More than a few times in the past few months/years, I have thought that the biggest hurdle to sanity in our country was one thing: ignorance. I don’t say ‘stupidity’, for that implies an inability to comprehend, but rather ignorance, which is the refusal to comprehend, to consider other options, other ways of doing things. A few days ago, I came across this OpEd by Paul Krugman writing for the New York Times that I think speaks volumes about our current situation.
What Underlies the G.O.P. Commitment to Ignorance?
June 28, 2021
As everyone knows, leftists hate America’s military. Recently, a prominent left-wing media figure attacked Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declaring, “He’s not just a pig, he’s stupid.”
Oh, wait. That was no leftist, that was Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. What set Carlson off was testimony in which Milley told a congressional hearing that he considered it important “for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and widely read.”
The problem is obvious. Closed-mindedness and ignorance have become core conservative values, and those who reject these values are the enemy, no matter what they may have done to serve the country.
The Milley hearing was part of the orchestrated furor over “critical race theory,” which has dominated right-wing media for the past few months, getting close to 2,000 mentions on Fox so far this year. One often sees assertions that those attacking critical race theory have no idea what it’s about, but I disagree; they understand that it has something to do with assertions that America has a history of racism and of policies that explicitly or implicitly widened racial disparities.
And such assertions are unmistakably true. The Tulsa race massacre really happened, and it was only one of many such incidents. The 1938 underwriting manual for the Federal Housing Administration really did declare that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”
We can argue about the relevance of this history to current policy, but who would argue against acknowledging simple facts?
The modern right, that’s who. The current obsession with critical race theory is a cynical attempt to change the subject away from the Biden administration’s highly popular policy initiatives, while pandering to the white rage that Republicans deny exists. But it’s only one of multiple subjects on which willful ignorance has become a litmus test for anyone hoping to succeed in Republican politics.
Thus, to be a Republican in good standing one must deny the reality of man-made climate change, or at least oppose any meaningful action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. One must reject or at least express skepticism about the theory of evolution. And don’t even get me started on things like the efficacy of tax cuts.
What underlies this cross-disciplinary commitment to ignorance? On each subject, refusing to acknowledge reality serves special interests. Climate denial caters to the fossil fuel industry; evolution denial caters to religious fundamentalists; tax-cut mysticism caters to billionaire donors.
But there’s also, I’d argue, a spillover effect: Accepting evidence and logic is a sort of universal value, and you can’t take it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board. That is, you can’t declare that honesty about America’s racial history is unacceptable and expect to maintain intellectual standards everywhere else. In the modern right-wing universe of ideas, everything is political; there are no safe subjects.
This politicization of everything inevitably creates huge tension between conservatives and institutions that try to respect reality.
There have been many studies documenting the strong Democratic lean of college professors, which is often treated as prima facie evidence of political bias in hiring. A new law in Florida requires that each state university conduct an annual survey “which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented,” which doesn’t specifically mandate the hiring of more Republicans but clearly gestures in that direction.
An obvious counterargument to claims of biased hiring is self-selection: How many conservatives choose to pursue careers in, say, sociology? Is hiring bias the reason police officers seem to have disproportionately supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, or is this simply a reflection of the kind of people who choose careers in law enforcement?
But beyond that, the modern G.O.P. is no home for people who believe in objectivity. One striking feature of surveys of academic partisanship is the overwhelming Democratic lean in hard sciences like biology and chemistry; but is that really hard to understand when Republicans reject science on so many fronts?
One recent study marvels that even finance departments are mainly Democratic. Indeed, you might expect finance professors, some of whom do lucrative consulting for Wall Street, to be pretty conservative. But even they are repelled by a party committed to zombie economics.
Which brings me back to General Milley. The U.S. military has traditionally leaned Republican, but the modern officer corps is highly educated, open-minded and, dare I say it, even a bit intellectual — because those are attributes that help win wars.
Unfortunately, they are also attributes the modern G.O.P. finds intolerable.
So something like the attack on Milley was inevitable. Right-wingers have gone all in on ignorance, so they were bound to come into conflict with every institution — including the U.S. military — that is trying to cultivate knowledge.