Article - Winter 2007
The Pseudo-Conservative RevoltPrint
From the Winter 1954-55 issue of The Scholar
By Richard Hofstader
December 1, 2006
Twenty years ago the dynamic force in American political life came from the side of liberal dissent, from the impulse to reform the inequities of our economic and social system and to change our ways of doing things, to the end that the sufferings of the Great Depression would never be repeated. Today the dynamic force in our political life no longer comes from the liberals who made the New Deal possible. By 1952 the liberals had had at least the trappings of power for twenty years. They could look back to a brief, exciting period in the mid-thirties when they had held power itself and had been able to transform the economic and administrative life of the nation. After twenty years the New Deal liberals have quite unconsciously taken on the psychology of those who have entered into possession. Moreover, a large part of the New Deal public, the jobless, distracted and bewildered men of 1933, have in the course of the years found substantial places in society for themselves, have become home-owners, suburbanites and solid citizens. Many of them still keep the emotional commitments to the liberal dissent with which they grew up politically, but their social position is one of solid comfort. Among them the dominant tone has become one of satisfaction, even of a kind of conservatism. Insofar as Adlai Stevenson won their enthusiasm in 1952, it was not in spite of, but in part because of the air of poised and reliable conservatism that he brought to the Democratic convention. By comparison, Harry Truman’s impassioned rhetoric, with its occasional thrusts at “Wall Street,” seemed passé and rather embarrassing. The change did not escape Stevenson himself. “The strange alchemy of time,” he said in a speech at Columbus, “has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country — the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.” The most that the old liberals can now envisage is not to carry on with some ambitious new program, but simply to defend as much as possible of the old achievements and to try to keep traditional liberties of expression that are threatened.
There is, however, a dynamic of dissent in America today. Representing no more than a modest fraction of the electorate, it is not so powerful as the liberal dissent of the New Deal era, but it is powerful enough to set the tone of our political life and to establish throughout the country a kind of punitive reaction. The new dissent is certainly not radical — there are hardly any radicals of any sort left — nor is it precisely conservative. Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for non-conformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative — I borrow the term from the study of The Authoritarian Personality published five years ago by Theodore W. Adorno and his associates — because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower Administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways — a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive clinical evidence.
From clinical interviews and thematic apperception tests, Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative. The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere. . . . The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”
Who is the pseudo-conservative, and what does he want? It is impossible to identify him by class, for the pseudo-conservative impulse can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less educated members of the middle classes. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, “This means eight more years of socialism” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentlemen who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”;2 the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business to be fighting communism in Korea, but that the war should immediately be extended to an Asia-wide crusade against communism; and the most ardent supporters of the Bricker Amendment. Many of the most zealous followers of Senator McCarthy are also pseudo-conservatives, although there are presumably a great many others who are not.
The restlessness, suspicion and fear manifested in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the real suffering which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics for the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization. He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world — for instance, in the Orient — cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.3 He is the most bitter of all our citizens about our involvement in the wars of the past, but seems the least concerned about avoiding the next one. While he naturally does not like Soviet communism, what distinguishes him from the rest of us who also dislike it is that he shows little interest in, is often indeed bitterly hostile to such realistic measures as might actually strengthen the United States vis-à-vis Russia. He would much rather concern himself with the domestic scene, where communism is weak, than with those areas of the world where it is really strong and threatening. He wants to have nothing to do with the democratic nations of Western Europe, which seem to draw more of his ire than the Soviet Communists, and he is opposed to all “give-away programs” designed to aid and strengthen these nations. Indeed, he is likely to be antagonistic to most of the operations of our federal government except Congressional investigations, and to almost all of its expenditures. Not always, however, does he go so far as the speaker at the Freedom Congress who attributed the greater part of our national difficulties to “this nasty, stinking 16th [income tax] Amendment.”
A great deal of pseudo-conservative thinking takes the form of trying to devise means of absolute protection against that betrayal by our own officialdom which the pseudo-conservative feels is always imminent. The Bricker Amendment, indeed, might be taken as one of the primary symptoms of pseudo-conservatism. Every dissenting movement brings its demand for Constitutional changes; and the pseudo-conservative revolt, far from being an exception to this principle, seems to specialize in Constitutional revision, at least as a speculative enterprise. The widespread latent hostility toward American institutions takes the form, among other things, of a flood of proposals to write drastic changes into the body of our fundamental law. Last summer, in a characteristically astute piece, Richard Rovere pointed out that Constitution-amending had become almost a major diversion in the Eighty-third Congress.4 About a hundred amendments were introduced and referred to committee. Several of these called for the repeal of the income tax. Several embodied formulas of various kinds to limit non-military expenditures to some fixed portion of the national income. One proposed to bar all federal expenditures on “the general welfare”; another, to prohibit American troops from serving in any foreign country except on the soil of the potential enemy; another, to redefine treason to embrace not only persons trying to overthrow the government but also those trying to “weaken” it, even by peaceful means. The last proposal might bring the pseudo-conservative rebels themselves under the ban of treason: for the sum total of these amendments might easily serve to bring the whole structure of American society crashing to the ground.
