October 26, 2008

Not The Right Path

I first saw this idea in a column by David Brooks in the New York Times: The Republican Party is become the party of anti-intellectualism:
What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.
Neither a wild-eyed liberal nor a conservative culture warrior, Brooks is in my opinion a reasonably clear-eyed observer of political and social reality. But when I came across the idea I resisted writing about it right away because it seemed wrong. There are plenty of deep-thinking Republicans of great intelligence and education, and they get their share of press and publicity.

And hints of it had been there for a long time. For instance, way back in April, there was some uproar over Barack Obama's condescending remarks about rural Americans clinging to religion and guns. Now, I had as much fun with that as anyone, but eventually I tried make clear that for better or worse, our leaders are elites and therefore chosen from among the elite, argula-eating class.

Look at the Republican nominees for proof of that: John McCain is hardly a middle-class American, being the scion of an elite Navy family and a member (by marriage) of a family blessed with sufficient wealth that it would take multiple generations to dissipate. Sarah Palin, for her part, seems to come from a somewhat more middle-class background but can hardly be said to be economically challenged; her family may not be there yet, but they are clearly well within the band of income earners that even in these tough times can be called "comfortable" and thanks to Gov. Palin's high-profile public service, they stand at the threshold of entering the elite class.

So too much elite-bashing, I figured, was probably not in the Republicans' best interests because Republicans are elites as much as Democrats. But the Brooks "anti-intellectual" thought unsettled me because it seemed aimed not at economic elitism, but rather mental elitism. You know, being all educated and stuff. And the trope has appeared again and again. Principled, smart conservatives have begun to seriously fret about this. The candidates, in a joint interview with Brian Williams of NBC News, added fuel to this fire:

WILLIAMS: Who is a member of the elite?
PALIN: Oh, I guess just people who think that they're better than anyone else. And-- John McCain and I are so committed to serving every American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans who are so desiring of this economy getting put back on the right track. And winning these wars. And America's starting to reach her potential. And that is opportunity and hope provided everyone equally. So anyone who thinks that they are-- I guess-- better than anyone else, that's-- that's my definition of elitism.
WILLIAMS: So it's not education? It's not income-based? It's--
PALIN: Anyone who thinks that they're better than someone else.
WILLIAMS: --a state of mind? It's not geography?
PALIN: 'Course not.
WILLIAMS: Senator?
MCCAIN: I-- I know where a lot of 'em live. (LAUGH)
WILLIAMS: Where's that?
MCCAIN: Well, in our nation's capital and New York City. I've seen it. I've lived there. I know the town. I know-- I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a ... party with in Georgetown. I'll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.
(Emphases added.) Anyone who thinks they're better than anyone else? In what way? Just about everyone in America thinks they're better than other kinds of people in one way or another. Religious people, who think religion is inherently good, think they're better than non-religious people precisely because religion is good and its absence is bad. This kind of elitism becomes more acute when you become convinced that a particular kind of religion is better than some other kind of religion -- Christianity over Islam, for instance, or Southern Baptist Christianity over Roman Catholicism. But I don't think that's what Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin were trying to get to.

So too does anyone holding public office arrogate to themselves the power to tell other Americans what they can or cannot do, based on their own beliefs. Officeholders may (or may not) enjoy popular support for their policy proposals, but policy by its very nature involves telling people what they can or cannot do rather than letting them decide for themselves. Making something illegal means that individuals cannot make that choice. Incentivizing a particular choice through a tax benefit, government subsidy, or a tax penalty for making the opposite choice is to skew that choice. Only by not imposing any policy at all does the government allow individuals to make decisions for themselves -- and officeholders of either party are not very much in the business of removing policies so much as altering ones that currently exist or adding new ones. Bureaucracy expandeth.

So the failure of the candidates to coherently define what this group of "elite" people really is in any way that would let a third party identify them -- a clear sign that the use of the word "elite" is code for something, and that both Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are uncomfortable with the exercise of deconstructing the word to figure out what it's really getting at. You're supposed to just know what they're getting at and Brian Williams asking them to say exactly define that concept is somehow a breach of protocol. This does nothing to assure me either that these two are not members of that elite class as they defined it -- they are both in favor of restricting if not abolishing abortion rights, for instance, and McCain admits to having lived in their world.

