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.”


spurge said...

I think the republicans hitching their wagon to the religious right has a lot to do with it.

KLP said...

Would you give any consideration to candidates not belonging to either major party?

Joshua said...

Spurge, I don't think that completely explains what is going on since they've been connected to the religious right for about 40 years.

KPL, Yes, but so far I have yet to see any such candidates who are either a) qualified or b) have policies I'd generally support.

Noah said...

Anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in conservative ideology, and is not just a phenomenon of the last few years. WItness William Buckley's famous remark: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." We can debate whether or not Buckley (no intellectual slouch himself, by any means) actually meant what he said, but the quote itself is very telling. And given the blatant anti-intellectualism of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, I'm not sure why you would consider anti-intellectualism to be merely a fringe phenomenon in the conservative movement. Two-term presidents of a major American party (and Reagan seems to have been beatified at this point by many on the right) would seem to count as pretty main-stream in my view.

Lautreamont said...

I similarly think that anti-intellectualism is an American movement NOT a Republican movement. If American students rank so amazingly low when compared with students of other countries, indeed, when even the top 5% of American students, our very smartest, rank 28th among the top 5% of other countries' students we must say are these kids republicans? No. They probably don't even know who Reagan is. Rather for decades intellect, studying, and intelligence have been considered uncool in the United States and for years our educational state has been declining. One other statistic that is quite telling: when asked how well they think they are doing at their studies American students rank #1 in self-esteem. Those countries that rank #1 and 2 have students who think they are doing the LEAST well. This is a general issue that extends FAR beyond republicans. I worry deeply about this trend.

Joshua said...

Noah, valid points. Anti-intellectualism among the right-wing has always been a problem. "Fringe" may have been too strong a word. (I'm not sure I'd describe Reagan as anti-intellectual though. That's a fairly complicated issue).


There may be a correlation v. causation issue there (Duning-Kruger coming into play). However, there's some evidence that the attempts to promote self-esteem in the US have done serious harm. For a more or less representative sample of the literature see (which argues more or less the other direction)