My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Bellicosity Curve

In 1943 multiple Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote the book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life which traced social movements that altered the role of intellect in American society. In it he argued, with extreme success, that anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism were functions of American cultural heritage, born out of our colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage, and now embedded within our national fabric. He identified the major causes of anti-intellectualism in society as mediocrity in the public schools, and attacks on academic freedom in the universities and a press divided into niche markets.

The entire book was a social commentary on life leading up to the early 1960s, the increasing influence of Protestant evangelicalism, political egalitarianism, and the rising cult of practicality as the new criteria for assessing the private and public worlds. He spoke to the connection of religion, politics and public schools fostering the average person’s resentment and suspicion of intellect and of those who devoted their lives to it. Tracing through history, he then showed how this created a predictable reaction of "righteous" vengeance from a highly susceptible percentage of the population and how that rise is not only precipitated but cyclical.

I mention Hofstadter and his book because I spent this last week reading Glenn Beck’s five books, watching hours of his show and reading through his numerous pieces online. I did so because I’ve been trying to figure out why so many people find him to be a credible source of knowledge on politics, society and life in general. After submitting myself to all things Glenn Beck, I can honestly say that the people who follow this man are clearly not too intelligent. His books contradict themselves, his show is encourages people to isolate themselves, reinforce their predetermined opinions and uses the old trick of repetition to make truth out of fiction.

If virulence destroys an argument, it is only done so when fiction is embraced and civility is abandoned to mob rule. In Glenn Beck’s world, contempt of anything that he cannot understand is marketed like a commodity to a segment of the population who understands the topic less than him. What is more interesting is that his rise and eventual fall will be inextricably linked to both Hofstadter anti-intellectualism and the inevitable normal curve of shock media. Glenn Beck is the new Jerry Springer Show, Howard Stern, The Morton Downey Jr. Show or the practice of bleeding sick people. And the only way to combat his misinformation, thinly veiled bigotry and radical political ideologies, is to just let them run their course. So if you are like me would like to go all Lionel Trilling on the situation, but lack the cerebral firepower, don’t. Anything that you do to encourage either him or his momentary followers simply adds to his credibility as an anti-intellectual leader and extends the time during which he is relevant.

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