As Mr. Rovere points out, it is not unusual for a large number of Constitutional amendments to be lying about somewhere in the Congressional hoppers. What is unusual is the readiness the Senate has shown to give them respectful consideration, and the peculiar populistic arguments some of its leading members have used to justify referring them to the state legislatures. While the ordinary Congress hardly ever has occasion to consider more than one amendment, the Eighty-third Congress saw six Constitutional amendments brought to the floor of the Senate, all summoning simple majorities, and four winning the two-thirds majority necessary before they can be sent to the House and ultimately to the state legislatures. It must be added that, with the possible exception of the Bricker Amendment itself, none of the six amendments so honored can be classed with the most extreme proposals. But the pliability of the senators, the eagerness of some of them to pass the buck and defer to “the people of the country,” suggests how strong they feel the pressure to be for some kind of change that will give expression to that vague desire to repudiate the past that underlies the pseudo-conservative revolt.
One of the most urgent questions we can ask about the United States in our time is the question of where all this sentiment arose. The readiest answer is that the new pseudo-conservatism is simply the old ultra-conservatism and the old isolationism heightened by the extraordinary pressures of the contemporary world. This answer, true though it may be, gives a deceptive sense of familiarity without much deepening our understanding, for the particular patterns of American isolationism and extreme right-wing thinking have themselves not been very satisfactorily explored. It will not do, to take but one example, to say that some people want the income tax amendment repealed because taxes have become very heavy in the past twenty years: for this will not explain why, of three people in the same tax bracket, one will grin and bear it and continue to support social welfare legislation as well as an adequate defense, while another responds by supporting in a matter-of-fact way the practical conservative leadership of the moment, and the third finds his feelings satisfied only by the angry conspiratorial accusations and extreme demands of the pseudo-conservative.
No doubt the circumstances determining the political style of any individual are complex. Although I am concerned here to discuss some of the neglected social-psychological elements in pseudo-conservatism, I do not wish to appear to deny the presence of important economic and political causes. I am aware, for instance, that wealthy reactionaries try to use pseudo-conservative organizers, spokesmen and groups to propagate their notions of public policy, and that some organizers of pseudo-conservative and “patriotic” groups often find in this work a means of making a living — thus turning a tendency toward paranoia into a vocational asset, probably one of the most perverse forms of occupational therapy known to man. A number of other circumstances — the drastic inflation and heavy taxes of our time, the dissolution of American urban life, considerations of partisan political expediency — also play a part. But none of these things seem to explain the broad appeal of pseudo-conservatism, its emotional intensity, its dense and massive irrationality, or some of the peculiar ideas it generates. Nor will they explain why those who profit by the organized movements find such a ready following among a large number of people, and why the rank-and-file janizaries of pseudo-conservatism are so eager to hurl accusations, write letters to congressmen and editors, and expend so much emotional energy and crusading idealism upon causes that plainly bring them no material reward.
Elmer Davis, seeking to account for such sentiment in his recent book, But We Were Born Free, ventures a psychological hypothesis. He concludes, if I understand him correctly, that the genuine difficulties of our situation in the face of the power of international communism have inspired a widespread feeling of fear and frustration, and that those who cannot face these problems in a more rational way “take it out on their less influential neighbors, in the mood of a man who, being afraid to stand up to his wife in a domestic argument, relieves his feelings by kicking the cat.”5 This suggestion has the merit of both simplicity and plausibility, and it may begin to account for a portion of the pseudo-conservative public. But while we may dismiss our curiosity about the man who kicks the cat by remarking that some idiosyncrasy in his personal development has brought him to this pass, we can hardly help but wonder whether there are not, in the backgrounds of the hundreds of thousands of persons who are moved by the pseudo-conservative impulse, some commonly shared circumstances that will help to account for their all kicking the cat in unison.
All of us have reason to fear the power of international communism, and all our lives are profoundly affected by it. Why do some Americans try to face this threat for what it is, a problem that exists in a world-wide theater of action, while others try to reduce it largely to a matter of domestic conformity? Why do some of us prefer to look for allies in the democratic world, while others seem to prefer authoritarian allies or none at all? Why do the pseudo-conservatives express such a persistent fear and suspicion of their own government, whether its leadership rests in the hands of Roosevelt, Truman or Eisenhower? Why is the pseudo-conservative impelled to go beyond the more or less routine partisan argument that we have been the victims of considerable misgovernment during the past twenty years to the disquieting accusation that we have actually been the victims of persistent conspiracy and betrayal — “twenty years of treason”? Is it not true, moreover, that political types very similar to the pseudo-conservative have had a long history in the United States, and that this history goes back to a time when the Soviet power did not loom nearly so large on our mental horizons? Was the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, which was responsibly estimated to have had a membership of from 4,000,000 to 4,500,000 persons at its peak in the 1920’s, a phenomenon totally dissimilar to the pseudo-conservative revolt?
