Saturday, September 26, 2009

But we would not on this account dream of classing Mencken with William F. Buckley

I was looking forward to reading Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life from 1962, because I've seen it quoted in many interesting places, but after a few pages I realize I already know what he's going to say. Half of his message, I predict, is a defense of knowledge and expertise, which I agree with. The other half is praise of aloof, high-brow intellectual culture, which I don't agree with.

His examples of 50's anti-intellectualism include McCarthyism, parents who want their children to enjoy themselves at school, and the fact that Eisenhower liked western novels. I can see why a mid-20th century intellectual would make that connection, and why he would be so impressed with the heavyweight thinkers of the Kennedy administration, but .. quite a lot has happened since.

I'm saying all this based on the 20 first pages of the book. So I could be completely wrong. It's just that .. this is all so familiar. It seems to represent an earlier step in a debate that has progressed a lot since. The debate interests me, but not in this outdated form.

It feels like a defense of a position, the authority of the Superior Expert, which seemed more secure then than now. Today you'd have to be more humble and cautious about it.

Again, this is a first impression, but with 19 unread books in the queue, that's how I decide what to read.

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