A Tribute to Paul Hollander

Steve Balch

Paul Hollander, who passed away on April 9th, knew from an early age that ideas had consequences and that the worst of these could be terrible indeed. As a child in Budapest, he was forced to hide from the Nazis. Not very much later he had to flee from Hungary after Soviet tanks crushed its anti-Communist rebellion.

Settling in the United States and earning a Princeton Ph.D., Paul spent his teaching career on the sociology faculty of the University of Massachusetts. But despite his discipline’s materialist bent he never lost sight of the singular importance of ideas and the capacity of the wrong kind to seal people into lightless intellectual vaults. His uniqueness as a sociologist lay in demonstrating how the blinders of “theory” could turn the most vocal truth seekers into dupes of grotesque and transparent lies; how the best and brightest repeatedly succumbed to fantastic utopian delusions.

Paul wrote many memorable books. Although ideological enthrallment and disillusionment were his recurrent themes, Paul’s interests were far-reaching and, sometimes, given the gravity of his chief concerns, surprisingly playful. Amid books about utopian derangements, dictator-worship, anti-Americanism and various other cultural maladies, Paul also found the time to write one about what people looked for, and how they portrayed themselves, in the personal advertisements that appeared in newspaper dating columns. (But perhaps this was just another facet of his enduring interest in self-delusion.)

He was also an avid outdoorsman who often drove up to my vacation home with a kayak strapped to the roof of his car. Scarcely aging as the years passed, he seemed as physically tireless as he was intellectually – his books continuing to appear long after his official retirement. Nor did he himself succumb to any political dogma. His policy views, though always temperate, were never predictable. He cast his last presidential vote for the Democrats and was a stalwart environmentalist, befitting someone who so loved nature. 

Paul was a member of the National Association of Scholars from the organization’s inception, serving as one of the original members of its advisory board. But it was as a path-breaking scholar and eloquent academic voice for reason that he made his greatest mark. In fact, it was his highest profile work, Political Pilgrims, that in 1982 catalyzed my decision to launch the NAS.

The book dealt with the incorrigible unwillingness of many Western intellectuals to identify with societies that by any reasonable standard were the freest, most prosperous and most decent of any humanity had ever produced. It also analyzed in excruciating detail the proclivity of such persons to fawn over murderous and immiserating regimes, provided they had some thin utopian patina.         

Political Pilgrims confirmed what I could see around me in the professoriate of New York’s City University and was deeply disturbing to read. But it was the book’s final paragraph that most shook me.  

“There is no denying,” Paul wrote, “that the outlook reflected in these closing pages is far from confident about the survival of the values and institutions which used to be held in high esteem in the West. Perhaps such pessimism involves an element of magical thinking, a lurking hope that the discouraging development envisioned above may be foiled by conjuring them up for anticipatory inspection.”                      

That did it. I closed the volume, rose up from my chair and knew what the rest of my life would be about, doing my best to forestall the destruction from within – through the treason of its clerks – of a society that had given me, and many other quite ordinary folks, so very much. The National Association of Scholars was then and there born.

Did Paul’s sympathetic magic work its spell? Having so well painted the Ursus Horribilis of intellectual fanaticism, does the beast now lie speared and writhing on the cave floor? I can only wish.

But if it still lives and fumes, one can still find satisfaction that its nature, scent, and scat have become common subjects of discussion not only within academe but even among the households of our land. Many others, to be sure, have contributed to this recognition, but Paul was among first on the scent. Remember him as we follow in his path.         

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