April 9, 2002


Here are two essays, one by David Brooks on the history and prevalence of hostility towards the bourgeoisie by intellectuals and various non-Western cultures, Among the Bourgeoisophobes (Weekly Standard), the other by Adam Clymer on academics trying to assess Ronald Reagan's presidency, Rethinking Reagan: Was He a Man of Ideas After All? (NY Times, April 6, 2002), which almost demand to be read together because so much of the Brooks essay informs the Clymer article.

Mr. Brooks states the basic case :

Around 1830, a group of French artists and intellectuals looked around and noticed that people who were their spiritual inferiors were running the world. Suddenly a large crowd of merchants, managers, and traders were making lots of money, living in the big houses, and holding the key posts. They had none of the high style of the aristocracy, or even the earthy integrity of the peasants. Instead, they were gross. They were vulgar materialists, shallow conformists, and self-absorbed philistines, who half the time failed even to acknowledge their moral and spiritual inferiority to the artists and intellectuals. What's more, it was their very mediocrity that accounted for their success. Through some screw-up in the great scheme of the universe, their narrow-minded greed had brought them vast wealth, unstoppable power, and growing social prestige.

Naturally, the artists and intellectuals were outraged. Hatred of the bourgeoisie became the official emotion of the French intelligentsia. Stendhal said traders and merchants made him want to 'weep and vomit at the same time.' Flaubert thought they were 'plodding and avaricious.' Hatred of the bourgeoisie, he wrote, 'is the beginning of all virtue." He signed his letters 'Bourgeoisophobus' to show how much he despised "stupid grocers and their ilk.'

Of all the great creeds of the 19th century, pretty much the only one still thriving is this one, bourgeoisophobia. Marxism is dead. Freudianism is dead. Social Darwinism is dead, along with all those theories about racial purity that grew up around it. But the emotions and reactions that Flaubert, Stendhal, and all the others articulated in the 1830s are still with us, bigger than ever. In fact, bourgeoisophobia, which has flowered variously and spread to places as diverse as Baghdad, Ramallah, and Beijing, is the major reactionary creed of our age.

It is, of course, the central thesis of the Brothers Judd that all of human history can be understood as a struggle between those who favor freedom and those who desire security, so we would say that Mr. Brooks's bourgeoisophobes are really just a subset of the forces of security. But read in conjunction with Mr. Clymer's piece we can see how useful his analysis is, even if overstated.

Let's juxtapose passages from the two :

First this from David Brooks :

'What America never takes a moment to consider is that, despite its mightiness, it is a young country with much to learn. It had no real direct experience of the First and Second World Wars,' declared a writer in the New Statesman...

Then this from the Clymer piece :
Sheldon Anderson, an associate professor of history and international studies at the University of Miami in Ohio, observed that in Eastern Europe, where Communism fell, scholars do not give much responsibility to Mr. Reagan.

This borders on hilarity. European and American intellectuals must actually deny that the United States had much to do with winning WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The assertion is too silly to waste ink refuting.

Then this from David Brooks :

When bourgeoisophobes describe their enemies, they almost always portray them as money-mad, as crazed commercialists. And this vulgar materialism, in their view, has not only corrupted the soul of the bourgeoisie, but through them threatens to debase civilization itself and the whole world. It threatens, in the words of the supreme bourgeoisophobe, Karl Marx, to take all that is holy and make it profane.

And this from the Clymer piece :
[T]he president's view of America 'sailed dangerously close to idolatry.' Mr. Heclo said, 'For Reagan, the oversoul of the nation, intrinsically innocent, is assigned an ultimacy that seems indistinguishable from worship.'

Mr. Heclo actually has the most favorable things to say about Reagan, but note how even he accuses the Gipper of sacrilege.

Then there's this by Mr. Brooks, about Europeans, but it applies equally well to American intellectuals :

Europeans, of course, are bourgeois themselves, even more so in some ways than Americans and Israelis. What they distrust about America and Israel is that these countries represent a particularly aggressive and, to them, unbalanced strain of bourgeois ambition. No European would ever acknowledge the category, but America and Israel are heroic bourgeois nations. The Israelis are driven by passionate Zionism to build their homeland and make it rich and powerful. Americans are driven by our Puritan sense of calling, the deeply held belief that we Americans have a special mission to spread our way of life around the globe. It is precisely this heroic element of ordinary life that Europeans lack and distrust.

