Thursday, October 30, 2008

How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington

The degradation of intelligence and learning in American politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies

George Monbiot - Guardian America

How was it allowed to happen? How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance? Was it charity that has permitted mankind's closest living relative to spend two terms as president? How did Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and other such gibbering numbskulls get to where they are? How could Republican rallies in 2008 be drowned out by screaming ignoramuses insisting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist?

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world's best universities and attracts the world's finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

There have been exceptions over the past century - Franklin Roosevelt, JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton tempered their intellectualism with the common touch and survived - but Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore and John Kerry were successfully tarred by their opponents as members of a cerebral elite (as if this were not a qualification for the presidency). Perhaps the defining moment in the collapse of intelligent politics was Ronald Reagan's response to Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential debate. Carter - stumbling a little, using long words - carefully enumerated the benefits of national health insurance. Reagan smiled and said: "There you go again." His own health programme would have appalled most Americans, had he explained it as carefully as Carter had done, but he had found a formula for avoiding tough political issues and making his opponents look like wonks.

It wasn't always like this. The founding fathers of the republic - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others - were among the greatest thinkers of their age. They felt no need to make a secret of it. How did the project they launched degenerate into George W Bush and Sarah Palin?

On one level, this is easy to answer. Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so stupid, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby's book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion - in particular fundamentalist religion - makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.
Jacoby shows that there was once a certain logic to its anti-rationalism. During the first few decades after the publication of The Origin of Species, for instance, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin's theory was mixed up in the US with the brutal philosophy - now known as social Darwinism - of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion. It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of social Darwinism.

But there were other, more powerful, reasons for the intellectual isolation of the fundamentalists. The US is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great educational gulf opened up. "In the south", Jacoby writes, "what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order."

The Southern Baptist Convention, now the biggest denomination in the US, was to slavery and segregation what the Dutch Reformed Church was to apartheid in South Africa. It has done more than any other force to keep the south stupid. In the 1960s it tried to stave off desegregation by establishing a system of private Christian schools and universities. A student can now progress from kindergarten to a higher degree without any exposure to secular teaching. Southern Baptist beliefs pass intact through the public school system as well. A survey by researchers at the University of Texas in 1998 found that one in four of the state's state school biology teachers believed humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time.

This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishisation of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln's career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary: all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism. This might have served people well when genuine self-education movements, like the one built around the Little Blue Books in the first half of the 20th century, were in vogue. In the age of infotainment, it is a recipe for confusion.

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists. Almost every day men such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly rage against the "liberal elites" destroying America.

The spectre of pointy-headed alien subversives was crucial to the election of Reagan and Bush. A genuine intellectual elite - like the neocons (some of them former communists) surrounding Bush - has managed to pitch the political conflict as a battle between ordinary Americans and an over-educated pinko establishment. Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism.

Obama has a lot to offer the US, but none of this will stop if he wins. Until the great failures of the US education system are reversed or religious fundamentalism withers, there will be political opportunities for people, like Bush and Palin, who flaunt their ignorance.

22 Comments:

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

What's interesting to me is that fundamentalist leftwing intellectuals love Darwin's evolutionary theory to promote secular socialism, but wage war against the free market economics of natural selection.

Leftwing extremists may hate God, but they sure do love to play God.

 
At 6:14 PM, Blogger Baconeater said...

Fiscal values have nothing to do with evolution being fact. They are separate entities MZ. I don't miss your blog one iota btw, especially knowing the mindless things that you spew here.
Hate God? You and facts have never met.

For the record, I'm a fiscal conservative. I think most Godless are. We tend to be Libertarian as far as the majority of us goes.

As for religious fundamentalism growing in the USA. I don't think so Gert.

Atheism/Agnosticism is growing percentage wise, I think the internet is killing of the creationist movement at a pretty fast rate.

 
At 9:07 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Bacon, as is the case with all absolutists, you are simply too extreme in your beliefs to grasp subtley or irony.

