Monday, November 3, 2008


It's not that John McCain and Sarah Palin invented campaigning based on "us versus them." They aren't the first in the Republican party to try to win by denigrating education and expertise, calling those who have them "elitists." It's just that they -- and the apparatus behind them -- have taken it to much higher levels than ever, and they've done it at the very time when we are threatening our own suicide. A time, in other words, when cooperation and calling upon the best advice from the best experts are needed more than ever before.

What the country needs, as in country first, is an electorate willing to think deeply about tough issues; and it needs leaders willing to and capable of calling on our best: our best thinkers, our best politicians, our best scientists, our best selves. Because it ain't gonna be easy, these next few years. It'll be harder, in fact, than either side has been willing to admit, and the reason no one is talking is that no one wants to listen.

With great gusto, from the top of the ticket all the way down, Republicans deride the idea of education, laugh at it in others, tout their own lack of it. Wear it like a damn pendant. From Neiman Marcus. Greedily they bait fear and division, smear their opponents, whatever it takes to win. At all costs. They count on sloppy thinking, because they know they've cultivated it (or, in the case of Sarah Palin, maybe it's because it's all she's ever known.)

It's the direction in which we've been heading for a long time, accelerating exponentially these last eight years: mindlessness. Cheered on by McPalin, facilitated by the religious right, we (they) are actively turning away from education, from science, from thought and discourse, from reality. Because those things are too damn hard. And, of course, because they threaten our (their) deepest need to believe that everything's fine. We make our own facts; that's how Bush did it, that's how Jerry and Pat do it. If the politicians on that side know better, they don't care; because it keeps getting them elected.

The paranoid in me sees it as a grand and cynical plan: recognizing the credulity of many of those on the hard religious right, the Republican party came upon the path to power by using them against themselves, playing to their weaknesses. In addition, knowing that liberal education is necessary to a functioning free society -- and that it's inimical to their ends -- they undertook the two-pronged approach of dumbing down public education and touting private (ie, fact-free, religious-based) education. It's working.

And, of course, there's the demonization of a free and inquisitive press. Inquiry, ipso facto, denotes bias. Divergence from the party line is the same as hatred of country.

It's perfect: to aggrandize power in an open society, you need both to close minds and prevent the spread of knowledge. In a big, brawny and previously energetically innovative country like ours, you'd think that'd be hard, or that it'd take time. Instead, to the amazement of those looking on from the outside, it's been easy as a snakebite.

About our leaders' recent rejection of science, Nobel Laureates are worried, and are urging a change in direction. Of course, these are the epitome of the elitists at whom the right like to sneer: professors, experts, researchers. Scientists, by golly. Thinkers. It not only makes no difference to those whose minds need changing: the very fact that Obama is endorsed by these eggheads is proof that he's the wrong guy. It's the ultimate damnation: don't need no smart people 'round here. We got our ideas all fixed in our head, end of discussion. La la la, we can't hear you.

That we are becoming -- already are -- a nation of idiots is clear. The rest of the world is leaving us in their dust, while on the right the response is either not to care, to rail against immigrants, or simply to deny the truth of it. What's not clear to me is how it came to this. The cause is clear: put simply, it's the rise of religiosity, bringing with it a rejection of reality. But why is it happening here? In other developed countries the trend is the opposite way: separation of religion from public policy or rejection of it entirely. Yet here we are, the once and past leaders of the world in scholarship, innovation, production, invention, electing people based on their religious views -- the more dogmatic the better -- willfully turning away from intellectual rigor. The "what" is obvious. It's the "why" that I don't get.

Tough times require tough thinking. Everywhere but in the US, it seems people understand that. Here, we've turned to magic. Or, rather, we've been led to it; and, for some reason, we've followed with only the occasional look back. Sarah Palin, many say with delight, is the new face of the Republican party. Indeed, I believe that's the case: a hyper-religious fanatical member of a sect-like subset of Christianity who confuses certainty with knowledge. A person for whom discrimination is a sacrament, and whose style of politics is distortion, fear-mongering, and division. One who denies the role of mankind in global warming, who believes God is controlling our politics, our wars, who ignores facts that get in her way. Who wants to ban books, believes "The Flintstones" was a documentary. USA! USA! USA!

