What Underlies the G.O.P. Commitment to Ignorance?
As everyone knows, leftists hate America’s military. Recently, a prominent left-wing media figure attacked Gen. MarkMilley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declaring, “He’s not just a pig, he’s stupid.”
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Oh, wait. That was no leftist, that was Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. What set Carlson off was testimony in which Milleytold a congressional hearing that he considered it important “for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and widelyread.”
The problem is obvious. Closed-mindedness and ignorance have become core conservative values, and those whoreject 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-wingmedia for the past few months, getting close to 2,000 mentions on Fox so far this year. One often sees assertions thatthose attacking critical race theory have no idea what it’s about, but I disagree; they understand that it has somethingto do with assertions that America has a history of racism and of policies that explicitly or implicitly widened racialdisparities.
And such assertions are unmistakably true. The Tulsa race massacre really happened, and it was only one of manysuch 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 simplefacts?
The modern right, that’s who. The current obsession with critical race theory is a cynical attempt to change the subjectaway from the Biden administration’s highly popular policy initiatives, while pandering to the white rage thatRepublicans deny exists. But it’s only one of multiple subjects on which willful ignorance has become a litmus test foranyone 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 opposeany meaningful action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. One must reject or at least express skepticism about thetheory 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 realityserves special interests. Climate denial caters to the fossil fuel industry; evolution denial caters to religiousfundamentalists; 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’ttake it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board. That is, you can’t declare that honesty aboutAmerica’s racial history is unacceptable and expect to maintain intellectual standards everywhere else. In the modernright-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 torespect reality.
There have been many studies documenting the strong Democratic lean of college professors, which is often treated asprima facie evidence of political bias in hiring. A new law in Florida requires that each state university conduct anannual survey “which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented,” which doesn’tspecifically 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 pursuecareers in, say, sociology? Is hiring bias the reason police officers seem to have disproportionately supported DonaldTrump 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 ofacademic partisanship is the overwhelming Democratic lean in hard sciences like biology and chemistry; but is thatreally 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 financeprofessors, some of whom do lucrative consulting for Wall Street, to be pretty conservative. But even they are repelledby a party committed to zombie economics.
Which brings me back to General Milley. The U.S. military has traditionally leaned Republican, but the modern officercorps is highly educated, open-minded and, dare I say it, even a bit intellectual — because those are attributes thathelp 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 boundto come into conflict with every institution — including the U.S. military — that is trying to cultivate knowledge.