What I wish to suggest — and I do so in the spirit of one setting forth nothing more than a speculative hypothesis — is that pseudo-conservatism is in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life, and above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for secure identity. Normally there is a world of difference between one’s sense of national identity or cultural belonging and one’s social status. However, in American historical development, these two things, so easily distinguishable in analysis, have been jumbled together in reality, and it is precisely this that has given such a special poignancy and urgency to our status-strivings. In this country a person’s status — that is, his relative place in the prestige hierarchy of his community — and his rudimentary sense of belonging to the community — that is, what we call his “Americanism” — have been intimately joined. Because, as a people extremely democratic in our social institutions, we have had no clear, consistent and recognizable system of status, our person status problems have an unusual intensity. Because we no longer have the relative ethnic homogeneity we had up to about eighty years ago, our sense of belonging has long had about it a high degree of uncertainty. We boast of “the melting pot,” but we are not quite sure what it is that will remain when we have been melted down.
We have always been proud of the high degree of occupational mobility in our country — of the greater readiness, as compared with other countries, with which a person starting in a very humble place in our social structure could rise to a position of moderate wealth and status, and with which a person starting with a middling position could rise to great eminence. We have looked upon this as laudable in principle, for it is democratic, and as pragmatically desirable, for it has served many a man as a stimulus to effort and has, no doubt, a great deal to do with the energetic and effectual tone of our economic life. The American pattern of occupational mobility, while often much exaggerated, as in the Horatio Alger stories and a great deal of the rest of our mythology, may properly be credited with many of the virtues and beneficial effects that are usually attributed to it. But this occupational and social mobility, compounded by our extraordinary mobility from place to place, has also had its less frequently recognized drawbacks. Not the least of them is that this has become a country in which so many people do not know who they are or what they are or what they belong to or what belongs to them. It is a country of people whose status expectations are random and uncertain, and yet whose status aspirations have been whipped up to a high pitch by our democratic ethos and our rags-to-riches mythology.6
In a country where physical needs have been, by the scale of the world’s living standards, on the whole well met, the luxury of questing after status has assumed an unusually prominent place in our civic consciousness. Political life is not simply an arena in which the conflicting interests of various social groups in concrete material gains are fought out; it is also an arena into which status aspirations and frustrations are, as the psychologists would say, projected. It is at this point that the issues of politics, or the pretended issues of politics, become interwoven with and dependent upon the personal problems of individuals. We have, at all times, two kinds of processes going on in inextricable connection with each other: interest politics, the clash of material aims and needs among various groups and blocs; and status politics, the clash of various projective rationalizations arising from status aspirations and other personal motives. In times of depression and economic discontent — and by and large in times of acute national emergency — politics is more clearly a matter of interests, although of course status considerations are still present. In times of prosperity and general well-being on the material plane, status considerations among the masses can become much more influential in our politics. The two periods in our recent history in which status politics has been particularly prominent, the present era and the 1920’s, have both been periods of prosperity.
During depressions, the dominant motif in dissent takes expression in proposals for reform or in panaceas. Dissent then tends to be highly programmatic — that is, it gets itself embodied in many kinds of concrete legislative proposals. It is also future-oriented and forward-looking, in the sense that it looks to a time when the adoption of this or that program will materially alleviate or eliminate certain discontents. In prosperity, however, when status politics becomes relatively more important, there is a tendency to embody discontent not so much in legislative proposals as in grousing. For the basic aspirations that underlie status discontent are only partially conscious; and, even so far as they are conscious, it is difficult to give them a programmatic expression. It is more difficult for the old lady who belongs to the D.A.R. and who sees her ancestral home swamped by new working-class dwellings to express her animus in concrete proposals of any degree of reality than it is, say, for the jobless worker during a slump to rally to a relief program. Therefore, it is the tendency of status politics to be expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.7
Paradoxically the intense status concerns of present-day politics are shared by two types of persons who arrive at them, in a sense, from opposite directions. The first are found among some types of old-family, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and the second are found among many types of immigrant families, most notably among the Germans and Irish, who are very frequently Catholic. The Anglo-Saxons are most disposed toward pseudo-conservatism when they are losing caste, the immigrants when they are gaining.8
Consider first the old-family Americans. These people, whose stocks were once far more unequivocally dominant in America than they are today, feel that their ancestors made and settled and fought for this country. They have a certain inherited sense of proprietorship in it. Since America has always accorded a certain special deference to old families — so many of our families are new — these people have considerable claims to status by descent, which they celebrate by membership in such organizations as the D.A.R. and the S.A.R. But large numbers of them are actually losing their other claims to status. For there are among them a considerable number of the shabby genteel, of those who for one reason or another have lost their old objective positions in the life of business and politics and the professions, and who therefore cling with exceptional desperation to such remnants of their prestige as they can muster from their ancestors. These people, although very often quite well-to-do, feel that they have been pushed out of their rightful place in American life, even out of their neighborhoods. Most of them have been traditional Republicans by family inheritance, and they have felt themselves edged aside by the immigrants, the trade unions, and the urban machines in the past thirty years. When the immigrants were weak, these native elements used to indulge themselves in ethnic and religious snobberies at their expense.9 Now the immigrant groups have developed ample means, political and economic, of self-defense, and the second and third generations have become considerably more capable of looking out for themselves. Some of the old-family Americans have turned to find new objects for their resentment among liberals, left-wingers, intellectuals and the like — for in true pseudo-conservative fashion they relish weak victims and shrink from asserting themselves against the strong.
