March 18, 2017


Outsmarted : On the liberal cult of the cognitive elite (Rick Perlstein, 3/17/17, The Baffler)

Way back in 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald figured out something very shrewd about right-wingers. He discovered, and described, an emerging social type: the reactionary pedant.

It comes in Chapter One of The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald introduces his dramatis personae. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, is chatting away aimlessly with his sophisticated cousin Daisy Buchanan and her equally sophisticated friend, Jordan Baker. Embarked upon his second glass of a "corky but rather impressive claret," Nick remarks that the conversation has grown a bit too recherché for his taste: "You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy. Can't you talk about crops or something?" He "meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way"--by Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan, whom Nick had known when both attended Yale.

"Civilization's going to pieces," broke out Tom violently. "I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read 'The Rise of the Colored Empires' by this man Goddard?"

"Why, no," I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

"Well, it's a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be--will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved."

"Tom's getting very profound," said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. "He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we--"

"Well, these books are all scientific," insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently.

"This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things."

"We've got to beat them down," whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

"You ought to live in California--" began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.

"This idea is that we're Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and--" After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. "--And we've produced all the things that go to make civilization--oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?"

There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.

In a novel that precisely deploys status markers, every detail here matters. Nick, blithe, ironic, and self-possessed, is perfectly comfortable making light of his preference for intellectually uncluttered chitchat. Tom Buchanan, not so self-possessed, has to rush in to demonstrate that he is smart too--though 1925 readers would immediately understand he is actually stupid, because he's biffed the names of two real-life thinkers: Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), and the eugenicist Madison Grant, inventor of "Nordic theory" and author of the equally alarmist The Passing of the Great Race (1916).

However, contemporary readers don't have to boast familiarity with the contents of 1920s bookstores to grasp that this guy is a clown--or to recognize the type. Think Spiro Agnew, braying about the downfall of America at the hands of "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," in speeches scripted for him by William Safire. (Safire dropped out of college to take a job with a gossip columnist. He later got a job as the resident conservative op-ed sage at the New York Times, and also published an "On Language" column in the Times magazine. In both capacities, he never let the world forget he knew a lot of six-syllable words.) Or William F. Buckley, whose rebarbative vocabulary conned a generation of liberals into believing conservatism was a "movement of ideas."

Liberals want to make you feel stupid, but--na na na!--it's actually liberals who are stupid: this trope is a commonplace of conservative rhetoric. If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans: that's the title of a 2007 book by Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh boasts that he performs his program "flawlessly with zero mistakes" with "half my brain tied behind my back." "We outnumber the stupid people" was one of the slogans of Herman Cain, the pizza magnate who ran for the Republican presidential nomination on a "9-9-9 plan" that sought to replace all federal taxes with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. Then there is Donald J. Trump, whose favorite word, besides "sad," is "smart," and who explains he doesn't need to attend to intelligence briefings because, "You know, I'm, like, a smart person."

"Smart" is an identity. "Smart" has a politics. "Smart" can be a road to authenticity, or "smart" can be a con.

Reactionary pedants love what they call "science." Recall, for example, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), the pseudoscientific racist tract in which Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein updated Stoddard and Grant's thesis for the Clinton era with chart after chart of regression analyses, which more responsible social scientists pointed out were skewed to support their biases. More recently there is Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and Trump enthusiast, who, in his online journal Radix ("In mathematical numeral systems," Wikipedia informs me, "the radix or base is the number of unique digits, including zero, used to represent numbers in a positional numeral system"), writes passages (with a coauthor, F. Roger Devlin) like this:

Organisms may be arranged along an r-K scale according to their fertility and level of parental investment. . . . Humans are the most extreme K strategizers in all of nature: they seldom have more than one child per year and several over a lifetime, but typically devote much time and effort to raising them. Not all human groups, however, are equal as K strategizers. Compared to White and Asian populations, Black Africans are more fertile and tend to devote less time and effort to their offspring. . . .

This relatively r reproductive strategy of Black Africans is a natural response to an environment in which diseases that seem to strike randomly are a leading cause of death. By having a lot of children, Africans increase the likelihood that some will live long enough to have children of their own.

And if we don't look out, the entire white race will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff. It's been proved.

Reactionary pedants obsessively flaunt academic credentials. ("You know someone's a libertarian on a message board," a friend once told me, "if they refer to 'Dr. Paul.'") They flaunt, too, their courage in daring to voice difficult truths as others content themselves with easy lies. Spencer's manifesto quoted above evokes the movie The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves must make a life-altering decision. Either he ingests a blue pill and remains behind in the shallow, comfortable world of conformity and ignorance, or swallows a red pill, which allows him heroically to apprehend the world beyond Plato's cave. He makes the latter choice, of course--as does Spencer, whose racialist diatribe appeared in a Radix blog labeled "The Red Pill."

Reactionary pedants also grow antsy when others do not recognize that they are smart ("Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair")--because their greatest fear is that others will see them as dumb. And this, in turn, is why they revere their chosen clerisy--the Agnews, Buckleys, and Spencers--for providing them with easily mustered proofs of their sophistication.

Friend Perlstein has here stumbled into precisely why the Right--and libertarians and neoconservatives, for that matter--are not Conservative.    Consider that the favorite political philosopher of the reactionary pedants who pepper this essay is Charles Darwin (author of "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life"). But when the question was asked of the archetypal Conservative, George W. Bush answered: Jesus Christ. It really is as simple as that.  

Conservatism is fundamentally a political philosophy rooted in revealed Christianity, which places many questions beyond the necessity for scientific theorizing.  Most importantly for the American experiment:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The Republic proceeds not from theories or ideas but from self-evident truth.  We are quite accurately called Stupid because we, in turn, accept this on faith and do not question it.  

Not surprisingly, the American people has then been uniquely hostile to Intellectualism, generally, and Darwinism, specifically.

The Brights, on the other hand, having rejected revelation, question everything and rely only on science to provide the justification for whatever views they choose to hold. The reactionary pedants are, thus, more similar to the Left than to conservatives. It's well worth reading the portion of this essay where friend Perlstein realizes the monstrousness of the great Progressive, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and his opinion in Buck v. Bell.  We would point out that the current crop of Progressives are bound by the same monstrous Darwinism, as revealed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion

Abortion as a tool for ridding us of the undesirable races?  You haven't come very far, baby.

But perhaps the best part of the whole essay comes when friend Perlstein pays homage to one particular quote from one of the most notoriously Stupid figures in American history:

"I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it."

Thus William Jennings Bryan, who fought to stop even the teaching of Darwinism in America, nevermind its adoption as a political program.

Posted by at March 18, 2017 7:55 AM