February 27 2017
Quote of the Day:
“Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk.” Those words might have been written last year, as an explanation for Donald Trump’s rise or a rejoinder to Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of “deplorables.”
--Reuven Brenner in this morning's Wall Street Journal
Despite the topicality, the speaker was Eric Hoffer, the "longshoreman philosopher," in the 1970s. In today's must-read, Reuven Brenner argues that Hoffer "eerily anticipated" both the tone of the 2016 presidential campaign and the hysteria afterwards.
In the 1970s, Hoffer already had noticed that members of the baby boom generation "act like the spoiled children of the rich.” Hoffer attributed this to the "ordeal of affluence," which created wealth for which the baby boomers had not themselves worked. This threatened what had been traditional views about work and it thus threatened social stability.
Hoffer further took note on the "phenomenal increase" in the student population. College and university enrollment tripled between 1958 and 1978. The combination of baby boomers who did not put a value on the work that people previously had relied upon and a larger number of people going to college changed society. Hoffer observed:
For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.
The problem for society is “that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone,” Hoffer wrote. “He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” The country continued to be plagued by problems “like race relations, violence, drugs.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”
No historian, political scientist or journalist of the past 60 years has predicted the current moment with such accuracy. Others should have. Behind Hoffer’s analysis is a view of history that dates to ancient Greece, especially to the historian Polybius. It’s a warning that affluence condemns younger generations to political decline unless institutional checks and balances, combined with education for civic responsibility, are rigorously preserved.
Whether the shock of the Trump election will yield a rebalancing or a further unsettling, time will tell.
In the less stratified America of 1970, the combination of Hoffer’s erudition and his aversion to elitism was not as unusual as it seems today. Even John F. Kennedy had been skeptical of intellectuals. Arthur Schlesinger noted that JFK had “considerable respect for the experience of businessmen,” which “gave them clues to the operations of the American economy which his intellectuals, for all their facile theories, did not possess.”
Hoffer concluded: “We must deflate the pretensions of self-appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dustbin of history.” Most surprising today may be where this sentiment appeared—in the pages of the New York Times.
I addressed the idea that the hysteria over the election may result from the rise of non-elites (and the anger of the elites at this audacity!) previously on the blog.