New-family Americans have had their own peculiar status problem. From 1881 to 1900 over 8,800,000 immigrants came here, during the next twenty years another 14,500,000. These immigrants, together with their descendants, constitute such a large portion of the population that Margaret Mead, in a stimulating analysis of our national character, has persuasively urged that the characteristic American outlook is now a third-generation point of view.10 In their search for new lives and new nationality, these immigrants have suffered much, and they have been rebuffed and made to feel inferior by the “native stock,” commonly being excluded from the better occupations and even from what has bitterly called “first-class citizenship.” Insecurity over social status has thus been mixed with insecurity over one’s very identity and sense of belonging. Achieving a better type of job or a better social status and becoming “more American” have become practically synonymous, and the passions that ordinarily attach to social position have been vastly heightened by being associated with the need to belong.
The problems raised by the tasks of keeping the family together, disciplining children for the American race for success, trying to conform to unfamiliar standards, protecting economic and social status won at the cost of much sacrifice, holding the respect of children who grow American more rapidly than their parents, have thrown heavy burdens on the internal relationships of many new American families. Both new and old American families have been troubled by the changes of the past thirty years — the new because of their striving for middle-class respectability and American identity, the old because of their efforts to maintain an inherited social position and to realize under increasingly unfavorable social conditions imperatives of character and personal conduct deriving from nineteenth-century, Yankee-Protestant-rural backgrounds. The relations between generations, being cast in no stable mold, have been disordered, and the status anxieties of parents have been inflicted upon children.11
Often parents entertain status aspirations that they are unable to gratify, or that they can gratify only at exceptional psychic cost. Their children are expected to relieve their frustrations and redeem their lives. They become objects to be manipulated to that end. An extraordinarily high level of achievement is expected of them, and along with it a tremendous effort to conform and be respectable. From the standpoint of the children these expectations often appear in the form of an exorbitantly demanding authority that one dare not question or defy. Resistance and hostility, finding no moderate outlet in give-and-take, have to be suppressed, and reappear in the form of an internal destructive rage. An enormous hostility to authority, which cannot be admitted to consciousness, calls forth a massive overcompensation which is manifest in the form of extravagant submissiveness to strong power. Among those found by Adorno and his colleagues to have strong ethnic prejudices and pseudo-conservative tendencies, there is a high proportion of persons who have been unable to develop the capacity to criticize justly and in moderation the failings of parents and who are profoundly intolerant of the ambiguities of thought and feeling that one is so likely to find in real-life situations. For pseudo-conservatism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant and knows of no other way of interpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and his own leadership are engaged in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him. It is for this reason, among others, that he enjoys seeing outstanding generals, distinguished secretaries of state, and prominent scholars browbeaten and humiliated.
Status problems take on a special importance in American life because a very large part of the population suffers from one of the most troublesome of all status questions: unable to enjoy the simple luxury of assuming their own nationality as a natural event, they are tormented by a nagging doubt as to whether they are really and truly and fully American. Since their forebears voluntarily left one country and embraced another, they cannot, as people do elsewhere, think of nationality as something that comes with birth; for them it is a matter of choice, and an object of striving. This is one reason why problems of “loyalty” arouse such an emotional response in many Americans and why it is so hard in the American climate of opinion to make any clear distinction between the problem of national security and the question of personal loyalty. Of course there is no real reason to doubt the loyalty to America of the immigrants and their descendants, or their willingness to serve the country as fully as if their ancestors had lived here for three centuries. None the less, they have been thrown on the defensive by those who have in the past cast doubts upon the fullness of their Americanism. Possibly they are also, consciously or unconsciously, troubled by the thought that since their forebears have already abandoned one country, one allegiance, their own national allegiance might be considered fickle. For this I believe there is some evidence in our national practices. What other country finds it so necessary to create institutional rituals for the sole purpose of guaranteeing to its people the genuineness of their nationality? Does the Frenchman or the Englishman or the Italian find it necessary to speak of himself as “one hundred per cent” English, French or Italian? Do they find it necessary to have their equivalents of “I Am an American Day”? When they disagree with one another over national policies, do they find it necessary to call one another un-English, un-French or un-Italian? No doubt they too are troubled by subversive activities and espionage, but are their countermeasures taken under the name of committees on un-English, un-French or un-Italian activities?
The primary value of patriotic societies and anti-subversive ideologies to their exponents can be found here. They provide additional and continued reassurance both to those who are of old American ancestry and have other status grievances and to those who are of recent American ancestry and therefore feel in need of reassurance about their nationality. Veterans’ organizations offer the same satisfaction — what better evidence can there be of the genuineness of nationality and of earned citizenship than military service under the flag of one’s country? Of course such organizations, once they exist, are liable to exploitation by vested interests that can use them as pressure groups on behalf of particular measures and interests. (Veterans’ groups, since they lobby for the concrete interests of veterans, have a double role in this respect.) But the cement that holds them together is the status motivation and the desire for an identity.