 
At 9:17 PM, Blogger Gert said...

BEAJ:

Do yourself a favour and drag yourself away from that Internet you seem to get most of your wisdom from. Right now, religion is on the rise in many parts of the world, last but certainly not least in the so dreaded Mooooslim world. US Fundies have never been so vocal either: apparently Mizz Palin is already considering standing for '12, undoubtedly with an agenda that leans even more to the loons than currently.

"Atheism/Agnosticism is growing percentage wise, I think the internet is killing of the creationist movement at a pretty fast rate."

Another one of these wet-dream Tinkerweb fallacy pipe-dreams of yours. You're another keyboard 101 warrior, with your own agenda and your own fantasies: of a victorious atheist movement marching through the Interweb... Also keep abusing science for your own ends. You have forsaken any claim to objectivity a long time ago.

 
At 9:22 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze:

"What's interesting to me is that fundamentalist leftwing intellectuals love Darwin's evolutionary theory to promote secular socialism, but wage war against the free market economics of natural selection."

Ding dong???

Show me one leftwing intellectual who uses Darwin to promote secular socialism. As regards "waging war on the free market economics of natural selection", accepting EB as a valid paradigm of biology doesn't mean we have to believe humans should live their lives according to it. We are humans, like animals, but not exactly animals.

 
At 9:25 PM, Blogger Baconeater said...

Gert, it is apparent that you pull your wisdom from nowhere.

 
At 9:29 PM, Blogger Baconeater said...

As for creationists in the US becoming more powerful: Their power is dwindling. Just look at gay marriages even being on the agenda to be accepted. Look at Roe vs. Wade. Show me where the religious right is winning at anything.

What are you going to say when Obama wins by a landslide?

 
At 9:37 PM, Blogger Gert said...

BEAJ:

Did you watch your hero's "What about the Jews?" No, try and be honest for once.

"What are you going to say when Obama wins by a landslide?"

That he's a Christian? And a decent guy?

 
At 9:40 PM, Blogger Gert said...

BEAJ:

"As for creationists in the US becoming more powerful [...]"

Where did I write that? Learn to read, arsehole...

 
At 11:16 PM, Blogger Baconeater said...

I saw his What About The Jews video a while ago. I actually left a negative comment or two on it.
See, I don't blindly agree with everything someone says though I may agree with most of what he says most of the time.

 
At 11:23 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Show me one leftwing intellectual who uses Darwin to promote secular socialism.

Gert, the author of this article, for one. Did you read it?

Another one of these wet-dream Tinkerweb fallacy pipe-dreams of yours. You're another keyboard 101 warrior, with your own agenda and your own fantasies: of a victorious atheist movement marching through the Interweb... Also keep abusing science for your own ends. You have forsaken any claim to objectivity a long time ago.

Bacon, if you've even managed to make Gert, a confirmed agnostic, conclude you to be an extremist nutjob it just shows how far gone you really are. I agree with him: get off the blog, leave the house, and start interacting with the real world.

 
At 11:43 AM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze, Madze, MadZe:

When will you learn one simple thing? I.e. that evolutionary biology isn't there to prove that G-d exists or not, that's not science's remit... That's a negative image that the conservative movement has created: the caricature of the G-d-hating, "Origin of Species" thumping fanatics, hell-bent on creating an Atheist Utopia, full of gay lovers and abortionists.

As regards socialism and secularism: atheists/agnostics, broadly speaking, break up politically more or less in the same way as other groups. Many of my Tory friends are atheists. BEAJ is decidedly conservative: on Moooslims for instance there's hardly a cigarette paper between you and him. Which is mainly why him and me fall out regularly.

 
At 1:09 PM, Blogger Emmanuel said...

I don't claim to have any concrete numbers based on real research, but my impression is that there are some areas where atheism is on the rise (like the northeastern US, Pacific coast, Canada and Europe) while there are other places where religious fundementalism is on the rise (like the southern US, South America, the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia).

