Great Jumping Jehosaphat! I’m keeping the exclamations PG here, but what the hell? Only four years after the start of the Trump presidency, we have become a nation at risk of terminal implosion. The world has experienced the pandemic, and with a few notable exceptions, managed to limp along with significant human cost but with the prospect of some sort of reconstitution. Our President has declared that he is not responsible for anything, our Senate has willingly abdicated its responsibility to its constituents, kleptocrats continue to gut environmental protection, militarized police have betrayed the people they are paid to serve, and health professionals are hamstrung by crass political expediency.
Houston, for example, is in a crisis that might have been prevented. In addition to the reckless self-serving political fantasies which encouraged the spread of the coronavirus, the on-the-ground response to pandemic is overwhelmed, and ordinary public health initiatives are simply not supported. The Washington Post reminded me of the essential truth in an article explaining why we are losing the battle, commenting on the discrepancy between the sane practice of public health procedures and the reality facing public health professionals in Texas.
“The main reason for that discrepancy is simple, historians say: Americans don’t like being told what to do. We want to be protected from infectious diseases and dirty water and bad food and crazed gunmen. But not in a way that undermines our freedom. That ambivalence was baked into our public-health institutions from the start.”
This is no time to get academic, but I’m recalling three books I read, appreciated, and promptly forgot. The titles pretty much tell the story: Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, and The Pursuit of Loneliness by Philip Slater.
All three authors would agree that as a nation we have not been eager to invite critical assessment of ourselves, particularly allergic to critical attention from outside the US. De Tocqueville’s assessment of American democracy in 1835 was prescient and of little interest to all but a few isolated ivory tower academics. He saw several issues that might turn out to be problematical, and problematical they are. The first is what he called “the tyranny of the majority,” in his mind a danger to civil society in that it would stifle thought. He found that there was,”less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion” than in any other nation. The majority’s rule was likely to result in incivility, he observed, because people, darn it, are propelled by egoism and personal profit. He prophesied that citizens of superior intellect would have so little impact on the culture that their abilities would inevitably take them to the pursuit of great fortune. The elimination of a titled aristocracy allowed for equitable distribution of property but created widespread animosity toward those who could be considered among the intellectual or cultural elite.
De Tocqueville’s insight can be translated into the language today used with venom in dismissing experts, journalists, and science:
“You think you’re better than me.”
Hofstadter’s wide-ranging thinking in describing the history of anti-intellectualism finally settles on three major observations. The first is that evangelical Protestantism, which has been alive and well from the start, places authority in faith rather than in reason. The second is that the business of America is business and that capitalism is the secular religion of the nation, and the third is that the only corrective is in education, an enterprise that has consistently been under attack from the two more dominant cultural tidal forces.
Slater, whose career is beyond description and entirely fascinating, was a sociologist at Harvard and Brandeis before taking on twenty other occupations. His book argued that individualism as venerated in American culture operated at the expense of connection and community. The result, he felt, was a profound sense of emptiness in the American psyche. His next work,Wealth Addiction , predicted the often mentioned but in no way mitigated obscene inequality in wealth we experience today. Among the arguments Slater proposes is that those who chose to leave behind the certainty of the old world to make their way to the new shared a predisposition to isolation. Space and freedom were virtually the same experience. Those who were forced to emigrate by reason of famine or war might have held a different set of priorities, but the rugged individualism of the frontier, Slater contends, has had an abiding effect on the fragmentation of social order.
I should have known. I should not have been surprised by Know-Nothing nativism, bizarre alternate reality, fake news, hate radio, pandemic as hoax. There is an America that does offer opportunity, inclusion, dignity of labor, civility, and democracy … and then … the other America that has always been our shadow.