Sociological studies have shown that there is a close relation between social mobility and ethnic prejudice. Persons moving downward, and even upward under many circumstances, in the social scale tend to show greater prejudice against such ethnic minorities as the Jews and Negroes than commonly prevails in the social strata they have left or are entering.12 While the existing studies in this field have been focused upon prejudice rather than the kind of hyper-patriotism and hyper-conformism that I am most concerned with, I believe that the typical prejudiced person and the typical pseudo-conservative dissenter are usually the same person, that the mechanisms at work in both complexes are quite the same,13 and that it is merely the expediencies and the strategy of the situation today that cause groups that once stressed racial discrimination to find other scapegoats. Both the displaced old-American type and the new ethnic elements that are so desperately eager for reassurance of their fundamental Americanism can conveniently converge upon liberals, critics, and nonconformists of various sorts, as well as Communists and suspected Communists. To proclaim themselves vigilant in the pursuit of those who are even so much as accused of “disloyalty” to the United States is a way not only of reasserting but of advertising their own loyalty — and one of the chief characteristics of American super-patriotism is its constant inner urge toward self-advertisement. One notable quality in this new wave of conformism is that its advocates are much happier to have as their objects of hatred the Anglo-Saxon, Eastern, Ivy League intellectual gentlemen than they are with such bedraggled souls as, say, the Rosenbergs. The reason, I believe, is that in the minds of the status-driven it is no special virtue to be more American than the Rosenbergs, but it is really something to be more American than Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles — or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.14 The status aspirations of some of the ethnic groups are actually higher than they were twenty years ago — which suggests one reason (there are others) why, in the ideology of the authoritarian right-wing, anti-Semitism and such blatant forms of prejudice have recently been soft-pedaled. Anti-Semitism, it has been said, is the poor man’s snobbery. We Americans are always trying to raise the standard of living, and the same principle now seems to apply to standards of hating. So during the past fifteen years or so, the authoritarians have moved on from anti-Negroism and anti-Semitism to anti-Achesonianism, anti-intellectualism, anti-nonconformism, and other variants of the same idea, much in the same way as the average American, if he can manage it, will move on from a Ford to a Buick.
Such status-strivings may help us to understand some of the otherwise unintelligible figments of the pseudo-conservative ideology — the incredibly bitter feeling against the United Nations, for instance. Is it not understandable that such a feeling might be, paradoxically, shared at one and the same time by an old Yankee-Protestant American, who feels that his social position is not what it ought to be and that these foreigners are crowding in on his country and diluting its sovereignty just as “foreigners” have crowded into his neighborhood, and by a second- or third-generation immigrant who has been trying to hard to de-Europeanize himself, to get Europe out of his personal heritage, and who finds his own government mocking him by its complicity in these Old-World schemes?
Similarly, is it not status aspiration that in good parts spurs the pseudo-conservative on toward his demand for conformity in a wide variety of spheres of life? Conformity is a way of guaranteeing and manifesting respectability among those who are not sure that they are respectable enough. The nonconformity of others appears to such persons as a frivolous challenge to the whole order of things they are trying so hard to become part of. Naturally it is resented, and the demand for conformity in public becomes at once an expression of such resentment and a means of displaying one’s own soundness. This habit has a tendency to spread from politics into intellectual and social spheres, where it can be made to challenge almost anyone whose pattern of life is different and who is imagined to enjoy a superior social position — notably, as one agitator put it, to the “parlors of the sophisticated, the intellectuals, the so-called academic minds.”
Why has this tide of pseudo-conservative dissent risen to such heights in our time? To a considerable degree, we must remember, it is a response, however unrealistic, to realities. We do live in a disordered world, threatened by a great power and a powerful ideology. It is a world of enormous potential violence, that has already shown us the ugliest capacities of the human spirit. In our own country there has indeed been espionage, and laxity over security has in fact allowed some spies to reach high places. There is just enough reality at most points along the line to give a touch of credibility to the melodramatics of the pseudo-conservative imagination.
However, a number of developments in our recent history make this pseudo-conservative uprising more intelligible. For two hundred years and more, various conditions of American development — the process of continental settlement, the continuous establishment in new areas of new status patterns, the arrival of continuous waves of new immigrants, each pushing the preceding waves upward in the ethnic hierarchy — made it possible to satisfy a remarkably large part of the extravagant status aspirations that were aroused. There was a sort of automatic built-in status-elevator in the American social edifice. Today that elevator no longer operates automatically, or at least no longer operates in the same way.
Secondly, the growth of the mass media of communication and their use in politics have brought politics closer to the people than ever before and have made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved. Thus it has become, more than ever before, an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected. Mass communications have aroused the mass man.
Thirdly, the long tenure in power of the liberal elements to which the pseudo-conservatives are most opposed and the wide variety of changes that have been introduced into our social, economic and administrative life have intensified the sense of powerlessness and victimization among the opponents of these changes and have widened the area of social issues over which they feel discontent. There has been, among other things, the emergence of a wholly new struggle: the conflict between businessmen of certain types and the New Deal bureaucracy, which has spilled over into a resentment of intellectuals and experts.
Finally, unlike our previous postwar periods, ours has been a period of continued crisis, from which the future promises no relief. In no foreign war of our history did we fight so long or make such sacrifices as in World War II. When it was over, instead of being able to resume our peacetime preoccupations, we were very promptly confronted with another war. It is hard for a certain type of American, who does not think much about the world outside and does not want to have to do so, to understand why we must become involved in such an unremitting struggle. It will be the fate of those in power for a long time to come to have to conduct the delicate diplomacy of the cold peace without the sympathy or understanding of a large part of their own people. From bitter experience, Eisenhower and Dulles are learning today what Truman and Acheson learned yesterday.