So the Europeans are all ambivalence. The British historian J.H. Plumb once declared that he loved America (and he was indeed a great defender of the United States), but even his admiration for the country 'was entangled with anger, anxiety and at times flashes of hate.' In his infuriatingly condescending and ultimately appreciative portrait 'America,' the French modernist Jean Baudrillard wrote, 'America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable. We should not seek to deny either of these aspects, nor reconcile them.'

But Europeans do seek to deny them--because they simply can't remember what it's like to be imperially confident, to feel the forces of history blowing at one's back, to have heroic and even eschatological aspirations. Their passions have been quieted. Their intellectual guides have taught them that business is ignoble and striving is vulgar. Their history has caused them to renounce military valor (good thing, too) and to regard their own relative decline as a sign of greater maturity and wisdom. The European Union has a larger population than the United States, and a larger GDP--and its political class has tried to construct an institutional architecture that will enable it to rival America. But the imperial confidence is gone, along with the youthful sense of limitless possibility and the unselfconscious embrace of ordinary striving.

So their internal engine is calibrated differently. They look with disdain upon our work ethic (the average American works 350 hours a year--nearly nine weeks--longer than the average European). They look with disdain upon what they see as our lack of social services, our relatively small welfare state, which rewards mobility and effort but less gracefully cushions misfortune. They look with distaste upon our commercial culture, which favors the consumer but does not ease the rigors of competition for producers. And they look with fear upon our popular culture, which like some relentless machine seems designed to crush the local cultures that stand in its way.

And this from Mr. Clymer :
Mr. Heclo maintains...that the core Reagan idea was a 'sacramental vision' of America; 'God's unique relation to America was the central chord from which all else followed.'

Mr. Heclo cited phrases familiar to anyone who listened to Mr. Reagan's speeches: America as 'the last best hope of man on earth' and (borrowing from John Winthrop's sermon aboard the Arbella on the way to America in 1630) as a 'shining city on a hill,' a beacon to mankind. But he also drew on speeches Mr. Reagan gave before he was deeply involved in politics, like a 1952 address when he said, 'I believe that God in shedding his grace on this country has always in this divine scheme of things kept an eye on our land and guided it as a promised land.'

Mr. Reagan conveyed this vision through storytelling, Mr. Heclo said. In his final Oval Office speech, he spoke of the aircraft carrier Midway as a metaphor for America as the redeemer nation, 'rescuing a tiny boat of refugees adrift in an open sea.'

Mr. Heclo, who said he had never voted for Mr. Reagan and disagreed with many of his policies, said that when 'Reagan's more intellectually sophisticated critics in mainstream academia" dismissed these ideas as 'nothing new,' they missed the point.

'The important point is not that Reagan ever said anything fundamentally new, but that in the new context created by the 60's, Reagan continued to uphold something old," Mr. Heclo said. 'For all its positive accomplishments, the 60's mentality," he said, 'went a long way in undermining respect for inherited values and beliefs. America's special mission in the world was unmasked as exploitation and oppression. The hand of providence appeared as pompous nonsense in a world now seen to be ruled by the calculated exercise of power.'

This was not all abstract, Mr. Heclo said. Mr. Reagan saw the United States as confronted by evil, 'whereby the nation's chosenness stood over against the powers of darkness.' Mr. Reagan, he said, 'saw Communist states as simply the latest enemy on the offensive against the American idea of freedom, an enemy that needed to be defeated rather than accommodated.'

No wonder the intellectuals hate Ronald Reagan so; can any figure in our history more surely be said to have felt the forces of history blowing at his back. At a time (the 60s and 70s) when it appeared that the bourgeoisophobes might well win their reactionary battle, vanquishing liberal capitalist protestant democracy and replacing it with a dictatorship of intellectuals and bureaucrats (under communism, socialism, or whatever), along came Reagan to rally the bourgeoisie and send the Left scurrying for cover. By the end of his public career, Reagan had destroyed communism abroad and made the concept of big government anathema at home. How could this avatar of human freedom and bourgeois values be anything but an object of loathing by the intellectual elites?

The last word comes from Mr. Clymer's article and it applies to our entire bourgeois society as well as to the former president :

[P]erhaps the single most important lesson for the academics was offered by Lou Cannon, a retired Washington Post reporter and the author of four Reagan books. He said: 'Reagan invited us to underestimate him. He felt that gave him an advantage.'

Advantage : us.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 9, 2002 8:57 AM
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