WHY I DON'T VOTE REPUBLICAN
THE STUPID THING
When I was thirteen years old, I developed a deep and abiding love for William F. Buckley, Jr. I wasn't in love with his politics. I'm not sure I knew what they were. I wasn't in love with his accent, or his manner. They reminded me far too much of those of my relatives who had nothing to say to anybody who hadn't at least gone to Canterbury or Choate. I didn't think he was sexy, either. It was an earlier era, and girls of thirteen didn't think anybody was sexy.
My attraction to William F. Buckley was simple, uncomplicated, and visceral--I loved him for using "big words." He used very big words. He'd become a national joke for using them. And he didn't apologize. If you didn't understand what he said, you could look it up. If you complained about having to look it up, there was something wrong with you--a commitment to ignorance, at the very least. He was what he was, and who he was, and that included being a highly educated man who had a perfect right to sound like one.
I knew all about "big words," because I was constantly being accused of using them. Worse, I was constantly being told what a stuck-up, snobbish, ugly, stupid jerk I was for using them. It was like being in one of those Kafka stories I'd taken to reading at the time. I honestly didn't realize that I was using "big words." I wasn't doing it on purpose, and I didn't know that other people didn't know what they meant. I couldn't even try to stop, because I couldn't figure out how to tell if some word or other was "big" and therefore verboten.
If I remember one thing absolutely clearly from that period in my life, it was that if you used "big words"--or liked Mozart and George Eliot better than Ricky Nelson and Seventeen--you were somehow being a "phony." It was the charge of falseness that hit me hardest. Anybody who said they liked classical music or nineteenth century novels was just trying to make out that they were better than everybody else. It was a clear case of us vs. them. "Us" consisted of all those good, honest, regular people who didn't "put on airs." "Them" consisted of all those uppity snots who thought they were just so damned special.
Me being me, trapped in a world like that--maybe it was inevitable that William F. Buckley would come to seem a shining beacon from another world, where people could read Dante without being ridiculed. I had to hope that there was something out there that wasn't like what I was used to, because if there wasn't, I was going to slit my throat.
And it was out there. I did find people who talked about Jane Austen as casually as the girls in my junior high school talked about television and boys' butts.
But along the way, something happened to my love for William F. Buckley, Jr. and my attraction to any movement he might represent, on the not-too-coherent assumption that whatever it was had to be in favor of intelligence, and education, and erudition. The conservative movement became successful, and the Republican Party came to power--and it turned out that they were the same old conservatives they had always been, not the party of culture and excellence, but of populism and isolationism and the great Know-Nothing sneer.
National Review once said that the mission of a conservative movement was to "stand athwart the course of history, shouting Halt!" The motto of this conservative movement, and of the Republican Party that advances its cause, is that old taunt of classic American anti-intellectualism:
If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?
For the past twenty years, media of all kinds have been full of the conservative critique of "the culture of poverty." You know about the culture of poverty. It's the theory that poverty is caused not by lack of money, but by lack of "middle class values," including a commitment to hard work, honesty, punctuality, and...education. Education is very important. Hundreds of news stories, op-eds, alarmist books and documentaries have been published by now on the discovery that, in some African-American communities, studying and getting good grades is considered "acting white."
And I agree. If you want to make a group of people stupid, if you want to insure that they don't achieve much and can't think well, send them as children into a world where intellectual work, academic achievement, and aesthetic cultivation are ridiculed and despised. Portray the men and women who love these things as freaks--weird and socially inept, snobbish and arrogant, phony, insane. Glorify the stupid, the ignorant and the ordinary. Devalue educational attainment. Make a point of letting everyone know that, if you need advice on how to teach mathematics to high school students, or whether there's evidence for evolution, or what the best treatment is for schizophrenia--you won't ask the guy with the Ph.D in mathematics, biology, or psychology. You'll ask the local mechanic or dentist or Cub Scout den mother with a part time job at the cash register at K-Mart. After all, they're ordinary people. They've got common sense. Make a bigger point of ferreting out the odd scholar or academic with a wacky idea and dripping scorn on "educated idiots." In fact, turn the adjective "educated" into an epithet, so that you can be damned sure that no sensible person would ever want to be that.