This is what we are becoming, relentlessly. And it's why I see this election as such a bellwether of our future. It's why I hope -- deeply, with everything I have left -- for a resounding rejection of the tactics of McCain and the philosophy (if that's what it is) of Palin. For if we continue to laugh off the educated and thoughtful as silly elitists, and if we fall further into substituting her brand of magical and self-reinforcing faith for addressing worldly reality, our downward trajectory will only pick up speed.

I'm not a religious person, but I have valued friends who are. As one form of moral guidepost, as a way to ground oneself in this unsteady world, as a source of reliable strength to help on the journey, I respect it in my friends, because for them that's what it is. But as an alternate reality, as a substitute for grappling with the problems we all face on this planet, I reject it. The idea of my friends praying for the courage and strength they need, looking clear-eyed into the world, is, if anything, something I envy: I'm sure such faith is comforting. But the scenes of thousands of people in a megachurch, fed doomsday theology, speaking in tongues, being rid of witches -- that frightens me. Because those are people -- uncountable in numbers -- who've thrown in the towel and joined up; they've looked around and said, I can't handle it, I'm checking out. And to do it, I need the reinforcement of the likemindless, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, singing in unison with me. More than that, I need to decry and deny the reality of those who disagree, to cast them out, resoundingly to reject their very openness to uncertainty; because the least amount of disagreement threatens me. When facts run counter to my needed beliefs, I will ignore them. I will reject all cognitive dissonance, before it hurts. The Earth is a few thousand years old. Open-mindedness is next to godlessness. You can't tell me otherwise.

Whatever happened to the pioneer spirit, that can-do attitude?

I wouldn't care, except that it affects us all. The credulity demanded by these forms of faith (nor is charismatic Christianity the only threat) oozes outward. Those people, needy in their faith, are the same in their politics. They don't want to hear -- they simply can't deal with -- complexity. Nuance, gray zones? Not even. They must rail at those who don't agree with their simplistic view, and their chosen leaders are happy to feed the need. It is, heretofore and of late, a winning strategy.

Indeed, we appear to be in the end times after all. We are living during the culmination of a near-perfect plan (imperfect only in that, like endotoxin, it's killing its host), foisted by the devilish commingling of religionism and right-wing politics. Filling school boards with fanatics, home-schooling when possible, vouching for religious-based education when they can, in order to close minds to education; turning the populace against the idea of an inquisitive, free, and skeptical press; devaluing expertise and intellectual accomplishment as godless at worst, laughable at best; harnessing believers into the political fold, using their faith against their real-world interests; electing the narrowest of minds. It's a self-reinforcing power machine, and it's taking over. I guess if all that matters to our leaders is personal power, it's all good.

Maybe the religionists don't care: they're on their way to the rapture. But I wonder if at some point the Machiavellio-Rovian politicians who put it all together will have a moment of clarity. Just before we fail as a nation, as the lights go out on America as it once was, will they say "My God, what have we done?"


  1. Ha Ha, Sid, pulling out the old "You're Stupid!" line. Did you ever argue politics in the OR, then make everyone shut up when they were making good points, using the "Gotta pay attention to what I'm doing" excuse?? Not sayin you ever did, but I've known Surgeons that did that. Nice thing about being at the head of the table, you can look at note cards, and just get the CRNA to take over if you're losing. Well, God himself came out endorsing Obama, on my own Blog nonetheless, good thing I don't listen to celebrity endorsements :)And those 1,500 absentee ballots I filled out for McCain/Palin? He's just gonna miracle them into Obama/Biden votes...BLAST!!

  2. It says in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. Reading Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964 Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction) was a real mind-opener for me. But even with the bit of perspective gained from reading the book, I can't help but freak out about the current mindlessness. We've decided to get UK passports for our kids (their father is British) so they will at least have an "out" if the country heads further down the path of anti-intellectualism.