Notice that gay marriage is being legalized in very liberal states. I don't expect to see two cowboys getting hitched in Texas anytime soon.

BEAJ:

"Atheism/Agnosticism is growing percentage wise, I think the internet is killing of the creationist movement at a pretty fast rate."

I don't think that's true. Creationists have their creationist websites. Atheists have their atheist websites. They don't visit each other's sites unless it is in order to sling mud at each other (which is definitely not the same as a serious debate about the merits of evolution and creationism).

 
At 2:08 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Gert, in case you didn't read the column you posted, it's central theme is about how secular leftwing intellectuals are vastly superior to the ignorant, primitive masses of the American religious right. Throughout the column he sites the skepticism of the religious right towards Darwin's Theory of Evolution as "proof" of the inferiority of the "numskull, screaming ignoramuses" who believe in the divinity of the bible.

Look, I'm not a Christian, I don't believe the "New Testament" is divine, and as Jews we don't believe that we should only interperet words of Torah literally as fundamentalists do. We are inherently UN-FUNDAMENTALIST because we look beyond the simple text for deeper philisophical understanding, metaphors, allusions and hidden meanings.

There are actually four legitimate ways Jews understand Torah:

1. Peshat: The simple, literal interpretation of Torah text.

2. Remez: The hinted meanings found in Torah.

3. Drush: The allegorical, philisophical explanations of Torah

4. Sod: The hidden, esoteric secrets in Torah.

This is why as a Jew I have no problem or conflict with science at all. There is nothing science could produce that would conflict with Torah because we understand Torah on so many deeper levels. Science is a tool that can help mankind, not a competitor for our legitimacy.

That said, we also DO believe in intelligent design. While science can never contradict Torah, we certainly DO believe that God CREATED or DESIGNED the natural laws that science helps us explain.

As you can imagine, this more complex approach to understanding bible makes us vastly different than fundamentalist Christians who only accept the "Pshat" literal understanding of biblical text.

It also exposes atheists like Bacon as ignorant fools as they attack our Torah for the words in the text that seemingly contradict popular scientific theory. They assume we are fundamentalists, that there is only the simple meaning of text, and that we are somehow discredited by the latest "discovery" du jour. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I defend fundamentalists, therefore, I am not defending them from the perspective of BEING one.

What I do think is that they are genuinely correct when they lash out at the decadence and elitism of the secular leftists like this author. This author is a bigot, not at all unlike Bacon the Fundamentalist Atheist, because he lashes out against religion from his lofty perch, but wants to play the role of God with the income and wealth that is generated and redistribute it according to HIS self-rightous morality.

In short, he's even WORSE than the "fundies" because at least they don't want to steal what everyone else makes and distribute it as they see fit.

I hope this explanation helps you better understand my perspectives, Gert.

 
At 2:51 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze:

It does and I will respond. Right now I'm too busy unraveling the secrets of manganese aqueous chemistry (LOL).

Thanks for a little patience.

 
At 5:35 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze:

All your points have been noted. I will respond only to a few.

What Monbiot lashes out against in this article is the fact that Christian Fundamentalism can go hand in hand with Obscurantism and what a deleterious effect this is having on American politics.

Parents that are OK with teaching their kids (or having taught them) that dinosaurs walked the Earth at the time of Adam and Eve are wilfully breeding dumb and ignorant people. The evidence that dinosaurs (as well as an incredibly high number of other species that have ever existed) came millions of years before even primates (let alone Man) is so overwhelming that denying its existence is on a par with denying existence of evidence for gravity or the Holocaust.

You talk about "scepticism of the religious right towards Darwin's Theory of Evolution" but in those circles that is not scepticism anymore. Downright rejection on ideological grounds doesn't constitute scepticism, it's ideology. Criticism of EB isn't served by claiming that "Dinosaurs are mentioned in the Bible": that is a down right lie. The list of lies, untenable denials, and fabrication of "evidence" even, is right before my eyes; I only need to follow the bread crumb trail of one or two creationist bloggers...

