Monday, October 18, 2010

No Free Lunch, Budgetary Constraints, and Gratuitous Promotion of Family Members

My father has a piece up at the Oxford University Press Blog arguing that both major political parties in the US are pretending to the public that there are painless solution to US budgetary problems. I'm not convinced that the current federal budget situation is as dire as he makes it out to be although I do agree that the state and local budgets in many areas are in very bad shape. However, the essential point seems spot on. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are willing to be honest with the voters. And this is clearly not a good situation. I don't see any quick resolution to these issues. I will however be slightly partisan in saying that it is clear that some groups are being more unhelpful than others and that the Tea Partiers are clearly one of the most unhelpful groups in question.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The AFA, Youtube, Christine O’Donnell, and Yale: A Rant About The Modern Right Wing

For a long time, I've believed that the anti-intellectualism of the modern right-wing in the United States is a fringe phenomenon.

However, over the last few months, I have become increasingly convinced that anti-intellectualism is not just a fringe phenomenon but a general trend of the modern conservative movement. The leaders of the movement are either ignorant, anti-intellectual buffoons, or they believe that their base is composed of ignorant, anti-intellectual buffoons.

Prior to coming to this conclusion, I had seen much evidence for this claim that did not convince me. The GSS data show that people who self-identify as liberal on average have larger vocabularies than those who self-identify as conservative. However, this did not convince me. Among other problems, the overall trends in that data are complicated. Vocabulary is correlated not just with increased liberalism but with general political extremism. That is, people more likely to identify with extreme political views are more likely to have a large vocabulary. Moreover, having a small vocab does not mean that one is anti-intellectual. It just means one is less likely to be intellectual.

Moreover, as I've discussed before, by some metrics of political knowledge, Democrats perform on average more poorly than Republicans.

However, the evidence for widespread anti-intellectualism among the American right-wing has now reached proportions which are difficult to deny. It is easy to dismiss Sarah Palin's comments about fruit flies as simple ignorance. And it is easy to dismiss Bobby Jindal's remarks about volcano monitoring as an isolated incident. However, these are not isolated incidences and one can point to many similar instances. Two of the most glaring that I've seen recently are remarks by the American Family Association's head Tim Wildmon and remarks made by Delaware senate candidate Christine O'Donnell.

The American Family Association is a right-wing Christian political group most known for organizing the boycotts that the right-wing periodically directs against companies that they have decided are too gay-friendly. I happen to be on their mailing list and received an email recently which contained the following:

A few months ago, AFA commissioned Christian songwriter/singer Eric Horner to write a moving patriotic song to honor our national motto, "In God We Trust."
Without any fanfare, we posted it on YouTube. The response was so overwhelming that YouTube called us to find out what was going on!

The fact is, the video is patriotic and inspiring, and it shares the message of faith. People love it!

YouTube has told us that if we can get 20,000 people to watch the video, they will feature it on their front page. That means that the tens of millions of people who visit YouTube's website each day will be offered the opportunity to watch the video - a video with a Christian message!

(fonts and formatting as in in original)
So much about this claim is strange that it is difficult to figure out where to start. The text contains outright lies. Youtube does not in general contact people for making popular videos to “find out what was going on!” It is conceivable that there is some threshold where such contact would occur. But that threshold is surely far beyond 20,000 views. In comparison for example, this video of Christopher Hitchens has around 35,000 hits and it is not the most popular such interview with Hitchens. Or to use a more amusing comparison, this extremely NSFW tribute video to Ray Bradbury has around a million views. 20,000 views is not much on Youtube. And anyone who gave minimal thought would realize this. My conclusion must be that the AFA lied . This is nothing less than political conmen fleecing a mark.

The other example was Christine O’Donnell’s recent attack on my alma mater. The Senate candidate, fresh from her prior remarks about scientists engineering ultra-intelligent rats , has now decided that Yale is a bad thing. She tweeted:

My opponent wants to bring Yale values to US Senate. I want to bring liberty, limited government, fiscal sanity.

Now, in fairness, she included a link to an article in the American Spectator which seemed to prompt her remark. That article didn’t criticize her opponent Chris Coon for going to Yale or for Yale values, but for his statement that he wants to bring the values of the Yale Divinity School to the Senate. That article is an attack piece, but like many attack pieces, it does have some truth to it and points out correctly that the Yale Divinity School is more left-wing than the general American population. That’s not the same thing as complaining about Yale in general. But, apparently to Christine O’Donnell, the problem as a whole is “Yale” values. According to O’Donnell, the values of one of the best universities on the planet are inherently bad values. It is difficult to imagine a more anti-intellectual stance short of book-burning. And yet, O’Donnell won the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate against Mike Castle. Castle is reasonable, well-educated and experienced. He has a law degree from Georgetown. He has demonstrated competence for over 20 years in political offices. And yet, he lost in the primary.

Anti-intellectualism is not at all limited to the GOP. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Obama administration actively interfered with government scientists telling the public how bad the the BP spill really was. Moreover, the Huffington Post, a mainstay of the liberal blogosphere, is filled with proponents of pseudoscience. And they have recently branched out from making absurd medical claims to denying evolution. But even these problems are small compared to the scale and pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism among the current conservative movement.

I don’t know what has happened to the GOP. At this point, the party seems to be engaging in a spiral of anti-intellectualism. There may be a positive feedback loop in that the more intellectuals grow disgusted with the Republican Party, the less incentive Republican candidates have to care about intellectuals. But that cannot be the whole story. Many people who are not intellectuals are not anti-intellectuals. So, I don’t understand what is happening to the Republican Party. But it disturbs me greatly. I’d like to be able to reasonably vote for multiple candidates including moderate Republicans. But as long as these trends continue, I will be forced to keep giving my money, my time, and my vote to Democratic candidates. And when I need to mark down what my politics are in a little box, I’ll answer “liberal” or “progressive” because in the United States right now, putting down anything else is becoming perilously close to writing “I support willful stupidity.”