We praise competition, but practice merger and monopoly…. We praise business organization but condemn and prevent labor organization…. We give heavier and more certain sentences to bank robbers than to bank wreckers. We boast of business ethics but we give power and prestige to business [disruptors]…. Everybody is equal before the law, except … women, immigrants, poor people.… We ridicule politicians in general but honor all officeholders in particular and most of us would like to be elected to something ourselves. We think of voting as the basis of democracy, but … seldom find more than fifty per cent of eligible voters actually registering their ‘will.’… Democracy is one of our most cherished ideals, but we speak of upper and lower classes, ‘look down on’ many useful occupations, trace our genealogies…. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we are full of racial, religious, economic, and numerous other prejudices and invidious distinctions. We value equality, but tolerate greater inequality of wealth and income than has ever existed in any other society…. We drape nude statues and suppress noble books…. We try to foster participative recreation, but most of it is passive, much of it vicious, and almost all of it flagrantly commercialized…. This is the age of science, but there is more belief in miracles, spirits, occultism, and providences than one would think possible…. Our scientific system produces a specialism that gives great prestige and great technical skill, but not always great wisdom…. The very triumphs of science produce an irrational, magic-minded faith in science….
Realize, now, that the article was written in 1935. The author was Read Bain, professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio. As a founding editor of the American Sociological Review, he would become embroiled in early disputes between the “scientists” and “humanists” in his own discipline. He was thus involved in theorizing—and, in that spontaneous way of so many early- to mid-20th-century American academics—practicing in the mode of a “public intellectual,” that figure who today, apparently, is nowhere to be found.[i] In terms of Bain’s analysis as synopsized above, and even more to the point, in terms of the social critique it so earnestly propounds, what struck me when first reading it was how contemporary it sounded and how apt its reproaches were.
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