Smart, but not rational.

Posted on February 7, 2012


Yesterday, George Monbiot released a highly controversial column in which he called all right-wingers stupid. This is a sentiment commonly heard in private liberal company, but Monbiot’s bluntness will be shocking even to those who completely agree with him:

“It feels crude, illiberal to point out that the other side is, on average, more stupid than our own. But this, the study suggests, is not unfounded generalisation but empirical fact.”

I’m undecided as to the validity of Monbiot’s point. Regardless of whether or not the statement is true, I’m not sure that any useful purpose can be served by calling the other side stupid. Furthermore, commenters have suggested that the study he cites concerns itself primarily with prejudice, which is arguably separable from conservatism. So I leave the assessment of Monbiot’s article up to you. What interests me, however, is this comment:

“That’s conservatism with a small ‘c’ … ie the ability to see through the existing group-think and engage with new ideas.

Like the idea that the NHS, copied by no other country on earth, might not be the best health care solution possible.

Or the idea that a cradle-to-grave welfare state – the conservative status quo – might be the cause and not the effect of some social problems.

Or the idea that teachers might not all be angels and that if a lot more of them were sacked every year – a radical progressive idea – then our children might leave school better educated …

I could go on. The left – the “progressives” – can not see how its own inability to think of how things might not just be the fault of a nasty elite or too little borrowing its yet more human stupidity.”

The thing about this comment is that it is absolutely correct. Not in detail, of course: The NHS, which I had the pleasure of using for the first time today, certainly provides better and fairer care than the amoral profiteers who finance health care in the United States; complaints about the welfare state come almost exclusively from those who are sufficiently privileged to never need it; and I have yet to see any substantive evidence that the countries and regions with the best educational outcomes accomplish them by firing teachers. The general substance of the argument is, nevertheless, correct. Conservatives have a valuable perspective. Were they to all vanish tomorrow, I would not trust the rest of us to run society in a fiscally sound manner that preserves individual freedom. I don’t agree with most of what they say, but I value their presence as a counterbalance to my own, and their ability to voice perspectives that I cannot understand.

And yet, as much as I would like to write with optimism about how much we can accomplish if only we and conservatives learn to stop fighting and cooperate a little bit more, I cannot bring myself to do it. With the exception of John Huntsman, who has left the field, every single contender for the Republican presidential nomination denies the reality of climate change. Last week, the American Conservative grassroots movement against abortion came dangerously close to depriving thousands of American women of mammograms. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided that in a time of fiscal crisis, it is more effective to slash retirement funding, rather than cancel cuts to an already competitive corporate tax rate. These are not the actions and views of rational people.

The solution to this dilemma, I think, is not that conservatism is dominated by stupidity, but that it is dominated by fundamentalism. There is an important distinction to be made between the two concepts. Whereas stupidity is generally thought to refer to a deficit of cognitive faculties, fundamentalism allows and even encourages higher-level thinking, so long as its results do not conflict with a set of deeply held beliefs.

I am not merely speaking of religious fundamentalism here, though religious fundamentalism is certainly does frequently enter into it. The arrogantly yet appropriately named Conservative youtube channel howtheworldworks is a prime example of how this fundamentalism can be purely secular in nature. In an attempted takedown of The Story of Stuff, the channel’s narrator Lee Doren demonstrates this at two points: Firstly, when he insists that the US government has no right to provide for people on the grounds that James Madison was opposed to the idea, and secondly when he says that unrestricted market forces can avert disaster in the event of a resource shortage-something that has been thoroughly debunked by Jared Diamond.

Doren is a smart guy. He did considerable research for his video and he successfully takes down The Story of Stuff on a number of factual points. But his fundamentalism shows through when he places the Founding Fathers on such a high pedestal that they have the right to posthumously dictate government policy, and when he insists that economic freedom is the only thing necessary to solve ecological crises. Any rational person should be able to see that the business of governing is complex, contingent, and constantly changing. It takes a fundamentalist to suggest that 18th century revolutionaries or frictionless vacuum economic theories should have any final say on how a country or the world is run. And so, despite his obvious intelligence, Doren appears in another video attempting to debunk global warming, because the undisputed facts of the world are incompatible with his ideology. That’s intelligent, secular fundamentalism in action.

I’m not about to claim that the left is free of this problem. It is, in fact, difficult to go to any leftist political rally without encountering a veritable circus of 9/11 truthers, neo-marxists, and, of course, window-smashing anarchists. All of these groups derive their actions from a series of a priori axioms too simple to accurately describe the way the world actually runs and are therefore forced into conflict with empirical evidence, just as Doren and the rest of the Conservative right are. The difference is that on the right, this kind of thinking has become dominant.  Radical free-market economic policies are being actively pursued by elected representatives in at least three English-speaking nations on the North Atlantic that I can think of, and the closely linked fundamentalism of conservative Christians is also distressingly common.  In what may be the most egregious case, the aforementioned John Huntsman was essentially ineligible for the Republican nomination because of his belief in anthropogenic global warming.

Left-wing politicians, by contrast, are much more diplomatic. In Nova Scotia, the supposedly leftist NDP is actually passing over education funding in favour of massive subsidies to a planned trade center project.  Barack Obama, currently the most powerful center-left politician on Earth, still feels the need to continue subsidies to the oil industry and has yet to use any of the ready-made catch phrases provided by Occupy Wall Street. The center-leftist Liberal Democrat party in the UK is actually propping up David Cameron’s neoliberal experiment. The left may have its ideology, but it is clearly not above bending and breaking it in order to handle the contingencies of real life.

This is not an indictment of conservatism as an idea or as a movement. As I said earlier, conservatives have an important contribution to make and negotiation between liberals like myself and conservatives like Lee Doren can provide fruitful compromises that make the best possible use of limited resources to provide the greatest possible good to society. Such negotiation, however, must be undertaken with the facts in mind. No headway can be made if either party has had its view of reality distorted by a fundamentalist commitment to certain abstract moral presuppositions over the contingencies of the real world. I therefore ask the rational, intelligent conservatives, who I know are out there, to get their house back in order. We need free market solutions to tackle climate change, we reasonable and humane ways to shrink our national deficits, and we need somebody to point out when we need to make tough decisions about social spending and entitlements. The modern conservative leadership is ill-equipped to help us with any of this, but I hope it can change. I will never be a conservative, but I hope one day that I can begrudgingly thank them for their presence.

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