This is your brain on America


David Brooks recently bucked the trend of looking back at the decade most of us would like to forget in order to prognosticate about the next ten years. Okay, so that’s just trading one trend for another, but at least I’m not going on about the Bono article.

In almost every sphere of public opinion, Americans are moving away from the administration, not toward it. The Ipsos/McClatchy organizations have been asking voters which party can do the best job of handling a range of 13 different issues. During the first year of the Obama administration, the Republicans gained ground on all 13.

The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.

The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

I’m always hesitant to fall back on the whole “people are stupid” idea, or divide my view of right and wrong according to education. But it’s not just the Bush years, the “naughty oughties”, or whatever we might call the last ten years; rather, almost the whole of the period in which my political conscience has been active has been defined by the difference between being smart or stupid.

I should qualify. Smart and stupid, as such, do not directly correlate to educated or uneducated. Among the finest minds in history are many who lacked formal education, or performed poorly in school. Personally, I never finished college, but there are those who, for various reasons, think I’m smart. And, of course, there are complete idiots out there who can do things I cannot: in Sisyphan terms, they push their own rocks. (Some would suggest I have managed to walk away from the rock, but it’s probably more fair to say I have other people to push my rock for me. And, yes, there are some who would say that’s pretty smart, but … well, you see where this goes.)

Speaking politically, as does Brooks, American politics has long been permeated by a strain of anti-intellectualism that has resulted in contradictory definitions and principles, general buffoonery, and a kind of blindness toward our collective humanity.

Among this anti-intellectual crowd—or, as Brooks puts it, those who oppose the educated class—we encounter all manner of counterintuitive, counterfactual, and downright ridiculous quirks. In my youth, with music and books, the argument was, “Our freedom of speech is violated because we can’t make you shut up!” The last eighteen or twenty years have seen repeated assertions—gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation—that one is only equal if they are held to be legally and morally superior. Recent years have seen our national prestige plummet, and the anti-intellectualists don’t seem to understand why. After all, if one opposes a policy of the United States, they are anti-American, and that explains the problem. It could never be that the policy itself is bad.

We must torture others so we can be better than the tyrants who torture. We must kill indiscriminately so that we can be better than the terrorists who kill indiscriminately.

And, heaven knows, the last thing a creationist should do in order to be thought scientific is propose a scientific hypothesis.

The only possible reason anyone could disagree with these points is because they are anti-American bigots.

It can’t possibly be that censorship is censorship, torture is torture, murder is murder, and science is science. It can’t possibly be that “because I say so” isn’t a good reason to start making exceptions.

“They hate us,” President Bush explained, “for our freedoms.” Which is why we turned around and started throwing our liberty to the wind. Give the terrorists what they want; that’s the way to beat them.

It’s like everything has become a sardonic joke. The same people who lamented the lowering of standards when I was younger are now those who want us to lower standards to include them. The same people who fought to silence others now complain loudly that they are being silenced. There is an argument among racists and other bigots that rejecting their bigotry is an act of hatred. Intellectually, and ideologically, this is chaos.

In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party. It could be the ruin of the party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate. But don’t underestimate the deep reservoirs of public disgust. If there is a double-dip recession, a long period of stagnation, a fiscal crisis, a terrorist attack or some other major scandal or event, the country could demand total change, creating a vacuum that only the tea party movement and its inheritors would be in a position to fill.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this movement. But I can certainly see its potential to shape the coming decade.

One step forward, two steps back. For the Tea Party and its fans, this equals progress.

But consider that indulgent liberty. We celebrate in this country low and primal instincts—the liberty of greed and gratification. While it is an unfortunate prospect to spend the next several years trying to accommodate a political class that is not so much uneducated as it is simply stupid, I’m unsure what else we should expect. Sadly, what we see in the Tea Party is a periodic culmination of everything these United States have always stood for.

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