There are countless aphorisms about human history, but none so plangent and enduringly valid good counsel for hard times as “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
At this moment, it’s almost too painful to face the political process in its sweaty, lumbering path toward closure. May I suggest a way useful way to pass the time while the dust interminably settles? Consider the career of a man who did more than any other American to show us the consequences of George Santayana’s cruelly accurate epigram.
His name was Richard Hofstadter, and, by luck or design, his most relevant writings about our fevered body politic have just been collected and republished by The Library of America. In these pages, you can rediscover a slow relentless process which has continued to churn our polity for going on 400 years: the waves of irrational fear and misdirected hate that periodically threaten to undermine our fumbling but so far successful effort to find a way toward a government of justice and equity.
The two main documents in the LoA collection—Anti-intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics seem to treat two different maladies, but for Hofstadter they are just varying symptoms of the same pathology, and his meticulous surgery shows them rooted in the same trauma: the terror induced by a universe where God has retreated beyond contact, and the rage felt by those who feel dismissed and disrespected by a social universe in which knowledge and expertise have come to dominate personal experience and tradition.
There is no doubt of Hofstadter’s own position on these questions: he is the intellectual’s intellectual, unforgiving of the tiniest compromise with truth, any sentimentality, any partisan shading of an argument. His writing style is almost comically out of style, full of broad cadences and meticulous wording, sentences as suave as silk often ending with an unexpected sting.
What makes his approach to history so relevant to our time, though, is its persuasive power. You may think yourself rightminded when it comes to clumsy thought and slipshod reasoning, but reading him is to discover what’s slipshod and clumsy in your own thought. You don’t just learn about how “the enemy” thinks and acts, you discover how your own compromises and oversimplifications help him get away with it.
For the moment we’re living through, the company of Hofstadter is an invaluable reminder that our nation has survived this struggle again and again, and that survival has always come at a high price. Will we survive this time? Will we learn that our best hopes and strivings have never been enough to do more than temporarily alleviate the conditions which allow the disease to recur every time that we are challenged to live up to the promises we make to ourselves and others? Unless we own the current state of affairs, admit that we are all are responsible for the gulf divides us from our fellows, the wave will rise again, this time perhaps to engulf us.