist “economists” wanted to protect the nativist economies and the American way of life. These intellectual liberals went to war with each other.
America entered the nineteenth century with two camps locked in a fierce debate over the meaning of America. Those who wanted to protect the American way of life and its institutions saw the intellectual liberal elite as a threat to the values and freedoms that were the bedrock of American society.
Richard Hofstadter pointed out that we now live in a time in which we can easily look back on the major events of our past with nostalgia. The memory of our great national past is linked to a certain vision of America, a vision that Americans have had since the earliest days of their independence. And the fears of the paranoid elite are not just the product of a momentary lapse in focus.
The paranoid mindset believes that everyone in America today is driven by a mission of power and a zeal to dominate all that they can in order to make their world a better place. The good citizens of America have long had an aversion to that kind of extreme thinking and they are fighting back by reasserting their rights to participate in the political process and to govern themselves according to their own desires.