Regarding Intelligent Design: you only need to look from what side this came emanating to see that those who fund it and propagate it are ideologues, not scientists, see for instance the AEI. Having said that, for Behe and Demski I have a modicum of respect because they are a hell of a lot more soft-spoken than their self-serving followers who will rip any of their [B. and D.'s] carefully constructed (but hotly contested) arguments completely out of context, et voila, EB can be relegated to the dustbin (again).

As I've tried to explain before to you, the battle between ID and EB rages only in the USA because it's a manifestation of the Culture Wars, a battle between two competing world views and ways of life. As a result, puny ideologues like Ben Stein then feel the need to tar the study of evolutionary biology with the brush of eugenics and Nazism, just to score some points within the traditionalist camp. Talk about NOT understanding genetics or EB...

And unfortunately those in the opposite camp often don't behave much better. I've long ceased to participate in this "debate" (in the US) because I find there also much abuse of science, the positing of theories as fact and belief systems as theories. BEAJ errs far too often on this. Once he remarked (with steely resolve, not as a joke) that "Saudis are of lesser intelligence because of inbreeding". There isn't the slightest shred of evidence supporting this, nor was any presented. But it serves his own little war on Islam. Genetics should be kept out of that, unless vigorously tested evidence really did exist. Should anyone say something equally ridiculous with regards to Jewish people, all hell would break loose (and rightly so)... In essence it's called: "not understanding genetics".

On another occasion a small part of the US atheist blogosphere nearly burst into flames when (completely falsely) they claimed that BlogRush was discriminating against them. BEAJ was among the first to terminate the service (he later resumed it on my advice). And hops, John Reese (the founder) was found guilty of "anti-atheist bias". If was him I would have felt like throwing up...

Those who want to pin others down to their belief-systems should be more careful by testing their own.

You also wrote:

" While science can never contradict Torah, we certainly DO believe that God CREATED or DESIGNED the natural laws that science helps us explain."

In many respects that's more deistic than theistic and it's what my agnosticism revolves around: in terms of debate, the question on First Cause remains a truly interesting one but not one that can be resolved either way. Too many though confuse the two issues: the question whether there is an interventionist deity that concerns itself with Man's affairs (my educated guess is "No") and the question of where it all came from (my educated guess is "I truly don't know").

You also wrote:

"What I do think is that they are genuinely correct when they lash out at the decadence and elitism of the secular leftists like this author."

As Monbiot points out: "Any attempt to challenge the ideas of the rightwing elite has been successfully branded as elitism."

Madze, even in my own brief discussions with Cookie they kind of follow Monbiot's Reagan/Carter-scenario: I present an argument, well-reasoned, as concise as I can be on say, pro-choice. He responds: "I've no taste for long debates". He should have learned from the beloved Master and said: "There you go again"...

 
At 7:56 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Gert, one of the reasons Judaism attracted me from being a lifelong secular deist was very different from the reasons one chooses to become "born again". Being "born again" is taking a vow that you accept with pure faith the storyline without any argument or discussion.

I was drawn in by the incredible combination of factors of which faith is only one part of he equation. Ignorance is the enemy to Torah. We are always searching for truth, studying both the straight meaning and the nuance of the text and gleaning for perspective on issues that we face everyday.

We are bound by Jewish Law, but our understanding of the world and searching for truth is not only compatible with Torah, it's one of the most important reasons we were given Torah in the first place.

ID is compatible with science, but not science per se. It is more accurate to call it the study of science. We shouldn't use ID as a guide to conducting scientific experimentation because it has no place in that vein.

However, in the deeper of understanding the "why", the more esoteric understanding of how and why natural law exists at all, it not only is relavent, it is the most profound explanation of the secrets and mysteries behind science that we have. I don't know exactly what classification of study that makes ID best suited for, but it definitely needs to be an advanced course.