There's most certainly a culture of ignorance and stupidity out there, but it wasn't invented by rappers from the inner city and it isn't being carried into the future by gangsta rap and the Notorious B.I.G. It's standard operating procedure for the Republican Party, who figured out long ago that there is a segment of the America public that is both resentful and suspicious of intelligence and education.
And make no mistake--it's not "intellectuals" they resent and despise, it is, literally, intelligence. The Republicans have gotten more sophisticated since the days when they labeled Adlai Stevenson "too smart to be President," but far too often they seem to be channeling the likes of George Wallace and Spiro Agnew. And Wallace was a Democrat.
By now, there are probably a couple of dozen of you jumping up and down with steam coming out of your ears. Republicans are smart! There are lots of conservative intellectuals! Republicans are in favor of beefing up academic standards in public schools! Democrats want to dumb them down!
Save your breath. Yes, there are certainly conservative intellectuals, real ones. Thomas Sowell has a first rate mind, a first rate education, and a solid body of intellectual work to his credit. And yes, there is a lot of conservative fulmination about "dumbing down" and "raising standards" in the public schools, including much justified exasperation at high school students who can't find the United States on a map.
The problem is, what conservatives are really interested in is not education, but training--and, especially, training in morals, attitudes, and their preferred vision of what history should have been like, whether it was or not. Being able to find the United States on a map is a good thing. Being able to say which came first, the American Civil War or the Russian Revolution is a good thing. Being able to explain the difference between the French Enlightenment and the English Enlightenment, or to explicate the nuances of the arguments for the role of religion in the founding of the United States, or to outline the differences in the approaches to the moral status of homosexuality in the works of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle is not a good thing because...well because...well, what do you need that kind of thing for, anyway? What good is it? Will it help you get a job?
Let's get real here. Education is not about memorizing the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, or multiplication tables, or Rudyard Kipling's If . There's nothing wrong with memorization, and most children have to do a fair amount of it before they're ready to do anything else. But education requires something else, quite a lot else, and it can't be achieved by people who congratulate themselves on how much they don't understand.
Education is, first and foremost, an introduction to the life of the mind--to knowledge for its own sake, to art as a window on the human condition, to the entire expanse and complexity of the human enterprise. Think of your brain as a muscle. Education conditions that muscle in much the way working out at the gym conditions your abs. The more frequently and vigorously you work out, the more you become capable of meeting increasingly difficult challenges. Think of education as a ski resort. When you start out, you can't handle very much, so you use the bunny slope. When you've practiced and trained for many years, the bunny slope is boring and the fun is over on Suicide Run.
I've got nothing against the bunny slope, really. I mean, for God's sake, I own a copy of Dude, Where's My Car? Sometimes, when you're just too tired or life is going haywire, a little mindless bunny slope is what you need. That's not the same thing as saying that it's all you need, ever. The reason why Jose Saramago's Blindness is better art than John Grisham's The Client isn't that a bunch of stuck up know it alls on Ivy League campuses want to make you feel bad about the things you like to read. It's that The Client is the bunny slope and Blindness is Suicide Run, a difficult, demanding, exhilarating book that makes your mind stretch and work and pays off not only in a far deeper and more rewarding experience, but in your mind's increased ability to handle difficulty and complexity in the future, and not just in reading fiction.
Your mind is like that other organ so many of us like so much better, and the rules for its maintenance are the same.
Use it or lose it.
Somewhere back in the Stone Age, some libertarian think tanks and publications produced perfectly valid critiques of the sort of people who think of a commitment to "high art" as being the American equivalent of a listing in Burke's Peerage. There are plenty of people out there for whom expressing a deep and abiding interest in the works of Frederick Chopin--and a deep and abiding distaste for the works of Eminem--serves the same purpose as owning a Mercedes, except that it's cheaper. They wear "culture" like a sign around their necks saying, "Look at me! I'm so much better than you!" They're willing to abandon the most accomplished and original work if it suddenly becomes "accessible." They probably understand as much about Chopin as I understand about catalytic converters.
What the Republican Party and its supporters have done over the last several years, however, is to take a rather complex and nuanced argument, simplify it until it's unrecognizable, and send forth into the culture a peanut gallery of bombastic pundits and abrasive talking heads willing to brand anybody, anywhere who would rather forgo Monday Night Football for Shakespeare in the Park as a Culture Vulture with a ramrod up his ass.