These considerations suggest that the pseudo-conservative political style, while it may already have passed the peak of its influence, is one of the long waves of twentieth-century American history and not a momentary mood. I do not share the widespread foreboding among liberals that this form of dissent will grow until it overwhelms our liberties altogether and plunges us into a totalitarian nightmare. Indeed, the idea that it is purely and simply fascist or totalitarian, as we have known these things in recent European history, is to my mind a false conception, based upon the failure to read American developments in terms of our peculiar American constellation of political realities. (It reminds me of the people who, because they found several close parallels between the NRA and Mussolini’s corporate state, were once deeply troubled at the thought that the NRA was the beginning of American fascism.) However, in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.
This essay appeared in his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).
11. Theodore W. Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York, 1950), pp. 675-76. While I have drawn heavily upon this enlightening study, I have some reservations about its methods and conclusions. For a critical review, see Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda, eds., Studies in the Scope and Method of “The Authoritarian Personality” (Glencoe, Illinois, 1954) particularly the penetrating comments by Edward Shils.
22. On the Omaha Freedom Congress see Leonard Boasberg, “Radical Reactionaries,” The Progressive, December, 1953.
33. See the comments of D.W. Brogan in “The Illusion of American Omnipotence,” Harper’s, December, 1952.
44. Richard Rovere, “Letter from Washington,” New Yorker, June 19, 1954, pp. 67-72.
55. Elmer Davis, But We Were Born Free (New York, 1954), pp. 35-36; cf. pp. 21-22 and passim.
66. Cf. in this respect the observation of Tocqueville: “It cannot be denied that democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart; not so much because they afford to everyone the means of rising to the same level with others as because these means perpetually disappoint the persons who employ them. Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. by Phillips Bradley (New York, 1945), Vol. I, p. 201.
77. Cf. Samuel Lubell’s characterization of isolationism as a vengeful memory. The Future of American Politics (New York, 1952), Chapter VII. See also the comments of Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman on the right-wing agitator: “The agitator seems to steer clear of the area of material needs on which liberal and democratic movements concentrate; his main concern is a sphere of frustration that is usually ignored in traditional politics. The programs that concentrate on material needs seem to overlook that area of moral uncertainties and emotional frustrations that are the immediate manifestations of malaise. It may therefore be conjectured that his followers find the agitator’s statements attractive not because he occasionally promises to ‘maintain the American standards of living’ or to provide a job for everyone, but because he intimates that he will give them the emotional satisfactions that are denied them in the contemporary social and economic set-up. He offers attitudes, not bread.” Prophets of Deceit (New York, 1949), pp. 91-92.
88. Every ethnic group has its own peculiar status history, and I am well aware that my remarks in the text slur over many important differences. The status history of the older immigrant groups like the Germans and the Irish is quite different from that of ethnic elements like the Italians, Poles and Czechs, who have more recently arrived at the point at which they are bidding for wide acceptance in the professional and white-collar classes, or at least for the middle-class standards of housing and consumption enjoyed by these classes. The case of the Irish is of special interest, because the Irish, with their long-standing prominence in municipal politics, qualified as it has been by their relative non-acceptance in many other spheres, have an unusually ambiguous status. In many ways they have gained, while in others, particularly insofar as their municipal power has recently been challenged by other groups, especially the Italians, they have lost some status and power. The election of 1928, with its religious bigotry and social snobbery, inflicted upon them a status trauma from which they have never fully recovered, for it was a symbol of the Protestant majority’s rejection of their ablest leadership on grounds quite irrelevant to merit. This feeling was kept alive by the breach between Al Smith and FDR, followed by the rejection of Jim Farley from the New Deal succession. A study of the Germans would perhaps emphasize the effects of uneasiness over national loyalties arising from the Hitler era and World War II, but extending back even to World War I.
99. One of the noteworthy features of the current situation is that fundamentalist Protestants and fundamentalist Catholics have so commonly subordinated their old feuds (and for the first time in our history) to unite in opposition to what they usually describe as “godless” elements.
1010. Margaret Mead, And Keep Your Powder Dry (New York,1942), Chapter III.
1111. See Else Frenkel-Brunswik’s “Parents and Childhood as seen through the Interviews,” The Authoritarian Personality, Chapter X. The author remarks (pp. 387-88) concerning subjects who were relatively free from ethnic prejudice that in their families “less obedience is expected of the children. Parents are less status-ridden and thus show less anxiety with respect to conformity and are less intolerant toward manifestations of socially unaccepted behavior….Comparatively less pronounced status-concern often goes hand in hand with greater richness and liberation of emotional life. There is, on the whole, more affection, or more unconditional affection, in the families of unprejudiced subjects. There is less surrender to conventional rules….”
1212. Cf. Joseph Greenblum and Leonard I. Pearlin, “Vertical Mobility and Prejudice” in Reinhard Bendix and Seymour M. Lipset, eds., Class, Status and Power (Glencoe, Illinois, 1953), pp. 480-91; Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, “Ethnic Tolerance: A Function of Personal and Social Control,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. IV (1949), pp. 137-45.
