The Battle of Bad Ideas, or, Bay of Pig-Heads
It is in Ezekiel, near the beginning of God’s crazy-old-man period, when he admits that he deliberately gave his followers stupid ideas and made them follow intentionally bogus rules just to make them miserable and remind them who was really in charge. For all their talk of abortion, homosexuality, and other ancient bugaboos, one wonders, given the current state of the Republican Party, if it is here that they draw their primary motivation.
In a way, it is no surprise that the G.O.P. has forsaken the idea of, well, ideas. Republicans of old at least had stern Austrian Vons like Mises and Hayek to prop up as thinkers; but the days of genuine conservative intellectuals may have died long before that, burned to death in the flames of European revolutions. Even second-rate intellects like George Will and Bill Buckley are considered effete and ungraspable by the modern conservative, and their greatest accomplishments were having read and understood the thinkers who preceded them rather than any authentic contributions to original thought. Ayn Rand, a third-rate novelist and a fourth-rate philosopher, is what passes for an intellectual titan amongst current movement conservatives. Proud Republicans unashamedly champion the likes of one-note dimwit Herman Cain, straight-shooting ignoramus Rick Perry, and small-town Jesus-jumper Michele Bachmann as serious candidates for leadership of the free world.
Indeed, anti-intellectualism, in its curious latter-day Nixonian-populist manifestation, is virtually the creed of the modern Republican party. Even its intellectuals write books about how disgraceful it is to be an intellectual. It elevates, with a straight face, the clownish Jonah Goldberg and the disgraceful Charles Krauthammer to the position of ‘leading thinker’, and allows its position papers to come from the likes of Rich Lowrie. It is a world in which Newt Gingrich, whose mind flits from one half-formed notion to the next like a bee trying to pollinate a garden of toothpicks, is deemed an “idea man“. So utterly lacking in original or even cogent thought is the modern G.O.P., so caught in the thrall of what Lionel Trilling called “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”, that its party politics are governed by a man whose sole guiding notion in the incredibly complex world of political thought is that no one should ever have to pay taxes. Even the previous generation of Republicans — people who championed brainless partisan compère Ronald Reagan as a revolutionary political seer — are beginning to wonder what exactly happened to their party to make it such a shambolic joke.
But, as is all too often the case when trying to triangulate the race-to-the-bottom trajectory of the modern G.O.P., the joke is increasingly on us. Liberals are a famously contentious bunch, largely because intellectualism appeals to us, and intellectualism is all about the hotly contested war of one idea against another. In that war, nuance is important, words are everything, and compromise is bitterly earned. We fear the dire ramifications of letting a bad idea take root, and we loathe the idea of electing someone who won’t deliver on their promises to labor, to gay rights, to the environment, to peace. Our honest political differences often prevent us from forming a united — and victorious — front, and I’m not even convinced that’s a bad thing. But modern conservatives take full advantage, and have formed a coalition of the greedy and the stupid. The religious nuts, jingos, bigots and cut-rate market ideologues will rest assured that even if they never get what they want, at least they’ll be not getting it from a Republican. (This species of “Who cares what flavor it is, as long as the label says ‘chocolate’?” derangement is no longer isolated on the right, unfortunately.) And at the other end of the spectrum, the millionaires and the merchant class will always vote blue because, regardless of what the moron-in-chief has to say about this issue or that, the party will never fail to deliver what they really want: tax relief and deregulation.
And it’s by no means a leap of logic to assume that the party hacks and strategists at the RNC are aware of this, and play into it. You’ll note, as did the George H.W. Bush aide who pointed out that millions of people will remember the lie and thousands will remember the retraction, that liberals spend far more time refuting the nonsensical statements of an Ann Coulter or a Megan McArdle than those ladies spend making them, but in the end, it’s the nonsense that gets retold and reiterated, not the refutation. We actually bother to read the source materials that the Victor Davis Hansons of the world distort and propagandize, because we don’t want to be wrong. The right-wingers don’t care if they’re wrong; they just want to win. They don’t stick around to defend their arguments for a reason. While we’re still assembling a list of 50 reasons their scaremongering about the “World Trade Center Mosque” is ridiculous, they’ve already moved on to the next piece of political chicanery, plowing the electorate under with fresh new layers of bullshit, like God burdening the Israelites with “statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they should not live”.
It’s a fiendish tactic, and one without an easy solution. In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, eminent skeptic Michael Shermer discusses the mountains of misinformation propagated by Holocaust deniers and revisionists of every stripe, to which he has devoted a significant chunk of his career as a skeptic to combating. When he was scheduled to appear on an episode of the Phil Donahue show dedicated to the subject of Holocaust revisionism, a number of respected Jewish public figures appealed to him not to do so. No matter how false their contentions were, these people argued, appearing in a widely viewed public venue, even to contest those contentions, would just result in them getting more attention than they deserved. Shermer saw the logic in the argument, but what, he asked, was the alternative? To ignore them completely? This meant that they’d still keep telling their virulent untruths, but now they’d be doing so uncontested. He had a point, but so did his enemies. It’s a very hard decision, whether or not to give further publicity to an obvious piece of nonsense; it’s even harder when you begin to suspect that its ludicrous quality is why it was presented in the first place.
One thing is certain, though: the body politic may have been reduced to a joke, but the G.O.P. is laughing all the way to the bank. There may be no clear solution to the flooding of political discourse with toxic levels of trivial crap, but if something isn’t done, we’re one step closer to deciding our elections via haircut. We’re already far gone enough that news of a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Justice Department allows financial criminals to police themselves and avoid prosecution and the discovery that the Federal Reserve made secret loans to big banks before the TARP bailouts that netted them billions of dollars can come on the same day, and yet all the candidates can talk about is making unemployed people take drug tests and deporting the entire population of Ohio, leaving the party’s intellectual wing to call those who wish to see the people largely responsible for our country’s transcendentally fucked-up economy brought to heel a bunch of “rambling stoners, malcontents and Grateful Dead camp followers“. Look, folks, everybody likes to go to the circus. But eventually, you have to come home. And if, when you get there, your house is on fire, bringing the clowns back with you to put out the blaze is just going to make things worse.