 
At 5:45 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze:

Didn't expect you today; it's Sabbath, no?

Looks like the long-planned post called "Interview with Mad Zionist" may not even have to take place. I was going to propose it some time in the future because what profoundly intrigues me is your self-professed "conversion" (for want of a better word), following the events of 9/11.

You claim "Ignorance is the enemy to Torah." and I'll accept that at face value. I have too many Jewish friends, some of them deeply observant, to believe otherwise. But I'm not particularly knowledgeable when it comes to Torah.

But your stance on Islam is so wrong that it's hard to not see the contradiction between a Toraic quest for knowledge and this deeply irrational, visceral hatred for all things Muslim. I have Muslim friends. I like them, argue with them, dislike them sometimes, really appreciate them often. Do business with them, fall out with them, make up again, etc etc, that whole plethora of human activity. We don't discuss religion much, if ever. If they ask me if I believe in God, I tell them: "No, not really. It's complicated" and we leave it at that. None are Islamists of course: they should locked up if they break the law. Period.

To tar an entire population group with the same brush cannot constitute knowledge in any way, shape or form.

Without this visceral hatred towards many of my fellow citizens you would have featured on my blogroll a long time ago. As it stands, I could not live with myself if I put you there...

 
At 11:45 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Gert, regasrding Shabbos, I didn't violate it to make that post. I think that you must have been confused by the time change.

Regarding your apparent conflict within yourself about me, well, you can only decide for yourself whether blogrolling me makes sense. I have no intention of campaigning for or against it, as this is your kingdom to do with as you see fit.

It does seem odd to me, though, that you link to Bacon, who hates islam as much as I do. In fact, he also hates Judaism and Christianity
to boot, so your criteria seems very strange to me.

Look, I consider the followers of islam to be dangerous, deadly enemies. I think the religion encourages terrorism and has the worst record for brutality and violence of any ideology. If Christianity were again to pose a deadly threat to Jews and the world around me I would hate them, too. Since they don't, I see no reason to bash those who mean me no harm for the most part, and seek to stand beside me against those who seek to destroy me.

You hate ideologies, too, Gert. You hate Fundamentalist Christianity every bit as much as I hate islam. This is because you fear them and what they could do to your way of life. I have that same fear of islam and what they seek to do to my way of life and the world I live in.

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze:

Bacon doesn't call for the extermination of all Muslims (even though he sails pretty close to that wind sometimes). I have been about a cig paper away from throwing him out. But we do agree on many things too. We've had much fun together baiting and bashing some serious (but also some comical) anti-Semites but Bacon is an Islamophobe: he doesn't even deny it. That's a double standard: you either oppose all discrimination or you don't at all...

You do call for extermination and that's a big difference.

I don't call for the extermination of anyone, not fundy Xtians either. Even to say that I hate them is overstating your case. I don't like ignorance, especially when it seems to be generated specifically for political goals. Had the Evangelicals not been recruited by mainstream GOP as a useful voting bloc, we would hardly have heard about them. Instead they've become vocal and on debates regarding EB (e.g.) constantly muddy the waters with their disingenuous distorted demonisation of evolutionary biology ("Evilution!")

And let me be emphatic: I don't like what they say or stand for but I would die fighting for their right to say what they say or believe what they believe.

 
At 5:10 PM, Blogger Mad Zionist said...

Gert, if you somehow got the interperetation that I am calling for extermination of the moslems let me make myself perfectly clear:

I CATEGORICALLY DO NOT CALL FOR THE EXTERMINATION OF THE MOSLEMS!

Are we clear now?

I call for EXPELLING the moslems from Israel. EXPELLING is a far cry from EXTERMINATING.

Hope this helps you better understand me.

 
At 3:09 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Madze:

Ok, we're clear now.

 

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