1313. The similarity is also posited by Adorno, op. cit., pp. 152 ff., and by others (see the studies cited by him, p. 152).
1414. I refer to such men to make the point that this animosity extends to those who are guilty of no wrongdoing. Of course a person like Alger Hiss, who has been guilty, suits much better. Hiss is the hostage the pseudo-conservatives hold from the New Deal generation. He is a heaven-sent gift. If he did not exist, the pseudo-conservatives would not have been able to invent him.
Richard Hofstader was professor of History at Columbia University and the author of several books, including The American Political Tradition.
Beware Pseudo-Scholars & Half-Baked Knowledge!
The best proverbs manage to capture important ideas in just a few words. One well-worn Arab proverb has it that: nisf al-‘ilm akhtaru min al-jahl – ‘Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.’ ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ insists Steven Hawking, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ In the scholastic tradition of Islam there is the concept of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: claiming to be well-versed in religious matters merely by reading books, rather than by learning, studying and dialoguing with seasoned scholars. And so very often, such half-baked knowledge can be more corrupting and dangerous – to both the individual and the society – than simple, plain ignorance. Permit me to elaborate:
The whole notion of how a little knowledge can deceive a person into thinking they are more expert than they actually are has, I think, been wonderfully stated in a poem by the English poet, Alexander Pope. In his An Essay on Criticism (1709), he says:
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.
Some of the lines of his Essay have become part of the popular lexicon, such as: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Then there is the famous first line of the above couplets, often misquoted as: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’
In Greek mythology, it was held that drinking from the Pierian Spring would grant a person great knowledge and inspiration. Pope explains how if a person only learns a little; if they only drink shallow drafts, it’s likely to intoxicate them and make them feel giddy and delusional. It’s apt to make them feel as if they know a great deal. However, a greater share of learning should remove their false pretensions and humble them. For drinking largely sobers, in that one then understands their level and becomes aware of how little they truly know.
Pope’s dangers of a little learning finds an earlier parallel in Muslim heritage. In some of the manuals written to help train Muslim scholars, teachers and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). It’s said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: Whomsoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; while whoever enters the third realises they know nothing.’1 An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of learning; having only drunk shallow drafts, Abu Shibr is intoxicated, looses sight of his fledgling level, and acts as if he is seasoned in sacred knowledge.
Of course, not everyone who enters the first stretch of learning becomes intoxicated. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into the Abu Shibr persona, the experienced shaykh is likely able to treat the disease with an effective cure). Rather, it’s those whose knowledge comes only by way of a few books or surfing the Net that are most at risk. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a problem to himself as well as to others.
As for the second and third spans, or stretches, of knowledge, then as the months and years pass, the one seeking it appreciates, at first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even via one single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the highly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own level. With further learning and engagement with knoweledge, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they truly know – in comparison to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition.
Nowadays, online forums and chatrooms are awash with pseudo-scholars audaciously speaking about things they have no knowledge of. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’2 Such pretenders might know something about the subject they are discussing, but do not know enough for a God-pleasing, objective discussion. They know a thing or two on the matter, but are ignorant of ten other things about it: and all too often they are ignorant of their own ignorance! This is due to a diseased heart and diminished piety, so the ego pushes them into false pretence, denial, haughtiness, conceit and being too full of themselves – wa’l-‘iyazubi’Llah.
Al-Khalil b. Ahmad remarked: ‘There are four types of people: (1) One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! (2) One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! (3) One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! (4) One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’3
Our ‘ulema explain that there are two types of ignorance (jahl): simple ignorance (jahl basit), and compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab). Simple ignorance is, to a degree, a minor problem, in that it is easily remedied by the simple act of asking. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, orders the Qur’an [16:43] One hadith states: ‘The cure for ignorance is to ask (innama shifa’u’l-‘iyy al-su’al).4 Simple ignorance is where one is aware that one doesn’t know; in other words, one realises their state of ignorance. As such, there is a sense of humbleness that accompanies simple ignorance.
Not so compounded ignorance which, Islamically speaking, is a far more pernicious problem. For the person wallowing in this ignorance is convinced he knows what he doesn’t know. He thinks he has knowledge of the issue, while in reality he knows next to nothing about it. Much of the Islamic postings on the Internet are characterised by such ignorance upon ignorance, or half-baked knowledge, as they pass themselves off as the real McCoy. But what causes a person to pant like a dog on heat, insisting: ‘I do know, I do know’, while the reality is very different? And what are the telltale signs of being soiled by such ignorance?
As noted earlier, the ego is all too often the culprit in such matters. In his censure of half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, the great Muslim polymath, Ibn Hazm wrote:
‘Some people – who are overcome by ignorance, whose intellects are weak and whose nature is corrupt – think they are from the learned, but they aren’t. There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah; exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or to shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’5
A telltale sign that one is afflicted with such a disease includes: An eagerness to poke one’s nose into difficult religious issues that are well above one’s proverbial pay grade, so as to offer their tuppence worth on the matter. The Arab proverb likely fits such a person: laysa hadha bi‘ushshik fadruji – ‘This isn’t your nest, so hop along.’
