Entry from October 25, 2010

Intellectual snobbery, which is what Catholics would call the besetting sin of the Democrats, takes many forms, and Charles Murray’s splendid article in yesterday’s Washington Post makes a strong case for seeing it as, primarily, a new form of class warfare — or what he calls the “cognitive stratification” which has characterized American cultural and social life for the last generation or two. Those who look down their noses at Tea Party supporters — and there are plenty of such people on the right as well as the left — are likely to be, as Mr Murray argues, out of touch with the concerns, interests, enthusiasms and daily lives of the ordinary Americans who tend to make up the Tea Party movement, but that absence of knowledge in itself seems to me to be more probably the consequence than the cause of their snobbery.

The causes are many, of course, but, at least in the political context, the kind of snobbery of which Mr Murray writes is also and always at bottom an attempt to close down political debate. You can see the process at work in what is likely to prove to be President Obama’s equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech — the words of his that everyone will remember when they think of his political and presidential failure. I quoted them in my last post but one: “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does [sic] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. . . And the country’s scared.” In short, those who oppose the agenda of the Democrats and the Obama administration are irrational and psychologically unbalanced by fear.

“Science and argument” are not here seen as forms of inquiry and debate — which is what both science and politics when properly practised really are — but as absolute authorities to which those who claim their sanction can appeal in de-legitimizing points of view with which they disagree. I don’t think I would go so far as Kyle-Anne Shiver, who argues that amateur liberal forays into the psychological sciences amount to the return of Soviet-style politicized psychiatry, but she is right to view with alarm the rhetorical overkill in such manifestations of the same phenomenon as Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington this weekend or the remark by Vivian Schiller of NPR that Juan Williams might want to consult his psychiatrist about the fear of Muslims on airplanes, the confession of which on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox had caused her to fire him as an NPR commentator.

She might also have mentioned Stephen Colbert’s forthcoming rally in Washington, twinned with Mr Stewart’s, which is ironically titled a “March to Keep Fear Alive” — because, you see, the bogus right-wing nut that Colbert impersonates on his “satirical” TV show — and, recently, before a congressional sub-committee — is supposed by him and his leftie fans to be self-discrediting on account of appealing to fear for the justification of his views. Not coincidentally, Mr O’Reilly is supposed to be the model for Mr Colbert’s ironic persona as a right-wing blowhard. Probably most Americans who were honest about it would admit to at least some measure of the fear which Mr Williams so injudiciously confessed to Mr O’Reilly, but those who believe that fear to be a sign of bigotry and therefore of discreditable political views would naturally have to be much more afraid of revealing any taint of it in their own hearts.

You’d think that an ironist like Mr Colbert could spot the irony of the fact that in thus attempting to cut off debate with ridicule it is the lefties who appear more fearful. So, too, their attempt thus to discredit those who disagree with them betokens a fear of open debate and the natural risks that it poses of finding themselves in the wrong. I suppose you might almost call this fear irrational, if not a sign of insanity. I know there are some on my side of what used to be the public debate who would try to do the same thing in reverse — that is, to discredit the left’s arguments unheard by questioning the mental health of those who make them — but most of us (I think) are more confident both in the strength of our own arguments and in those of the other side and would prefer to bring them out in open debate.

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