Intellectuals and the Masses

 
 

Intellectuals have failed to recognize the real character of the Tea Party.

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Paul Krugman recently opened his column in the New York Times with this remark:

A note to Tea Party activists: This is not the movie you think it is. You probably imagine that you’re starring in “The Birth of a Nation,” but you’re actually just extras in a remake of “Citizen Kane.”

Those of you who’ve watched D. W. Griffith’s 1915 breakthrough film (an aesthetic masterpiece and a moral disgrace) know who the stars are: Klansmen. The “Nation” of the title stands for the white supremacist organization founded after the Civil War ended. This still photo from the film gives an idea of the lurid race dramaturgy.

Nonetheless, Krugman draws the bridge between scheming, white-robed vigilantes then and Tea Partiers now. And he does it casually and glibly, then proceeds to outline a whole other topic, conservatism as “in large part, a movement shaped by billionaires and their bank accounts.” Apparently, there is no further need to explain the “Birth of a Nation” allegation, to clarify how and why Tea Partiers regard themselves as “starring” in a psycho-political, race-fixated melodrama, or to provide evidence for it. From the author’s perspective, the insinuation stands sufficiently on its own. This is, in itself, worth noting, for the ease and brevity of the comment reveals a deep and abiding syndrome lying beneath. When people offer up extreme characterizations in such a blithe and complacent way, we may be sure that they feel the force of a generalized rectitude and superiority backing them.

That certainly is the case with this and other anti-Tea Party statements in recent months. Mention the Tea Party at most academic or other elite cultural gatherings and a wave of contemptuous dismissals follow. To intellectuals, the mass movement doesn’t even merit a thoughtful denunciation. Most intellectuals in the United States lean well to the Left, but their reactions to the Tea Party and its leaders usually bypass political disagreement and surge straight into flat-out insult. Here is another Times columnist, Bob Herbert, writing about Glenn Beck:

Facts and reality mean nothing to Beck. And there is no road too low for him to slither upon. . . . He makes you want to take a shower.

Herbert wrote the piece just as Beck convened hundreds of thousands on the Mall to lead a rally under the banner “Restoring Honor.” Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, said this a few days before the event, prefacing it with memories of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from 1963:

Can we imagine if King were physically here tomorrow, today, were he to reappear tomorrow on the very steps of the Lincoln Memorial? I have a nightmare that one day a right wing talk show host will come to this spot, his people’s lips dripping with the words interposition and nullification. Little right wing boys and little right wing girls joining hands and singing their praise for Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. I have a nightmare.

Herbert ended his column with gloomy warnings about the possible consequences of the rally.

But I worry about the potential for violence that grows out of unrestrained, hostile bombast. We’ve seen it so often. A little more than two weeks after the 1963 March on Washington, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan and four young black girls were killed. And three months after the march, Jack Kennedy was assassinated.

That JFK was assassinated by a demented Leftist isn’t the only irony here. More importantly, Herbert’s comments (and Krugman’s and Matthews’) are a fair specimen of the very “unrestrained, hostile bombast” he deplores. It happens again and again. Liberal intellectuals revile the conservative masses and popular spokespersons for their fear and hate, yet their own comments seethe with fear and scorn.

Their visceral blindness to their own animosity indicates, once again, something beyond political disagreement. The rise of a decentralized, amorphous grass-roots association and voting bloc lacking pilots from credentialed intellectual circles seems to have stirred the intellectual identity against itself, to draw some darker impulses into the light. Social thinker Eric Hoffer explained the tendency 50 years ago in a piece entitled “Intellectuals and the Masses.” In it, he began with the historical fact that up until the modern era intellectuals always stood with those in power, “a governing elite,” and remained “indifferent to the fate of the masses.” The ancient Hebrew prophets, Hoffer says, were the sole exception. Only with the decline of the Church and the rise of democratic politics did an intellectual cohort emerge that identified with the people and against the cadres of privilege and power.

But, Hoffer insists, although allied to the underprivileged, the intellectual never lost his aristocratic “cast of mind.” His mental talents set him apart, and they also planted a social sense that quite naturally became joined to his identity as an intellectual. As long as the people both remained underprivileged and respected the intellectual’s gifts, the relationship was cozy. As soon as their conditions improved and the people showed their independence, Hoffer continues, the intellectual’s “view of the masses darkens, and from being their champion he becomes their detractor.” The masses are and should remain a constituent of culture and history, not an agent of them.

The Tea Party violates the rule. The people who comprise it have managed to reject incumbents and Establishment favorites in Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Delaware, and elsewhere, forming a volatile political force that has befuddled Democrat and Republican leaders alike. More pertinently, they have marched out in front of intellectuals working in newspapers and media, academia, foundations, and public offices. They seem not even to care about the good opinion of their intellectual betters. An Ivy League credential doesn’t much impress them, nor does long service in public office or a segment on CBS News. They shrug at the lines on the resume that intellectuals care so much about and strive all their lives to compile.

And so some intellectuals see Tea Partiers as an affront, not an ideology, a denial of their own character. Nothing stings them more than disregard, and when the masses have the power to ignore them and not be ignored themselves, the intellectuals are stymied. Last year, Glenn Beck sat down for a 45-minute interview with Katie Couric of CBS. They had an amiable conversation, for the most part, but at one point (around 12:40 in the taping) she admitted to him that when her Twitter followers heard of the upcoming interview, “some people couldn’t believe that we were even giving you a platform because they feel that you are bad for America.” Beck didn’t bother to answer Couric’s correspondents. He simply delimited their authority: “You wouldn’t believe how many people Tweeted me this week and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting down with Katie Couric—she’s bad for America!’”

His reply levels the playing field, and he has the ratings to stand firm. We should understand Beck’s position as the culmination of a concerted effort by conservative figures from Dan Quayle to Bill O’Reilly to recast intellectuals as a distinct social grouping. Intellectuals lay claim to universality, to transcend politics and current events, to speak out of cosmopolitan interests. The masses believe it less and less. Today, intellectuals represent a “cultural elite,” a set of people skilled with words and ideas but acculturated in designated institutions, embracing certain attitudes and values as a condition of membership, and prone to condescension toward non-intellectuals.

This explains the anger toward the Tea Party. For a time, intellectuals mocked the movement as a pack of fringe personalities, nothing more. They could afford to laugh and dismiss because the Tea Party appeared more or less ineffectual. Now that they are a serious political factor, laughter has turned to insult, disdain to dread.

Wise intellectuals step back from their hostility and return to the virtues they espouse. The more they disdain different social and political groups, the more they appear as but another social and political group. As intellectuals previously were identified with king and church and Party (in Communist nations), so today they are identified with “elites.” This is the opposite of intellectualism in a democratic society. There, intellectuals should be, above all, independent—independent of power and independent of any particular acculturation. They should be universal. They should tell the truth . . . but not get too confident of their apprehension of it. They should disagree with others . . . but not ridicule them. They should refine the common taste, not censure it. They should elevate public discourse, not echo its cheap coinages. We shall see on November 2nd where reactions will go next.

Mark Bauerlein is Vaughan Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program at Princeton University and a Professor of English at Emory University. His most recent book is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

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