Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Conservative War Against Intellect

There's been some buzz over at National Review Online about a righteous smackdown given by Jim Manzi to fellow conservative Mark Levin's book Liberty and Tyranny. Adam Serwer points to a telling response from

Mark recognizes that when you are at war, while it is important to get facts right (and I think Mark did a darned fine job sourcing his book, giving you the chance to criticize it), it is also important to inspire the troops and to do so by distilling the realities of the fight into useful information. I frankly don’t know if every statistic in Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative was correct or not. Nor do I know if every statistic or number in Reagan’s A Time For Choosing speech in 1964 was correct. I DON’T CARE. I know the facts were in the ballpark, and more importantly, the principles were timeless and correct. I have read Mark’s book, and I know a little about the topics in question - and it’s a good book, with good citations and a lot of good facts.

Get it? Facts aren't really important, as long as the words stir up some righteous populist anger. But this isn't an isolated incident. The right disdains academics and intellectuals. They prefer "common-sense" solutions. Newsflash: public policy is complicated. It's often counter-intuitive. We elect our representatives to do the research, learn about the issues, and make tough choices. We don't want a policy made up entirely of talking points. But if there's a sustained attack on intellectuals and intellectualism, we end up with talking points and not policy.


  1. Hmm, it's certainly true that many conservative political commentators play fast and loose with the facts. But isn't that true on the left, as well? Many academic law professors continue to assert as an indisputable fact that the Supreme Court "awarded" the 2000 presidency to George Bush, despite the fact that ballot recount projects show that under any recount standard proposed by Gore, the result would have been a Bush victory:,_2000#Florida_Ballot_Project_recounts

    (True, there are other standards, never sought by anyone, that would have led to Gore victory, but since no one asked for these, it's not very fruitful to consider them.)

    Now, I'm not going to defend Bush's presidency, and I didn't vote for him in 2000 or 2004. But I think the sustained claim that the Court selected Bush was demonstrably false, but also stirred up left-wing hatred and anger toward the Bush Administration.

  2. I don't really disagree with much of that, but it's not really what I intended to convey. My point (which was probably best elucidated by the title, more that what I wrote, unfortunately) was that the right is actively antagonistic towards intellectuals and intellect. It's most striking when you listen to someone like Sarah Palin, but it's present in most mainstream GOP rhetoric as well. There's a tendency to look askance at anything coming from an intellectual or anyone from an Ivy League school. There's an emphasis on being a folksy, down to earth, real American, instead of a someone who's got the policy chops to solve problems.

    Look at my blogroll, I mostly avoid the really obnoxious left in favor of wonkish types. You won't find me defending folks on the left like Michael Moore, Kossaks, FDLers, or Keith Olbermann. I think they're obnoxious and not all that helpful to the overall goal of liberals. Like you said, they also can play fast and loose with the truth. I would venture to say, however, that even the militant left tends not so much to denigrate intellectualism as to flaunt it. Where a conservative might dismiss something as "ivy-league intellectual, east coast snobbery," an obnoxious liberal is more likely to insinuate (or say outright) that the conservative in question is stupid. Neither approach is particularly productive, but I really hate seeing intelligence denigrated. We need more smart people in Washington, not fewer.

    As for Bush v Gore, personally, despite hating Bush, I just wanted the whole saga to end. I thought it was hugely embarrassing for America. The fact that SCOTUS voted 5-4 on party lines really made it look bad, and many liberals have latched on to that.

    I hope some of that made sense.

  3. Oh, I'll sadly agree that there is an anti-intellectual strand of the Republican Party, with probably a very high correlation to those who reject evolution; and that's not a good thing. Or maybe it's a good thing from the standpoint of my Democratic friends, because when it comes down to it, I fear the extremists on the Right more than I am annoyed by the extremists on the Left.

    But to be fair to some of my friends on the right, there is a nuanced difference between being anti-smart versus anti-Ivy League/East Coast elite/elitism. I'm not suggesting this is captured by more than a fraction of the crazies that you're criticizing. Harvard/Yale/Columbia do not have a monopoly on smart people, but you wouldn't really know that from looking at the backgrounds of the people appointed to legal positions in the Obama Administration. . . .

    Also, I don't think this justifies anti-intellectualism, but it may help explain it a bit. If you were a conservative person, with some education but not an academic, and you looked at modern American universities, particularly in humanities departments, you'd see a pretty strong left-leaning bias. Is it because conservatives are not as smart? Don't want to go into teaching? Are discriminated against? Who knows. But you might be more skeptical of universities, and by extension, what comes out of universities.

  4. Well, Obama could nominate Diane Wood for SCOTUS to make a start on breaking the Ivy-League stranglehold. U of Chicago and U of Texas, baby!

    I can understand that it's annoying for a conservative to see the leftiness of academia. But that's not a reason to disregard the value of higher education.

  5. The war on intellect is the sister war to the war on science.

  6. To put it in bumper sticker terms, something Republicans love to speak in: They do not want to elect the person whose parents had a bumper sticker saying: "My child is an honor roll student." They would prefer to elect the person whose parents had a bumper sticker saying: "My child can beat up your honor roll student."