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Rationally Speaking
a monthly e-column by
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci

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# 59 March 2005 And they say liberals are whiny! Join Discussion

It is rather amusing (when I’m in a good mood) to hear conservatives (especially religious ones) complain that they are “persecuted” in American society, that they don’t get a saying, that they have constantly to battle against the liberal media bias. What persecution? What liberal media? Don’t get a saying? What are these people talking about?

In the United States, conservatives now control the Presidency, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a large number of State Governorships. If we add to the list that the Supreme Court is increasingly conservative, and may soon become extremely so, in essence these people control the country -- and set the agenda for the rest of the world. What, then, is there to complain? Why is this not enough?

Well, one thing to understand about ideological zealots (again, both of the religious and non-religious variety, though the former are by far more common) is that they absolutely know they are right, so there really is no point in considering alternative opinions, is there? Moreover, since they tend to see things in apocalyptic terms, always painted in stark black and white, then anything less than 100% victory can be construed as a failure of cosmic proportions.

There is, of course, one little area of American life where conservatives are still by far in the minority: academia. By the latest estimates, about 70% of faculty at US universities consider themselves “on the left” within the current political spectrum. Of course, this has immediately raised the ires of conservatives, who have recently had the audacity to claim that there is a nationwide conspiracy to keep right-leaning faculty out of our campuses. It isn’t clear whether the charge applies only to state universities or includes the private ones (in the latter case, one wonders how many liberal-leaning faculty are on the payroll, say, at Bob Jones “University”). But the fact remains indisputable: academia is still a bastion of liberalism, and that ain’t gonna change overnight, no matter how widespread the “outrage.”

Outside of silly conspiracy theories, why exactly is it that academia is full of liberals, and why is it that the majority of the media used to be equally favorable to moderately progressive positions (at the moment, only The Onion and The Daily Show are firmly into this category)? As in the case of any search for causal explanations, we must start with observations aimed at identifying the characteristics that separate the two groups in question (academia and “the real world”), to see if such differences may be conducive to the formulation of sensible hypotheses about the underlying causal links.

There are three things, roughly speaking, that come to mind: the high diversity (ethnic, and of opinions) on college campuses; the financial independence of faculty (after tenure); and, oh yeah, the fact that the very idea of a “liberal arts” education is to foster critical thinking, dialogue, and the endorsement of positions based on thoughtful consideration of facts and values. Hmm, could it be that this triplet makes for an environment in which ultraconservative ideas just don’t flourish? Could it be that religious bigotry simply can’t take the challenge of an ongoing open discussion, where there are no sacred cows and everything is fair game for public criticism? Could this be why academic freedom tends to be extremely limited in ultraconservative, ultra-religious campuses?

But, wait! Aren’t those very characteristics of dialogue and critical thinking precisely the ones everybody agrees should be encouraged among the general public, since only they can -- in the long run -- maintain a healthy democracy? Ah, but there is the rub: the religious and ultraconservative right does not really want democracy, certainly not in the sense of a citizenry that is intelligent, well-informed, and capable of making decisions based on more than a knee-jerk reaction to MTV-style simplistic slogans. That must be why the Republican party, especially under Bush, is so clearly against fostering education (despite the risible “no child left behind” program) and systematically attempts to discourage voting among the American public.

The real question, unfortunately, is whether there is anything that even remotely looks like a “liberal” wing of the Democratic party, or more broadly a “left” in the American political spectrum. Frankly, Bill Clinton has always looked to me like a moderate Republican, and it is hard to believe that Howard Dean is considered a “radical” within Democrats. Have these people ever seen a radical in their lives? Thanks to the right-wing propaganda (and direct or indirect conservative control of most of the media), the American public has come to believe that the words “liberal” and “progressive” are akin to, God forbid, socialist or communist! There essentially is no left in this country, just a moderate center, followed by a right, an ultra-right, and a super-duper-ultra-right. Pretty sad, but one has to admit that the extensive, grass-root program of social reengineering began by the Christian Coalition and similar groups in the mid-70s has finally succeeded and, save for the unlike possibility of miracles, the political realignment is here to stay.

What, then, are we to do about it? We need to learn from the competition, and turn their own successful tactics against them. I am not talking about attempting to rig the vote during presidential elections, I am referring to -- quite simply -- going back to the basics and pick young, energetic people to run for office. And do equip them with simple, bite-size, messages. At the moment, that’s all that a large chunk of the American public seems to be able to deal with. The time for more sophisticated, dare I say European style? (see France, England, and Germany, for example), political discourse may come again, in a few decades. But we can’t keep seeking the high moral and political road, while the other side is ruining not just this country, but the rest of the world as well. Wake up, smell the roses, and look for the next Bill Clinton (as ultra-moderate as he was): a good southern boy, politically centrist, with a charming smile and a simple message. It still beats the hell out of what we got now.

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