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 . . .
Read more: The Pseudo-Intellectual in American Politics
There was an interesting exchange on my Facebook page following my last post. I am re-posting it this afternoon because I think it opens some important points and may serve as a guide to understand more deliberately this week’s Republican National Convention. The dialogue reveals alternative positions on conservative politics and the way progressives engage with conservative thought and practice. I think it is an interesting beginning of a discussion beyond partisan intellectual gated communities, as Gary Alan Fine has called for in these pages. I welcome the continuation of the discussion here, hope it illuminates theoretical and pressing practical questions . -Jeff
I opened on Facebook by quoting a central summary of the post. The irony: “Ryan’s nomination, I believe, assures the re-election of President Obama. The basis of my belief is a judgment that Americans generally are guided by a conservative insight, an American suspicion of ideological thought. Conservative insight defeats the conservative ticket.” And then a debate followed.
Harrison Tesoura Schultz: Would you say that the conservatives have become too extreme for most people to believe that they’re still actually ‘conservatives?’
Alvino-Mario Fantini @Harrison: What I always want to know is: “too extreme” in reference to what? Public opinion? (It seems to shift.) In comparison to conventional wisdom? (It, too, seems to change over the centuries.) The problem, I would suggest, is not that conservatives have become too extreme for people but that basic conservative ideas and principles are no longer known or understood, and increasingly considered irrelevant.
Jeffrey Goldfarb: Extremism in defense of liberty is a vice and it is not conservative. So, I think you are both right. People who call themselves conservatives are often not, rather they are right wing ideologues. Too much for the general public, I think, hope. On the other . . .
Read more: Conservative Principles vs. Conservative Practices: A Continuing Discussion
There is, as Richard Hofstadter put it many years ago, a paranoid style of politics. While, he came up with this notion in his examination of American politics, McCarthyism and its predecessors, I am struck how this sort of politics can be found in just about every democracy. The paranoid knows that enemies surround us. We must be vigilant and protect ourselves, limit or eliminate immigration, impose loyalty oaths, arm ourselves. For, “they” are out to get us. The complexities of the world are explained by the machinations of “them.” (A most popular them these days are Muslims.)
The paranoia continues: we will resolve the problems posed by them only through vigilance. Those who don’t see this are naïve, in some ways worse than the enemy itself. You’re either with us or you’re against us: our country right or wrong, love it or leave it. The National Front in France, the Swedish Democracy Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the Bulgarian Ataka party, Hungary’s Jobbik party, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the British National Party, the League of Polish Families, among others in Europe and beyond, including the Tea Party in the U.S., utilize this style of politics, the populist, xenophobic kind. (link) (link)
In each country, the health of democracy, it seems to me, will be determined by whether the paranoid style is marginalized, and remains so through time, or if it seeps into the political mainstream. When a right wing coalition ruled in Poland and included the League of Polish Families, the prospects for Polish democracy dived, only reviving when that coalition was defeated in the polls, and , indeed, to mention Hofstadter’s immediate concerns, when Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party turned against McCarthy, American democracy was strengthened. A pressing American concern today has to do with the paranoid style of politics in the Tea Party and in the anti-immigration movement. Our fate is tied to how we respond to the Park Islamic Community Center and other . . .
Read more: Political Paranoia Threatens Healthy Democracy Here and Globally