  3. Margaretwv,
    have you ever been to the UK? To bad they didn't opt for the Dental coverage in that National Health Service they have. They're just as stupid as we are, its just with that English accent it sounds sophistocated. So whats keepin you here?

  4. How the Great One is seen by those close to him:

    Obama's speech writer (including his announcement speech) can't stomach the Messiah any longer.

  5. new obama TV ad - sad images behind the beautiful Paul Simon song "American Tune". If this doesn't sway the last-minute undecided, I don't know what will.

  6. anonymous: I read the article. Didn't see the "close to him" part. Everyone has his/her own lens through which to view the world. A small percentage of Hillary supporters are, shall I say it, embittered. It's unfortunate. LIkewise to see criticism of ol Joe, who is hardly a paragon, as denigrating "working people" is a viewpoint, all right. But untethered to facts.

    Nor will I mention that your comment in this thread might be better placed elsewhere in this blog. But I can handle non-sequitur. The campaign has been nothing but, from the right.

  7. Hi Frank,

    UK citizenship will allow my kids to live and work in the EU, if they so choose. My kids will have dual citizenship; I do/will not. I'm happy they'll have a possible "out."

    What's keeping me here? Hope. Change. And my husband is now too ill to move back.

  8. margaretwv...

    Or as they say, 'everything old is new again'.

    Some things matter....others do not (like bell bottom pants and thinking the clothes of the 70's were 'cool'). Ugh.

    Ignore Frank over there. He has issues.

  9. Don't know if you're being purposely obtuse or purposefully insulting here, Sid. Are you suggesting that only Democrats are smart or went to college? I teach college and have any number of Ph.D. friends voting for McCain. I sit on a board with an oddly disproportionate number of MDs (some with MD and Ph.D.). I doubt that they're all voing Republican, but I can assure you some are.

    If you want education, here's your team:

    George Bush, BA Yale, MBA Harvard
    Dick Cheney, BA, MA U Wyoming
    Condoleezza Rice, BA cum laude U Denver, MA Notre Dame, Ph.D. U Denver

    I'm glad Obama has thought hard and deep about everything. While he was doing that, McCain was leading men, actually reaching across the aisle, voting yes or no rather than present.

    I agree with Hillary Cliinton: "McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign. Obama will bring a speech he wrote in 2002."

    That's what he has--the confidence that he can change the world, but no record of ever changing anything but his mind. He did write two important books about himself, but no meaningful legislation.

    He's an empty suit.

  10. Margaret, if your husband is that sick, wouldn't you want him to be in a society with really good health care? Oh, he's already here. Just bustin Ovaries, and I've lived in Europe too, its got some good points, but great medical care isn't one of them.

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  12. Margaret: I'm sorry for you and your husband. Best of luck.
    Frank and Sid: Go Obama!!!

  13. anonymous: I don't know if you're being deliberately obtuse, or if you really missed my point. Or are you arguing that education is indeed useless because it did nothing to prevent Bush, Cheney, and Rice from screwing everything up and ignoring our laws. Using your examples, it's a fair point, but it's quite off the one I was making, which was about the marriage of right wing politics and a brand of evangelical Christiansim, and the belittling of education and expertise. It seemed pretty obvious to me.

    I recognize there are intelligent arguments to be made for conservatism; and I know many intelligent and educated conservatives. If anything, that reinforces my point. I'd be delighted if elections turned on thoughtful debate on the complexities of the issues. That, however, does not seem to be the direction in which the Republican party is taking itself. It's swooning over Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, and marginalizing people like Lincoln Chaffee, Olympia Snowe, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Christopher Buckley, Andrew Sullivan, Peggy Noonan.

    You read what I wrote and drew the exact opposite inference from the one I was making. Of late, in your party, you're clearly among friends.

  14. Gawd, I'll be glad when this election is over!


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