Eric Hoffer: Whose Country is America? (1970)


Below is an excerpt from Eric Hoffer’s November 22, 1970 NYT essay “The Young and the Middle-Aged,” which proved to be prescient. WSJ recently ran a piece on this essay (here).

Whose Country is America?

NOWHERE at present is there such a measureless loathing of educated people for their country as in America. An excellent historian thinks Americans are “the most frightening people in the world,” and our foremost philologist sees America as “the most aggressive power in the world, the greatest threat to peace and to international cooperation.” Others call America a “pig heaven,” “a monster with 200 million heads,” “a cancer on the body of mankind.”

Novelists, playwrights, poets, essayists and philosophers depict America as the land of the dead—a country where sensitive souls are starved and flayed, where nothing nourishes and everything hurts. Nowhere, they say, is there such a boring monotony: monotony Of talk, monotony of ideas, monotony of aim, monotony of outlook on the world. One American writer says: “America is no place for an artist. A corn‐fed hog enjoys a better life than a creative artist.” One she‐intellectual maintains that “the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth.”

It is hard to believe that this savage revulsion derives from specific experiences with persons and places. What is there in America that prevents an educated person from shaping his life, from making the most of his inborn endowments? With all its faults and blemishes, this country gives a man elbowroom to do what is nearest to his heart. It is incredible how easy it is here to cut oneself off from vulgarity, conformity. speciousness. and other corrupting influences and infections. For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents, this is an ideal country.

The trouble is, of course, that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone. He wants to be listened to and be taken seriously. He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important. He is free to speak and write as he pleases, and can probably make himself heard and read more easily than one who would defend America. But he can neither sway elections nor shape policy. Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scholar, scientist or educator is generally recognized and rewarded he does not feel himself part of the power structure. In no other country has there been so little liaison between men of words and the men of action who exercise power. The body of intellectuals in America has never been integrated with or congenial to the politicians and business men who make things happen. Indeed, the uniqueness of modem America derives in no small part from the fact that America has kept intellectuals away from power and paid little attention to their political [opinions].

The nineteen‐sixties have made it patent that much of the intellectual’s dissent is fueled by a hunger for power. The appearance of potent allies—militant blacks and students —has emboldened the intellectual to come out into the open. He still feels homeless in America, but the spectacle of proud authority, in cities and on campuses, always surrendering before threats of violence, is to him a clear indication that middle‐class society is about to fall apart, and he is all set to pick up the pieces.

There is no doubt that in our permissive society the intellectual has far more liberty than he can use; and the more his liberty and the less his capacity to make use of it, the louder his clamor for power—power to deprive other people of liberty.

THE intellectual’s allergy to America shows itself with particular clarity in what has happened to many foreign intellectuals who found asylum here during the Hitler decade. It is legitimate to assume that they had no anti‐American preconceptions when they arrived. They were, on the contrary, predisposed to see what was best in their host country. Though no one has recorded what Herbert Marcuse said when he landed in New York in 1934, it is safe to assume that he did not see Americans as one‐dimensional men, and did not equate our tolerance with oppression, our freedom with slavery, and our good nature with simple‐minded‐ness.

We have a record of what some other foreign intellectuals said when they arrived in the nineteen‐thirties. It is worth quoting in full the words of Olga Schnitzler, the widow of Arthur Schnitzler: “So much is here to learn and to see. Everyone has been given an opportunity. Everyone who has not been completely wornout experiences here a kind of rebirth. Everyone feels what a grandiose, complex and broad‐minded country America is, how well and free one can live among these people without perfidy and malice. Yes, we have lost a homeland, but we have found a world.”

Once they had settled down and found their place, many of these intellectuals began to feel constrained and stifled by the forwardness and the mores of the plebeian masses. They missed the aristocratic climate of the Old World. Inevitably, too, they became disdainful of our lowbrow, practical intelligence. They began to doubt whether Americans had the high‐caliber intelligence to solve the problems of a complex, difficult age. Hardly one of them bethought himself that in Europe, when intellectuals of their kind had a hand in shaping and managing affairs, things had not gone too well. There was something that prevented them from sensing the unprecedented nature of the American experiment; that the rejected of Europe have come here together, tamed a savage continent in an incredibly short time and, unguided by intellectuals, fashioned the finest society on a large scale the world has so far seen.

SCRATCH an intellectual and you find a would‐be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk. Professor Marcuse has lived among us for more than 30 years and now, in old age, his disenchantment with this country is spilling over into book after book. He is offended by the intrusion of the vulgar, by the failure of egalitarian America to keep common people in their place. He is frightened by “the degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace where there is still peace and silence, to be ugly and uglify things, to ooze familiarity and to offend against good form.” The vulgar invade “the small reserved sphere of existence” and compel exquisite Marcusian souls to partake of their and smells.

To a shabby would‐be aristocrat like Professor Marcuse there something fundamentally wrong with a society in which the master and the worker, the typist and the boss’s laughter do not live totally disparate Ives. Everything good in America seems to him a sham and a fraud.

AN interesting peculiarity of present‐day dissenting intellectuals is their lack of animus toward the rich. They are against the Government, the Congress, the Army and the police, and against corporations and unions, but hardly anything is being said or written against “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold” who were the butt of vituperation in the past. Indeed, there is nowadays a certain rapport between the rich and the would‐be revolutionaries. The outlandish role the rich are playing in the affluent society is one of the surprises of our time. Though the logic of it seems now fairly evident, I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What ever we have of revolution just now is financed the rich.

In order to feel rich, you have to have poor people around you. In an affluent society, riches lose their uniqueness—people no longer find fulfillment in being rich. And when the rich cannot feel rich they begin to have misgivings about success—not enough to give up the fruits of success, but enough to feel guilty, and emote soulfully about the grievances of the disadvantaged, and the sins of the status quo. It seems that every time a millionaire opens his mouth nowadays he confesses the sins of our society in public.

Now, it so happens that the rich do indeed have a lot to feel guilty about. They live in exclusive neighborhoods, send their children to private schools, and use every loophole to avoid paying taxes. But what they confess in public are not their private sins, but the sins of society, the sins of the rest of us, and it is our breasts they are beating into a pulp. They feel guilty and ashamed, they say, because the mass of people, who do most of the work and pay much of the taxes, are against integrated schools and housing, and do not tax themselves to the utmost to fight the evils that beset our cities. We are discovering that in an affluent society the rich have a monopoly of righteousness.

Moreover, the radicalized rich have radical children. There is no generation gap here. The most violent cliques of the New Left are made up of the children of the rich. The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground. The behavior of the extremist young makes sense when seen as the behavior of spoiled brats used to instant fulfillment who expect the solutions to life’s problems to be there on demand. And just as in former days aristocratic sprigs horse whipped peasants, so at present the children of the rich are riding rough shod over community sensibilities. The rich parents applaud and subsidize their revolutionary children, and probably brag about them at dinner parties.

As I said, the alienated rich are one of the surprises of our time. It is not surprising to be told that America is a country where intellectuals are least at home. But it is startling to realize that the rich are not, and probably never have been, wholly at ease in this country. The fact that it is easy to get rich in America has not made it a rich man’s country. The rich have always had it better elsewhere—better service, more deference, and more leisure and fun. In America, the rich have not known how to savor their riches, and many of them have not known how to behave and have come to a bad end.

There is a story about a British intellectual who traveled through this country toward the end of the last century. He was appalled by the monotony and unimaginativeness of the names of the towns he saw through the train window: Thomas ville, Richardsville, Harrysville, Mar ysville and so on. He had not an inkling of the import of what he was seeing: namely, that for the first time in history common people—any Tom, Dick and Harry—could build a town and name it after his own or his wife’s name. At one station, an old Irishwoman got on the train and sat next to him. When she heard his muttering and hissing she said: “This is a blessed country, sir. I think God made it for the poor.” Crevecceur, in the 18th century, saw America as an asylum where “the poor of Europe have by some means met together.” The poor everywhere have looked on America as their El Dorado. They voted for it with their legs by coming over in their

Yet during the nineteen‐sixties, poverty became one of the chief problems that plague this country: one of several nagging problems—like race relations, violence, drugs, inflation—which defy solution. From being a land of opportunity for the poor, America has become a dead end street for some 15 million unemployables‐80 per cent of them white, and most of them trapped in the cores of big cities. Money, better housing, and special schooling have little effect. Our society is showing itself unduly awkward in the attempt to turn the chronically poor into productive, useful citizens. Whereas, in the not too distant past, it was axiomatic that society lived at the expense of the poor, the present‐day poor, like the Roman proletariat, live at the expense of society.

WE have been transferred by affluence to a psychological age. Impersonal factors, including money, no longer play a decisive role in human affairs. It seems that, by mastering things, we have drained things of their potency to shape men’s lives. It is remarkable that common people are aware of this fact. They know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.

In the earliest cities, suburbs made their appearance as a refuge for dropouts who could not make the grade in the city. When eventually the cities decayed, the suburbs continued as the earliest villages. In our cities, the process has been reversed. The dropouts are stagnating in the cores of the cities, while people who are ideally suited for city life seek refuge in the suburbs. The indications are that we shall not have viable cities until we lure the chronically poor out of the cities and induce the exiled urbanites to return.

The diffusion of affluence has accelerated the absorption of the majority of workingmen into the middle class. The unemployable poor, left behind, feel isolated and ex posed, and it is becoming evident that a middle‐class society, which hugs the conviction that everyone can take care of himself, is singularly inept in helping those who cannot help themselves. If the rich cannot feel rich in an affluent society, the poor have never felt poorer.

WHOSE country, then, is America? It is the country of the common — the common men and women, a good 70 per cent of the population — who do most of the work, pay much of the taxes, crave neither power nor importance, and want to be left alone to live pleasurable humdrum lives. “The founders of the United States,” said Lord Charnwood, “did deliberately aspire to found a commonwealth in which common men and women should count for more than elsewhere.”

Again and again, you come up against the mystery of what happens to common folk when they land on our shores. It is like a homecoming. They find here their natural habitat, their ideal milieu that brings their energies and capacities into full play.

Tasks that in other countries are reserved for a select minority, for a specially trained elite, are in this country performed by every Tom, Dick and Harry. Not only did common Americans build and name towns, but they also founded states, propagated new faiths, commanded armies, wrote books, and ran for the highest office. It is this that has made America unprecedentedly new.

IT tickled me no end that the astronauts who landed on the moon were not elite‐conscious intellectuals but lowbrow ordinary Americans. It has been the genius of common Americans to achieve the momentous in an unmomentous matter‐of-fact way. If space exploration re mains in their keeping, they will soon make of it an everyday routine accessible to all.

Prof. Victor C. Ferkiss, author of “Technological Man,” sees the astronauts as “thoroughly conventional and middle‐class and essentially dull people who would make such nice neighbors and such unlikely friends.” Could these, he wonders, “be the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce?”

The intellectuals call this giving access to the vulgar—vulgarization. The intellectuals’ inclination is to complicate things, to make them so abstruse and difficult that they are accessible only to the initiated few. Where the intellectuals are in power, prosaic tasks become Promethean undertakings. I have yet to meet an intellectual who truly believes that common people can govern themselves and run things without outstanding leaders. In the longshore men’s union the intellectuals have a nervous breakdown anytime a common, barely literate longshoreman runs for office and gets elected.

TO me it seems axiomatic that the common people everywhere are our natural allies, and that our chief contribution to the advancement of mankind should be the energizing and activation of common folk. We must learn how to impart to common people everywhere the technological, political and social skills that would enable them to dispense with the tutorship of the upper classes and the intellectuals. We must deflate the pretensions of self‐appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dust bin of history.

Our foreign aid to backward countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America should be tailored to the needs of common people rather than of the elites. The elites hanker for the trappings of the 20th century. They want steel mills, airlines, skyscrapers, etc. Let them get these trappings from elitist Russia. Our gift to the people in backward countries should be the capacity for self‐help. We must show them how to get bread, human dignity and strength by their own efforts. We must know how to stiffen their backbone so that they will insist on getting their full share of the good life and not allow them selves to be sacrificed to the Moloch of a mythical future.

There is an America hidden in the soil of every country and in the soul of every people. It is our task to help common people everywhere discover their America at home.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s