Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Tory Party are starting to take the same attitude towards intelligent thought as the US Republicans: and it can only damage us all

Many recent commentators have noted the dramatic leap to the fringes of the political right of the modern US Republican Party - including some of their former staunchest allies.

On economic policy and on social policy, leading lights in the GOP are now so right-wing as to make George Bush Senior look like Dennis Skinner. This is coupled with their almost complete intransigence, due in a large part to infiltration of their party by Tea Party members - who display an almost religious commitment to their ideology - and the influence of major conservative media outlets like Fox News and ultra-wealthy backers such as the Koch brothers.

However, it is on one issue in which the Republicans look ever more out of tune with reality. That issue is their attitude to science, to academia and, in fact, to anything that resembles intellectualism.

The modern Republican Party is, quite simply, hostile to scientists - wilfully ignoring scientific studies, refusing to engage in sensible debate and, when it suits them, plainly ignoring empirical evidence. In stem cell research and (most obviously) climate change they display antipathy to almost anyone who holds views at odds with their ideological positions.

At the same time, the long-running suspicion held on many on the right towards academia, universities and teachers in state schools has now been solidified. The modern Republicans thus define themselves against intellectuals and the so-called 'metropolitan elite'. This was demonstrated most recently in Clint Eastwood's notorious speech to the Republican National Commitee, in which he complained that an attorney shouldn't be a US President as:

 "you know they're always taught to argue everything, and always weight everything -- weigh both sides".

... thus sounding uncannily like the spoof President Schwarzenegger from the Simpsons, who had the memorable line: "I was elected to lead, not read".

The Republican Party, even ten years ago, wasn't quite like this. It is the takeover of the GOP by zealots from the Tea Party and their allies, whose political views are more akin to religious ones, that has spurred on this shift. It has also been provoked by certain issues - such as climate change or the banking crisis - where scientific or economic facts pose awkward problems for their ideology.

Where this has happened - where evidence contradicts elements of the conservative political narrative - many of their leading figures have taken the ostrich defence. As David Frum has pointed out, "Conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics". Other authors have drawn similar conclusions - that where evidence, underpinned by research, or events that occur require a re-evaluation of aspects of neo-liberal ideology - many on the right simply deny the existence of those facts.

Across the Atlantic

Thankfully, here in the UK, things aren't (yet) so bad. However, there are a range of indications that things are drifting that way - although suspicion towards intellectual thought arguably has a long history among British conservatives. First, there are the attacks (led by arch-ideologue Michael Gove and his colleague Nick Gibb) on the historical role of universities in teacher training - driven in part by suspicion of the supposed liberal and progressive values in higher education establishments and their influence over new teachers.

Second, there are ever-more commentators on the right holding the kind of evidence-free views that pervade so much of US conservatism. Take the likes of Benedict Brogan, who demonstrates that the undercurrent of anti-science and anti-intellectualism is now taking root in the Tory Party, by describing a contradiction between accepting the scientific consensus around climate change and being 'true blue'.

Meanwhile, James Delingpole's excruciating interview with the BBC shows how the bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to science can make you look quite frankly like a bit of a plonker when you are forced to engage in a sensible debate.

Both of these pieces illustrate how so much of modern right-wing political philosophy is based on wilfully ignoring reality - facts, evidence, argument - in favour of an almost infantile attitude towards debate, engagement and politics. And the financial crisis and all it demonstrated about inadequacies in free-market theories in practice have only exacerbated this attitude.

It is, as Charlie Brooker wittily referred to once, "the Unlightenment". Except, in reality, when these views are held by politicians in major parties on both sides of the Atlantic with a good change of gaining power, it isn't so funny.

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