America’s Twin Fundamentalisms

Sep 30 2012 @ 6:06pm

Michael Dirda revisits Richard Hofstadter's classic study of the American mind, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and points to the origins of our culture's peculiar blend of evangelical fervor and egalitarian sentiments:

[T]here arose an ethos, a romantic conviction, that a popular democracy should favor "the superiority of inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom over the cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and the well-to-do." Practical experience mattered more than imaginative thinking, and vital emotion trumped anemic rationality. "Just as the evangelicals repudiated a learned religion and formally constituted clergy in favor of the wisdom of the heart and direct access to God, so did advocates of egalitarian politics propose to dispense with trained leadership in favor of the native practical sense of the ordinary man with its direct access to truth. This preference for the wisdom of the common man flowered in the most extreme statements of the democratic creed, into a kind of militant popular anti-intellectualism."

All too often, moreover, a "fundamentalism of the cross" united with a "fundamentalism of the flag." While the true political mind accepts conflict and compromise, recognizing that there are no final victories but only temporary periods of balance and equipoise, the fundamentalist mind, says Hofstadter, "is essentially Manichean: it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and, accordingly, it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities."