The Magazine

The Sage of Fresno

Victor Davis Hanson, down on the farm.

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By JONATHAN KAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

DRIVING TOWARD TOWN, we pass a row of farms, and Hanson recites the names of families who worked them back when he was a child. Most have moved on. The days of the family farm are gone, he laments, and with it, Selma's civic pride. Lawns have become dumping grounds for refuse and parking spots for mobile homes. Back roads have been turned into slalom courses of discarded garbage and old furniture. Even the old timers seem to have stopped caring. Meanwhile, nearby Fresno is rapidly expanding. Sooner or later, all of this land will be given over to strip malls and tract housing. Selma's "crucible of character" is crumbling before Hanson's eyes.

"Sometimes I go back and read copies of the Fresno Bee from the 1950s, and it breaks my heart," he tells me. "I was reading an article from 1957 that went something along the lines of: 'Mr. Smith was arrested when a syringe was found in his family's house. The family members expressed shame.' Or 'the Lion's Club failed to meet its fundraising goal. They promised to do better next year.' There were high moral standards without cynicism or nihilism. Now, you pick up the paper and there are two kinds of stories: crime hit pieces and 'feel good' vapid multicultural be-all-you-can-be stories. 'Mr. Rodriguez bought two Christmas trees this year'--that's a story."

Hanson places much of the blame for this decay on America's elites, who he says have fostered a cult of postmodernism, identity politics, and affirmative action--or, as he puts it, "diversity without standards." As a classicist, he sees this as nothing less than a renunciation of the intellectual traditions bequeathed by the Greeks.

"Multiculturalism, in preference to a multiracial embrace of Western culture, has become what pulp was in the 1950s," he tells me as he navigates the truck between a rotting sofa and a bed frame. "Plato told us this was inevitable: The more you embrace a state-mandated egalitarianism for its own sake and radical democracy, . . . the more you will be driven to the common denominator of a therapeutic, happy-go-lucky culture, simple stories, lowbrow entertainment, minimal expectations--rather than the hard work of using education to uplift the majority."

If Hanson's great hero is the citizen-farmer, his great villain is the effete, left-wing urbanite--the relativist, the poseur, the spoiled gadabout who has ignorantly embraced fashionable opinions. Hanson himself is a registered Democrat, but he loathes "boutique liberal multimillionaires" and freely acknowledges the party he admires has been extinct since the days of Truman and JFK. "There are a lot of people who are simply not equipped for capitalism," he tells me. "You have to look out for them. The Democratic party is supposed to be about giving ordinary people a stake in society. But those aren't the people who speak for the Democrats these days. The people who write for Harper's, you put them in a trailer out here, they'd go nuts."

When Hanson gets on this theme, his voice rises slightly. One senses he has not entirely forgiven the sneering welcome he received at Fresno State a quarter century ago. Railing against America's intellectual establishment, he hits his target from both sides--as both a rural farmer who feels urban America's patronizing sting and as a scholar who can easily unmask the elites' intellectual pretensions.

"Go out and quiz a history post-grad," he says. "What were the tactics employed at Gettysburg? Who was General Thomas? What was the Anaconda plan? They won't know. Look instead at the titles of their dissertations: The Cuban medical system, the history of footwear, gender in the revolutionary war."

"Do you know why Michael Moore doesn't like people filming him when he speaks?" he asks, summoning a name that appears often in his writing. "It's because he can't finish a sentence. Because he's uneducated, and that's exactly how he sounds. I saw him speak on C-SPAN once and it went mostly like this: 'You know, like, they're coming to get--you know--like you and you. For the army. And it's for oil, man. You know. Bush and Cheney.' And that was the range of his delivery. We apparently no longer apply any litmus tests to public figures who assume positions of wisdom. We no longer ask, 'Is the man educated? Does he speak well? Is he a man of honor who speaks the truth?' . . . There is only one way to be educated. Read narrative history, read the great novels, read philosophy, learn foreign languages. But we've forgotten all that in our therapeutic culture."