If the National Endowment for the Arts funds a classical ballet company in Cincinnati , they won't mention it. If it funds a silly performance artist whose most original idea is to get naked onstage and roll around in melted chocolate, they're all over it. It's not an accident that they give the impression that all "art" is either stupid or evil.
When Republicans do decide to excoriate popular culture and call for "quality media" instead of Britney Spears singing badly in barely adequate underwear, the antidote is worse than the disease. Forget Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope, and Tennessee Williams. "Quality" media seems to consist of sugary-sweet morality tales, warmed over Disney happyface mindlessness, and reruns of Fifties sitcoms where Dad never raises his voice, Mom never goes out to work, and the children never get into any trouble more serious than being made to stay after school for not having finished their homework. It's "art" for the kind of people who think the witchcraft in the Harry Potter books is real and sucking all the middle schools in America into Satanism.
This used to be a country proud of the fact that our Aggies read Plato and our engineers knew as much about the poetry of John Donne as any graduate of Eton. We built an entire system of Land Grant Universities on the theory that even the guy pushing a plow would be better off if he spent some time getting acquainted with "the best that has been thought and said," and that the country would be better off along with him. We thought that there was no great divide between the "intellectual" and the "practical."
Now the Republicans and the people who support them seem to be hell-bent on taking us back to a pre-literate world where "book learning" is probable cause for a charge of heresy and stupidity and ignorance are honored as superior to intelligence and knowledge. The people who run publications like National Review and First Things know perfectly well that Phillip Johnson's "critiques" of the theory of evolution are not just wrongheaded but embarrassingly idiotic, and that Liberty and Regent aren't credible universities. They cheerlead for every puffed up crusader for the "right" to teach children lies about science and history--but they're careful to send their own children to $30,000-a-year prep schools where the mere mention of "creation science" would be met with gales of laughter. They concur earnestly in the Christian right's excoriation of American higher education as atheistic, socialistic, and "politically correct"--but when the time comes to apply to colleges, their children don't ever consider much outside the Ivy League.
Maybe I'd be less angry about all this if it didn't seem to me to be so baldly cynical. Maybe I'd have more respect for people like William Bennett and the NR boys if they had attended, or were intent on sending their children to, the Franciscan University of Steubenville instead of Yale.
Maybe, but maybe not, because the fact is that even if these people were entirely sincere, they'd still be encouraging a culture of stupidity. There really is nothing honorable about being proud of what you don't know, or can't do, or aren't able to understand. Encouraging people in the delusion that "pointy-headed intellectuals"--meaning anybody at all more accomplished than the Bubbas at a Wednesday night prayer service--are just stupid fools who don't have the sense to come in out of the rain doesn't change the fact that knowledge is power and Bubba is at a disadvantage as long as he doesn't cure his ignorance and learn how to think.
Pandering to this sort of envy and resentment may get the Republicans votes--in fact, it definitely does get them votes, and a lot of them--but it diminishes us as a nation, makes our future less attractive, and threatens to destroy the American experiment at its root. The ideal American isn't the cultural coward who restricts his knowledge of the history of human thought to Amy Grant records, Veggie Tales videos, and a literal reading of the Old Testament. It's not the cultural yahoo who thinks human achievement begins and ends with Budweiser, country music and the NFL. The ideal American is the guy who can do serious science in the morning, watch the game in the afternoon, and read Jane Austen at night--and sit down with people who can't do all that and still be able to talk to them, no matter who they are, without being the least uncomfortable.
I'm not suggesting that the Republicans become enamored of Culture Vultures. I am suggesting that there is something wrong with a society that discourages its people, young and old, from having any intellectual ambitions higher than what can be satisfied at a revival meeting or on MTV. Pouring out an endless stream of invective about "educated idiots" who "can't take a crap without needing a roadmap"--and collaborating by silence in the fact that a third of your supporters think "the educated" are more likely to be involved in witchcraft and enemies of the state--does just that, and it makes us all stupider in the bargain.
Anti-intellectualism has a long history in the United States. It's not an honorable history, and I have no intention of voting for it.
Copyright © 2003 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.