Makes You Think, Don't It?

Another reminder that the miraculous thing about Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is that Hofstadter kept it to one volume.:

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets -- how do they work?
And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed....

This sort of thing is almost beyond parody. But not quite, thank heaven:

How did God even think up dirt?
Erasable pens make my head hurt...
Yo, how do suitcases always know where to meet you, huh?


April 23, 2010 1:00 PM | | Comments (18)



That's pretty much it, yeah. I've been shocked at the number of generally rational and liberal bloggers who've found it necessary to share the LCP thing.

That bit you quote just brought the whole thing to a screeching halt for me. (Yes, I watched the whole thing, but the valence changed, to use a scientific metaphor).

I read somewhere that ICP is furious that Eminem knows how magnet work.

I really think that Hofstadter, Bell, Schlesinger, et al put the Democrats on the wrong track. During FDR's best years he had support from progressive and populist types who did movement politics. The right populists were mostly isolationists, and the left populists and radicals were purged in 1948, so after that there were only Cold War liberals, machine Democrats, and Southern Democrats.

At this point the Democratic Party had redefined itself in organizational, anti-popular, administrative, corporate, technocratic liberal terms, dumping all the radicals, progressives, and populists. This worked for 20 years and then look what we got.

A big formerly-Democratic demographic was given the choice between the Republican Party, paranoia, and disaffiliation. The disaffiliated ones are the biggest loss.

And Hofstadter's three books did the dirty work. By now "populist" is a code word for "stupid racist". In 1969 or so Gellner admitted that the word had not clear meaning. According to Laclau, 30+ years later the word still has no definite meaning, but it's used freely to mean a hodgepodge of bad things.

In a way, a populist is the opposite of a social scientist, because populism assumes that people can understand their own lives, sometimes, whereas social science assumes that they never can, and that folk knowledge should just be ignored.

I hold no brief for Hofstadter's interpretation of the People's Party, which involves distortions. At the same time, there is no getting around the fact that when I first read "The Paranoid Style," about 25 years ago, it was with a shock of recognition. His descriptions of a certain kind of populist mentality fit the stuff that I was exposed to pretty much continuously while growing up in the American South.

If "populist" now means "stupid racist" there is a pretty good reason for that, and it has relatively little to do with Daniel Bell or snooty elites. And I say that as somebody who has always thought that "What's the Matter With Kansas?" trips over its inability to deal with the reality that yes, after all, most Coastal liberals do think everybody in between is a hayseed, at best.

If the day comes when there is an American populist movement of the sort that originally existed -- one that tried to bring poor white and white farmers together, and that regarded knowledge as something working people had a right to gain, rather than as a plot against them -- then okay, the word might be useful again.

But if you want to blame somebody, go after Tom Watson. Nothing ever done by Hofstadter or Bell counts for a fraction of the damage he did.

Meanwhile, it makes more sense to get behind a slogan like "Make the rich pay! Fix the banks by taxing the wealthy to death!" or something, rather than "Down with consensus history and its pernicious ideological effects!"

Or be willing to say, "Obama isn't a socialist -- I am. And you shouldn't believe what professional liars say about what that means."

No offense, Scott, but a couple doofuses rapping in clown make-up don't exactly validate Hofstadter. I personally detest that particular work (and some others of his, actually). I don't even think the on-going presence of Sarah Palin in our national life validates Hofstadter. All it does validate is Lincoln's quip about the ability to fool people. ICP, as far as I know, really doesn't fool too many people; even Palin's star has faded to the point where the only ones who pay attention to her are right-wing journalists and pundits and left-wing bloggers. Just because a couple stupid people parade their ignorance for all the world to see doesn't mean that Hofstadter was right. It just means some stupid people shout louder than some others.

They are a symptom. They are proud of being ignorant and make a point of dissing scientists for lying about knowing how magnets work. This is not a personal quirk, or at least it is not *just* one, and the problem is not simply that the stupid need to boost their self-esteem by any means necessary, even yelling.

If people want to speak up on behalf of the great counter-tradition of plebian intellectual seriousness -- Clarence Darrow, workers' study circles, the Little Blue Books, etc. -- then I am more than happy to continue beyond a discussion of the limits of Hofstadter. But I can't take seriously the idea that he's the real problem.

Magnets are pretty frigging amazing. But so is the reality that scientists do, like, know stuff about them.

Thanks for the heads up on that, Scott. I expect to someday hear lines from the ICP vid quoted verbatim to me in lieu of argument. It's good to hear them ahead of time so I have a quicker response.

All in all, the vid's pretty harmless, a symptom as you say, not as bad as organized movements such as the creationists, but pretty annoying all the same.

I have to admit to finding the video itself kind of enjoyable -- though probably that has something to do with having now seen the parody, which is perfect in its way.

"A different horse...Two horses!"

Radicals were purged along with populists. My area in Minnesota was a radical populist area and they were purged in 1948. There's also a north-south difference, and my populists were anti-racist. (Humphrey had to do all that stuff in 1948 in order to convince the Minnesota left that he wasn't a normal Democrat).

Right now the whole Democratic Party hierarchy staff and a big chunk of the voters are Hofstadterians, and the Democratic Party has proven totally unwilling either to do what needs to be done or to take the issue to the people. Part of that is money from finance, but when I talk to people at Yglesias, etc., for almost everyone there any trace of populism is forbidden and the later Tom Watson is the only populist there ever was. (DeLong has picked up an oppositional following, but there are plenty of thme there too.)

Furthermore, Hofstadter, Schlesinger, et al also pushed to idea that big business is really OK, the bigger the better, and that there's no conflict between the common man and big money. Hofstadter despised even Truman for his occasional populist language.

