When I lived in Boston in the late 1970s, I came across a small news article about the energetic Ayn Rand Club at MIT. I had read three of her novels in high school, the appropriate time for sophomoric works. Along with Catcher in the Rye, Winesburg, Ohio, and many other books, I had already – at the age of twenty – begun to think of her novels as part of a wasted youth (too much reading, not enough sex). No one over twenty should – or could – take them seriously.
Apparently Rand was different, and appealed to a kind of person plentiful at MIT. She presented a logical social philosophy for people who knew little about social life. They were immature, yes, but there was no sign they would ever grown up. They were smart, not wise. Today we might suspect them of Asperger syndrome.
Paul Ryan is smart, too, in the style of an autodidact who has read widely without putting what he knows together into the big picture. Or perhaps putting it into a too simple a big picture. There is no mystery why a partially educated fellow like Ryan might cling to an adolescent worldview. The mystery is why he has accumulated followers who seem to find him some kind of profound guru. Even most Republicans, who as Rick Santorum reminded us do not even hope to attract smart people any more, must see through Ryan.
Or maybe not. Ryan reminds me of another would-be politician who used a similar kind of pseudo-intellectual style to attract a small but viciously devoted following, Lyndon LaRouche. There was one thing constant in LaRouche’s bizarre move from the authoritarian Left to the authoritarian Right: his use of impenetrable prose and technical jargon to “prove” his worldview. His main publications were couched as “executive reviews” and a magazine on the technical details of the fusion energy that would save the world. The very idea that a worldview can be “proven” is a telling mistake.
At the risk that I’ll sound like a crowd theorist of the 1950s, LaRouche’s followers seemed like social misfits. When they lurked around airports, their opening gambits for engaging passersby in conversation tended to be insults. “Even guys with beards can be for nuclear energy,” I remember one saying to me. Perhaps so, but not in my case. It took only a minute of conversation for him to turn contemptuous and end the conversation. An interesting way to win friends and influence people.
But the LaRouchies did not expect to win many friends (and they did not). It was more important to be right, to show off a few technical terms, and to feel superior to the rush of humanity. This is almost the definition of a cult: a group isolated from its surroundings by its own self-righteousness.
This pseudo-intellectual political style is linked to two other styles in American politics, famously analyzed by Richard Hofstadter a generation ago: anti-intellectualism and paranoia. Of the former, the great historian commented in 1962,
“Just as the most effective enemy of the educated man may be the half-educated man, so the leading anti-intellectuals are usually men deeply engaged with ideas, often obsessively engaged with this or that outworn or rejected idea.”
Ten years earlier he had written of the paranoid style’s pedantic concern with demonstration and facts:
“The typical procedure of the higher paranoid scholarship is to start with such defensible assumptions and with a careful accumulation of facts, or at least of what appear to be facts, and to marshal these facts toward an overwhelming ‘proof’ of the particular conspiracy that is to be established.”
The implausible conclusions are hidden in the forest of details.
In their local social circles, individuals often gain reputations for being profound thinker by deploying arguments like these, now easily available on the Internet, ready to send along or to cite at dinner parties. In addition, I suspect that there are certain professions, or semi-professions, where there are lots of people who appreciate the pseudo-intellectual style. Lower-level engineers, perhaps, or math and science teachers in middle schools: people whose sense of their own status depends on scientific facts, not social skills. More men, no doubt, than women, for that very reason. The laws of nature exist independently of what we think of them, and only a few understand those laws. That works fine if you are a scientist trying to discover a new neurotransmitter. But the laws of the social world – even economic markets – are not so simple.
Unfortunately the pseudo-intellectual style does get applied to social life, and that is when it turns dangerous. People with this worldview are rarely professional social scientists. In fact, the pseudo-intellectual aura of hard facts does not appeal to social OR natural scientists. The latter take a more pragmatic approach, seeing all findings as tentative and open to eventual refinement and revisions. There are no easy, complacent truths. But that does not stop quasi–intellectual occupations like math teachers or journalists from trying. Take a look at some of Glenn Beck’s elaborate diagrams of historical influence, linking Barack Obama to Angela Davis to Woodrow Wilson, and so on. It looks complicated, so it must be right.
The notorious hero of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, John Galt (tellingly, a double major in physics and philosophy, two fields revered but rarely understood by outsiders) proclaimed a contemptuous, anti-social philosophy “that I will never live for the sake of another man” because “you are your own highest value.” Surely Paul Ryan and his quasi-intellectual fans are a bit old for this sophomoric ranting?