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Tuesday, January 11, 2005
I've long held that one of the things that makes right wing commentary tick in this country is that commentators are "assigned" certain issues to write and talk about. These topics are probably picked by GOP Central or the think tanks that are funded by major GOP donors, and the choice of topics is intended to advance themes that will serve the interests of the Republican Party. (Note that "serving the interest" of the Republican Party can include some topics that, while not congruent with current Republican doctrine, nonetheless put issues in the news and into the public debate that cause people to decide to vote Republican. Thus, advocating restrictive immigration policies serves the interest of the Republican Party just as advocating tax cuts does-- in both cases, skilled advocates can get voters to skew more Republican.)

Armstrong Williams, of course, was a classic right winger on assignment. He is a charismatic black commentator who talked about racial issues and education, spreading the GOP gospel-- anti-affirmative action, anti-anti-poverty programs, etc. Well, it turns out that the GOP got sloppy-- instead of funding Mr. Williams through their normal network of donors and think tanks, the White House paid him directly to shill for the No Child Left Behind Act.

Interestingly, conservatives are-- to their credit-- condemning Williams' shilling. Turns out that even they don't think it's kosher for the Bush Administration to have a pundit on the payroll. Good for them.

I can't help noting one irony though. One of the condemnors is Daniel J. Flynn. I have praised him for condemning Williams, and he deserves that praise. However, Flynn is also on assignment-- though unlike Williams, he isn't on the White House payroll. Flynn's book, which I have skimmed at my local Borders, is called Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas. (Note the telltale colon in the title after a pithy two word main title-- this is a constant feature of all books written on assignment.)

Flynn's book is based on a plausible premise-- that sometimes very smart people aren't very grounded in reality and are drawn to dumb ideas. Academic leftists are certainly an example of this; the recently departed Susan Sontag is another example. Of course, academic right-wingers like Richard Epstein and Milton Friedman have taken idiotic positions as well. But that's not my main beef with Flynn-- obviously, he's going after the left, and that's fine.

My beef with Flynn is twofold-- (1) that he refuses to recognize that there is a wide swath of issues where the right wing simply shows disdain for established academic knowledge in favor of fables that may please the religious or business base of the party but which have no basis in reality; and (2) that he infers from the fact that some academics take stupid positions, that all their ideas must be wrong.

Let me take these points in turn. The first point is actually the key to his assignment. In many areas, right wingers go up against established scientific knowledge. These areas include both subjects important to religious people, such as the teaching of evolution, stem-cell research, and the belief that people were better off when "traditional values" governed prior to the 1960's, and subjects important to the financial donors to the Republican Party, such as global warming. Thus, it is obvious why Flynn's book could be of tremendous value to the Right. People trust scientists. People respect scientists. People believe that science produces useful knowledge. People know that many conservatives in history who opposed science, such as the Church leaders who opposed Galileo, have come out looking very bad indeed. So discrediting academics, turning the tables and calling them the idiots is a very important project for the conservative movement.

The problem is, all academia is not Susan Sontag or Paul Ehrlich (the famous neo-Malthusian environmentalist who believed that overpopulation would kill us all) or Peter Singer (the animal rights advocate who believes that infanticide can be justified). Specifically, Charles Darwin was right (not on everything, but on the crucial issue of natural selection) and the religious right's literal interpretation of the Bible is wrong. Stem cell researchers are right (along with all the great philosophers who were able to figure out that a zygote does not have all the rights of a human being) and the simpletons who believe that you should never destroy a fertilized egg are wrong. The "good old days" before the sexual revolution were days of back alley abortions, huge amounts of unreported rape, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancies. And human activity almost certainly has caused some warming of the planet. Sorry, folks, the conservatives are wrong. And calling out a few leftist academics-- who may very well deserve to be called out-- does not change that.

Second, Flynn's whole book is premised on the idea that we shouldn't take liberal academics seriously because they have advocated some dumb ideas. Margeret Sanger was a eugenicist. Peter Singer supports infanticide. Alfred Kinsey was a deviant. Malcolm X advocated violence. But that's transparently not true. Family planning, animal rights, the study of human sexual behavior, and black self-help are not bad ideas because some flawed people introduced them to the public discourse, any more than we shouldn't use railroad cars because Leland Stanford, Jr. built railroads exploiting poor Chinese laborers or that we shouldn't build freeways because the first ones were built by Adolf Hitler. Indeed, many conservative ideas were introduced by flawed people too-- the Declaration of Independence that conservatives love to point to because it contains copious religious references was written by slaveholders. Ronald Reagan, who introduced "moral values" into contemporary politics, was a divorcee who very likely impregnated his second wife before they were married. Does William Bennett's awful gambling habit (and pathetic rationalizations for it) impugn his groundbreaking ideas in education policy? Indeed, much of modern conservative politics could be traced to Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and supported Southern "states rights" that was a code word for maintaining Jim Crow.

The point is, we judge ideas on their merits, or at least, scientists and academics do. And we do a pretty good job of it-- and Flynn actually unknowingly demonstrates this. You see, Margaret Sanger's good ideas about family planning have become common currency to everyone but the extreme right, but her bad ideas about eugenics have faded from the scene. Nobody takes Peter Singer seriously on infanticide, but the animal rights movement is flourishing, with even some conservatives arguing that we have a responsibility not to be cruel to animals.

The danger of Flynn, however, is that he has tapped into a powerful vein of American belief. In truth, many Americans-- including many who did not go to college-- have a distrust towards academic elites. Eroding their trust in science and academia is thus not only desirable to Republicans, but is also possible. (Think about all the people out there who believed Michelle Malkin's book rather than all the orthodox, carefully studied historical work that has been done on the World War II Japanese evacuation and internment.) The truth is, we need science and academia, because the devout and the rich don't have all the answers. In fact, they can be quite irresponsible at times. We need science and academia because if we don't rely on objective methodology and the scientific method, other countries who do rely on it will get ahead of us. American science is what got this country ahead in the first place. It is what built our military superiority. It is what fueled our favorable trade position with new technologies. People who believe that universities are filled with idiotic leftists won't fund research, development, and education. We all must hope that Flynn's view never truly takes hold.

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