Let's be clear about this. Education is supposed to be a good thing. It's better to be educated than not, right? If so, doesn't that mean that in some sense, educated people are better than uneducated ones? Perhaps not in a moral sense (educated people can do immoral things and seem to do so at about the same rate as people without the benefit of education) or in the sense of their votes being worth more than others. But when you are talking about engineering with people, the one who holds a college degree in physics ought to be afforded more authority than the one whose highest educational achievement is a high school diploma. The other person can, perhaps by way of experience, achieve a position of some authority in that conversation, but the presumption is the one with education is in a better position to discuss the subject than the one who lacks it.

One of the reasons that conservative culture warriors are vulnerable to this criticism is that so many of the policies they advocate are diametrically opposed to education itself. Which party contains within its big tent people who do the following:
  1. Object to teaching evolution in biology class and demand that creationism be taught as the intellectual equivalent of evolution.
  2. Advocate preventing schools from educating children about sexually-transmitted diseases and where babies come from, and oppose giving teenagers access to condoms, the only means known to effectively reduce teen pregnancy and transmission of STDs.
  3. Cry bloody murder at anyone who comes in contact with kids even acknowledging the existence of gay people in anything other than terms of moral condemnation.
  4. Object to medical research projects on grounds of religiously-informed morality.
  5. Position themselves as the victims of ideological indoctrination in higher education because, surprise, most college professors hold political views opposed to their own.
  6. Seek to gain political points by mocking scientific research.
Not convinced that Republicans do that last one? Check out this speech from darling-of-the-social-right Sarah Palin (warning, video in link starts automatically):
...Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That's more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. And where does a lot of that earmark money end up? It goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good -- things like fruit fly research in Paris, France, I kid you not, or a public policy center named for the guy who got the earmark. In our administration, we're going to reform and refocus. We're going to get our federal priorities straight, and fulfill our country's commitment to give every child opportunity and hope in life.
The money part of the quote I've highlighted, but I include the rest so that her statement can be understood in context. The phrase not in the prepared remarks that she threw in to her actual delivery ("I kid you not") indicates that she was trying to score a political point -- a political point that could only be gained by lampooning the research. "I kid you not" was her way of slam-dunking that basket.

Ironically, that same fruit fly research that Gov. Palin lampoons benefits the very subject that she was advocating for increasing funding for, and a subject that is honestly very close to her home -- helping out kids with autism and preventing autism from happening. But such a link does exist. Genetic research, performed on fruit flies, has produced advances in the treatment and prevention of autism.

Now, the idea that Gov. Palin, herself the mother of an autistic child, should want to de-fund scientific research in that field, is unimaginable. I can only reconcile her speech with the science by concluding that she is ignorant. This is not unimaginable -- indeed, it is exactly the sort of thing that we would expect from someone who is neither aware of nor particularly interested in the subject to begin with. Someone who lacks intellectual curiosity, someone who genuinely does not understand the value of science and sees it as a potential, if not actual, enemy. The result is that the feeling of antagonism between social conservatives and scientists is mutual. Maybe by demonstrating a healthy respect for education and science, conservatives would earn the respect of people who do science for a living.

Democrats, too, say really dumb and offensive things to score political points. Democrats often advocate bad policies. But unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats lack culture warriors who similarly advocate restricting the scope of education or teaching nonsense or religion and calling it "science." They don't position themselves as enemies of education or science. About as close as Democrats come to this is objecting to scientific research being funded by way of military research. They object to the fruits of scientific research being used to build weapons. This, of course, is stupid and self-destructive as well -- and like the anti-intellectualism on the right that I'm complaining about today, it only applies to a particular breed of Democrat.

But by pushing an anti-elite kind of populism, this breed of Republicans have also made themselves anti-intellectual. And the rank-and-file members of this wing of the party have embraced that concept with gusto. Adherence to the party line and an arbitrary set of values pushed by the religious right are the coin of their realm. Some Republicans would pick this path as the one that leads to electoral success. I think it can only do harm to the party and the country.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Palin is clueless. Oh wait, that makes me elitist. What a joke. No seriously, she is clueless.

My respect for McCain has diminished considerably since 2000. Why he chose Palin is beyond me.