Another telltale sign is: being obnoxiously adamant that one’s own opinion is correct, and that everyone else is off. All too often this leads Abu Shibr to take this differing to the next level. His half-baked knowledge doesn’t allow him to realise that there may be more than one valid take on the issue, and that his mightn’t even be the soundest. But by this time it’s already too late, Abu Shibr has already made a mountain out of a molehill. In his hubris, he thinks that he alone is on haqq and the others are on batil. Such delusions of grandeur lead him to demean, defame and even boycot and warn against those who differ with him. In the bigotry and blind-following of his desires, Abu Shibr unwittingly does the devil’s work, becoming an active agent in destroying unity and brotherhood among the believers – and we seek refuge in Allah from such mischief and misguidance.
Another sign is: hiding behind phrases like, ‘I’ve got a brain to think for myself.’ But I suggest that this is to draw from the phrase more than is warranted. Whilst it’s a fact we’ve each been endowed with some level of intelligence or reason, it’s also a fact that some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, a person who can reason well in one topic or area of life, may be unfit to do so in another. Surely, true intelligence should lead us to acknowledge that some disciplines of life and learning require an immense amount of study and specialisation. Such is the case for the intricacies of Islamic law and theology. Yet some will casually dismiss the verdicts of highly qualified scholars, not upon a detailed evidence-based critique, but upon a vainglorious whim. ‘I’ve got a brain’ demands that we engage the evidences and legal rationals of the experts before dismissing their conclusions, or humbly defer to their authority. Anything else would make intellects look suspect; or even down right stupid! The Qur’an says: Yet among people are those who argue about Allah without knowledge, guidance, or an illuminating Book. [31:20]
Compounded ignorance; this Abu Shibr syndrome, is extremely difficult to cure. For the one afflicted with it doesn’t see the deficiency in himself. As far as he’s concerned, he knows; and that’s that! To reveal to him that he is ignorant of his own ignorance is nigh on impossible. And yet it’s because the Abu Shibrs of this world are least likely to recognise their inadequacies, and because the Abu Shibr syndrome can be contagious, that we need to be alert to the following shari‘ah cautions:
Firstly, that speaking about Allah, His religion, or its rulings, without due knowledge, is a heinous crime and amounts to lying against Allah and the religion of Islam: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [16:116] Such a crime against Allah requires an immediate handbrake turn to tawbah.
Secondly, to reign-in our soul from its egotism, exhibitionism and from seeking to be a wannabe. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever does deeds in order to be heard of, Allah will make him heard of; and whoever does deeds to show-off, Allah will make a show of him.’6 That sincerity to Allah and sound intention are key, is vividly demonstrated in the next hadith too: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then Allah shall enter him into Hell.’7 As can be seen, Islam doesn’t do ego. Those who are eager for it to be otherwise have possibly got the wrong religion and way of life.
Thirdly, that one of the best defences against getting intoxicated on shallow draughts of knowledge is: learning to say, ‘I don’t know’. In fact, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: la adri nisf al-‘ilm – ‘To say: “I don’t know” is half of knowledge.’8 One of the scholars said: ‘Realise, that to reply with, “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish one’s status; as some of the ignoramuses imagine. Instead, it elevates it. For it is a splendid proof of his lofty rank, strength of his religion, his fear of his Lord, and the purity of his heart.’9
Fourthly, ask, inquire, learn, study, discuss, and grow in Islamic knowledge – but let us do so with humility and with being aware of our own levels. In this respect, let’s take our queue from how the Angels extolled Allah: ‘Glory be to You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are the Knowing, the Wise.’ [2:32]
That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing is only when intentions are corrupt, or if we lose sight of our own levels. We all have half-baked knowledge about many matters. In some of those matters, our half-baked knowledge will mature and become seasoned knowledge. In some, it may improve but never fully ripen. In other cases, it may always remain half-baked. But that needn’t be a problem, so long as we are aware that we don’t know; that we don’t act like Abu Shibr; and that, if required or wanted, we are open to learning. In this regard it’s been wisely said that: ‘A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.’
1. Consult: Bakr Abu Zayd,‘Hilyat Talib al-‘Ilm’, in Majmu‘at al-‘Ilmiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 198.
2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.
3. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538.
4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, nos.336-7. The hadith says: During the time of the Prophet ﷺ a man suffered a serious head wound. Later he had a nocturnal emission and inquired from some companions if he was allowed to perform dry ablution (tayammum)? They said that they didn’t think it was permissible. So he took a full bath (ghusl), because of which he died. When the Prophet ﷺ came to learn of this, he said: ‘They have killed him; may Allah kill them! Why didn’t they ask, if they did not know. Indeed the cure for ignorance is to ask.’
5. Ibn Hazm, ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.6499; Muslim, no.2986. The meaning of: ‘Allah will make him heard of’ is: Allah will publicly expose and humiliate him on the Day of Judgement – as said by al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1990), no.1626.
7. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2654. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6382.
8. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Madkhal, no.713.
9. Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir, 2013), 68.
Posted in knowledge & epistemology, salafism reconsidered and tagged a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Abu Shibr, Alexander Pope, compounded ignorance, feigning knowledge, half-baked knowledge, Ibn Jama‘ah, Ibn Taymiyyah, ignorant of your own ignorance, knowledge with humility, pseudo-scholars, wannabe scholars