Who is Victor Davis Hanson?
September 21, 2012
Victor Davis Hanson says he lives in the nineteenth century—a fact that can get him into some trouble.
“Let me give you an example,” he says.
Hanson was in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart one day when he saw a young woman struggling to move a big screen television into her Honda. When he went over to help her, he noticed that she was holding an EBT card, a government-issued debit card for cash and food stamps.
Hanson told her, “You shouldn’t be using the food card to buy the big screen TV.” She told him to mind his own business. Despite her anger, Hanson persisted: “If you didn’t do that, you would more be self-reliant.”
Reflecting on that experience, he says, “In the nineteenth century, this would never have happened—the government giving you an EBT card to subsidize a lifestyle beyond necessities.”
Hanson may live in the nineteenth century, a time when duty and honor were moral imperatives, but he has made his academic career studying the ancient past. The lessons of Fourth Century BC Greece and Fifth Century AD Rome—civilizations and their falls due to affluence, leisure, and poor political leadership—are never far from the mind of this classicist and military historian.
That’s especially true when he thinks about Greece, the sick man of Europe today. “What’s happening in Greece is fascinating. The Greeks started rioting because they couldn’t borrow more money from Germany to fund their incredible public payrolls, lavish pensions, and other goodies.” The Greeks, Hanson argues, were essentially acting like spoiled children; they should have been writing thank you cards to their fiscally prudent northern neighbors who facilitated their EU entry, but they instead took to the streets in violent protest, invoking images of the Germans as Nazis.
Not that this should have surprised anyone. “The more you give people, the more entitlements they want,” Hanson says. “They never say, ‘Thank you, that’s so generous.’ They just think, ‘Gosh, don’t ever take that away. We need more.’” This culture of dependency, a byproduct of the entitlement state and what Hanson calls our “therapeutic culture,” is simply a display of human nature at its worst.
“The Greeks of the ancient world understood human nature,” Hanson says. “They knew that people want freedom and affluence, but that when you combine the two, you can have decadence.” The ancient Greeks knew that virtue required a strong moral order that protected people from themselves—from their own follies and vices. Hanson specifically cites the importance of a “shame culture” in checking human behavior.
“I may have the money to stay at home all day and watch Oprah and get pizza delivered to my couch,” he explains, “but I better not because it’s a sort of decadence. I may have enough money and freedom to line up at the mall to buy the latest Adidas-brand tennis shoe, but I shouldn’t do that.”
We in the West don’t have that sense of duty and responsibility today, he argues, which has serious implications for our political future. Though the situation is not as bad in the United States as it is in Greece, Hanson thinks America is losing its spirit of rugged individualism. The welfare state has driven people from the self-reliance that sharpens democracy to the dependency that blots it out. “We are emasculating our citizens,” he says gloomily. “I’m very worried about the future of civilization.”
A large part of the problem is nature—or, at least, our isolation from it due to the rise of technology.
Though today, Hanson is known as a conservative polemicist published by National Review, City Journal, and The Weekly Standard, among others, he originally came into the public spotlight as an agrarian writer in the Nineties. His 1997 book Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea is a powerful memoir and eulogy for the agrarian way of life.
The registered Democrat describes his political philosophy today as “agrarian conservatism,” a way of looking at the world he was born into.
“My parents taught me at a very early age that no matter how educated you are, you have to live in the real physical world.”
He elaborates: “I was brought up on a farm. I was taught which way the wind was blowing. Southern wind means warmth and rain. I was taught how much dew settled, the phases of the moon. Why the birds are roosting. If you have rented bees to pollenate the plums, then the blossoms must be open. When I think of a date like February 27, I always think ‘this is Santa Rosa’s plum blossom time.’ May 1st? That there’s only been one frost in my memory after May 1st. When I get up in the morning, these are the things I think about.”
Hanson grew up on a 135-acre farm in Selma, California, a working class town where he still lives for part of the year. From the age of five, he has been engaged in the hard physical labor of working the land. “I have plucked peaches, put pesticides on crops, driven tractors, and pruned with people from Mexico.” Nearly all of the students in his public elementary and high school were Mexican-American. “The people I see most days of the week these days out in rural Selma—few of them have high school degrees.”
After finishing his undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, he headed to Stanford University, where he received his PhD in classics. But instead of seeking a tenured-track academic position at an elite university, Hanson returned to Selma to manage the family farm with his twin brother. That only lasted four years, however. When the price of the raisin grapes dropped from $1,300 a ton to $450, plunging his native San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural depression, Hanson was forced to put his Stanford degree to use.
So he got into his pickup truck and headed to the closest university around—CSU Fresno—and asked the academic dean for a job. Hanson was dressed in his farmer’s overalls. As he approached campus, the tools were clanking around in the back of his truck. The dean and others did not believe that Hanson had received a doctoral degree from Stanford. So the farmer went back home to get his diploma for proof and it did the trick. He got a job teaching Greek and Latin to mostly Mexican-American immigrant students…