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Of Peggy Noonan, Michael Ledeen and American Character


Thinker and accomplished historian Michael Ledeen responds to Peggy Noonan’s ‘Declarations’ column from this Saturday’s Wall Street Journal: ‘America Is at Risk of Boiling Over And out-of-touch leaders don’t see the need to cool things off’. Noonan and Ledeen make observations of the American character – and like any observer who projects his self-image upon others – I don’t agree with either Peggy or Michael.

“By what do we mean the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington. The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphleteers, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies.” – John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 1815

“No, Ran, to err is human – but to really [foul] things up, it takes a computer!” – Paul T., 1979

What connects these two quotes is the idea of decentralization. In the mid 70’s my friend Paul was a programmer at one of General Electric’s huge IBM mainframe computers. He observed first-hand the effects of a central mainframe’s glitches and crashes upon the many users of distributed ‘dumb terminals’ throughout the company. He was amongst the first to purchase a small ‘PC’ for word processing. We discussed how ‘distributed processing’ would eventually prove to be far more efficient – this, decades before the observation of ‘ubiquitous processing’ as computers showed-up in nearly every imaginable device.

To John Adams’ observation, “the records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphleteers, newspapers in all the colonies,” and church ministers and preachers and shop owners and farmers and just about anyone with the skills and courage to write and to speak were a functional part of the spiritual revolution. It was a very decentralized phenomenon, too, as the processing of the ideas was not handled exclusively by a privileged elite.

This is the very point: There has always been an “intellectual class” in America and it is rather widespread – indeed it cuts across just about any imaginable “grouping” or classification. In that sense, it is characteristically democratic.

The gulf between the intellectuals and politicians on the one hand, and “normal Americans” on the other, probably goes back to the first settlements in the New World. It most certainly did not originate in the 1980s, and to prove that all you have to do is pick up a book written back in the early 1960s by a distinguished Columbia University historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “Anti-intellectualism in American life.” When I first read that book (an elegant lament about Americans’ traditional lack of esteem for intellectuals), I agreed with Hofstadter that this was a very bad thing. It was only later in life that I realized what a good thing it was, and how fortunate we were to have withheld high status from professors and politicians. But however you may feel about intellectuals, Hofstadter’s thoughtful book will certainly show you how old and how deeply rooted anti-intellectualism is in our country.

Anti-intellectualism? Rather, anti-authoritarianism.

The nature of the American character – as I see it – is highly decentralized intellectualism. Americans, for the most part, are a hard-working and independent people. This work applies in the realm of reflective thought and self-education. We saw it in “the records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphleteers, newspapers in all the colonies” and today in the falling share prices of the New York Times and the rise of the blogosphere, in Glenn Reynolds’ “Army of Davids” and the very decentralized, relatively leaderless yet highly effective Tea Party phenomenon.  The Big Business Elite, DC Insiders, the Media “Intellectuals” are booking a lot of time with their therapists lately… the “bitter-clinger” country-class are simply not purchasing the ruling-class’ self-serving tautological drivel.

When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns—even from the essential nature—of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless.

Inner pessimism and powerlessness: That is a dangerous combination.

Peg is right to a point, it’s just that “the adults” of this great nation don’t happen to feel long-term pessimism. It is the “adults” of our snooty-class who suffer depression these days as viewers turn away, subscriptions fall and uppity bloggers hack away at their errors. The whole point of the Tea Party movement – to name but one phenomenon – is that it is an expression of power… of optimism… and of commitment.

The commitment is to the restoration of minimized and decentralized Power. It goes well beyond the issues of taxation to encompass the moral issues of government power and of God-given personal responsibility and honor and individual freedom.  To those who would argue that it is an anti-intellectual phenomenon, beware…  “we’ll fact-check your ass“.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mrs. Kissell permalink
    2010/08/11 03:10

    Ran, very true, thanks. There are theological, philosophical, military, cybernetic, economic, musical, historical, phenomenological, dramatic, ethnological, legal, painterly, ontological and existential descriptions supporting the veracity of the point you make. What does not support it is so-called peer review and the so-called science which drives and emerges from it. The centralization of “science,” or more accurately “scientists” and other “scholars,” as impervious peer cabals is the root of modern tyrannies of “policy” and “process.” Eventually the decentralized system life is obliterates them, or drives them to self-obliteration, as per Steven Hocking.

  2. 2010/08/11 12:02

    Thanks Mrs. K.
    Sorry the essay didn’t pull together well…
    Your observations are most appreciated. You’ve reminded me of my school days, in with the research crowd.
    St. Thomas once said something along the lines of “Every beauty is a unity.” He didn’t say “monolith.”

  3. John Doe permalink
    2010/08/12 17:19

    Came here via BobB’s column. Good work. I’ll be back!


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