Clarence Darrow was a Populist, William Jennings Bryan was not, and the racist was H L Mencken. HSort correction of "Inherit the Wind".

Back to the main point: Democrats also consistently misundertand what they're facing. Teapartiers are more educated than the average American, not less, and more prosperous. The Democrats' best demographic is the least educated (yes, black people count). Advanced degrees come second. Bachelors degrees are the worst.

I'd be surprised if one denizen of the liberal blogs in a thousand has heard of Tom Watson.

Hofstadter is probably the single most popular writer about American political history. People today are naturally anti-populist and anti-radical, and the anti-populist part can be traced back to Hofstadter.

I've pretty much given up the game and am trying to quit, so I shouldn't even be writing these things, but one of the things that made me quit was the reflexive and unthought anti-populism of almost all educated Democrats (and besides controlling the party, educated Democrats are a substantial voting demographic.)

George Wallace has at least as much to do with that as Richard Hofstadter, to put it mildly.

I consider myself a left-leaning populist. I have felt vindicated in those beliefs during the previous two national elections, and look forward to being so this fall.

Part of the phenomenon you describe, Scott, that "shock of recognition", I understand from my five years in Virginia (I realize it isn't growing up somewhere; it still haunts me, though). Yet, isn't that also part and parcel of the way the ruling class has always operated, divide and conquer? It doesn't help that pig-ignorance seems to know no political ideology, nor that being educated is a defense against really stupid ideas. Nor does the phony elitism of the coasts - I agree, again, a real phenomenon - help.

How do you account for, say, the even greater success of Tool, perhaps the most literate heavy metal band I, for one, have ever encountered, as compared to the ridiculous stupidity of ICP? Or the popularity, in the midst of the Republican peak in the 1990's, of the Marxism of Rage Against the Machine? Or the interesting work of They Might Be Giants?

I would be the last to suggest that truly dumb stuff working under the name of populism exists. And that's not limited to Sarah Palin's constant invocation of "real Americans" and all the rest. Reading Lasch, for example, on the Boston busing riots, and his refusal to acknowledge the centrality of race, really bugged me (and Lasch is one of my favorite writers!).

This kind of resonates with the discussion of progressives and their links to eugenics going on at Crooked Timber. How far do current real populists - as I define it, those who trust in agitation from below (unions, organic political movements) that are rooted in the desire for accountability in defense of a better society - have to own that the term has connotations and even denotations that are abhorrent?

Irony alert? word verification is "Yahweh the"

"How do you account for, say, the even greater success of Tool, perhaps the most literate heavy metal band I, for one, have ever encountered, as compared to the ridiculous stupidity of ICP? Or the popularity, in the midst of the Republican peak in the 1990's, of the Marxism of Rage Against the Machine?"

I really don't understand how this works as a counter-argument. The existence of smart popular culture doesn't gainsay the fact that proud-to-be-stupid is one powerful and well-established manner of self-constitution, with roots that are very deep. John Brown and the IWW existed. That doesn't mean it's unreasonable to stress the fact that racism has been a predominant ideological factor in American history. (Since I'm all Deleuze-and-Guattari lately, I'll use their terms: one is molecular, the other molar.)

If contemporary American populist discourse consisted primarily of genuinely democratic, inclusive, class-solidarity building versions of politics-from-below, then I would be doing naught else here except bellowing in its defense. Unfortunately that is not the case. It really hasn't been in my lifetime.

Spending a lot of energy defending the word "populist" on the grounds that it had really admirable implications in 1896 won't change that.

I wish it would. In the early 1990s, I used to call myself a populist a lot. A left-wing guy from Latin America kind of shuddered when he heard me doing so -- for reasons I'll leave it to Google to explain, if that needs elucidating.* Discussing this would lead us into Laclau but that's something for a different venue, and another day.

* Actually on second thought Google might be misleading, since it tends to emphasize more recent versions (Chavez, Morales, etc.) of what gets called L.A. populism.

When the conversation I'm referring to took place, sometime during the first Bush's presidency, the term called to mind policies and movements in which charismatic leaders used nationalistic rhetoric to mobilize working-class support for a country's big business. Which of course is just totally the opposite of what we'd all prefer the word to mean. Funny how how that works.

Okay, I am now, seriously, done with writing about this for a long time.

I'm late to this party, but -- do you think people backed George Wallace because he was an anti-intellectual populist, or because he was the only populist in the race (once McGovern and RFK were gone)?

I think the latter. And further, I think that left-intellectuals learned the wrong lesson from George Wallace and Tom Watson (yes, I know who he is!). The lesson they learned was that populism is bad because it gives voice to anti-intellectual racists. They lesson they should have learned was that populism is a tool that can be used by anyone, for good or for ill. Wallace and Watson should have been a challenge to be better populists, not an excuse to abandon populism altogether. If people think George Wallace is a better populist than you, that doesn't mean people are stupid, it means George Wallace is better at acting the part of populism than you are, and you need to improve your skills.

I wouldn't disagree with that in principle, and if ideologies and rhetorical modes existed strictly at the level of principle things would be a lot simpler.

"If people think George Wallace is a better populist than you, that doesn't mean people are stupid, it means George Wallace is better at acting the part of populism than you are, and you need to improve your skills."

It may not mean they're "stupid" but it could well mean The People are more like George Wallace, on average, than you'd like to think; or certainly more like Wallace than "you" (a reader of Quick Study).

1. The Left (I feel) needs to re-think its Paternalistic Idealization of The People. The evidence is overwhelming. I say that as a life-long Lefter.

2. American Anti-Intellectualism is best viewed from a distance, in sharp focus; from over here it's astonishing because it never seems to stop scoring victories.

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