The Right isn't wrong, per se. They're just stuck.
Consider this dilemma: you are Conservative, and a decent joe, a good egg, a regular gal, and you worry about gangsta culture, about the sexualization of youth, about rapid culture change.
About the drift from Faith, which you hold as necessary for morality.
You don't hate anybody. The Other just makes you nervous, maybe; the unfamiliar is frightening. But this is a common human feeling, and not altogether a bad survival trait. You like your traditions; you love the goodness that Christmas and hometown neighborliness and multi-generational bonds have given to you and yours. And fear the volatile, information-rich, vastly impersonal technology of NOW.
So who do you adhere to? Who speaks to you? For you?
It isn't the (rapidly disappearing) moderate conservative, the Republican career politician, who comforts you. You correctly distrust them. They have not defended your traditions. They have allowed things to slip.
So you turn to polemicists and diatribists, even if the baggage they carry disturbs you at times. You overlook the off-note of racism, the sarcasm, the bile, because you Identify. (We on the left did and do the same; we ignore the anti-semitism of Chomsky, just as we ignored the vile and stupid hate rhetoric that permeated the 60s "movements").
You, decent conservatives, believe your heroes -- Beck, Rush, Carlson, O'Reilly, Coulter -- are using distasteful methods as weapons in the Good War they fight on your behalf, for Sanity and Decency. And Reason.
Here we are, at the Great Irony.
In ancient times, the first historians -- Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenephon -- both reflected and affected their times, and all of human development, by considering how we got here. What we are as a result of what was before. This was NEW.
(Please! don't click away. I know: I just said "Herodotus" up there. Bear with me.)
For the most part this was filtered through the Great Man theory: we "got here" by dint of ambition and power and war, driven by Big Personalities, themselves controlled by the Gods.
But the idea that we could assess ourselves even through limited criteria, filter truth from myth? This was revolutionary.
What they lacked was a sense of Progress. To the ancients, cycles repeated. And barbarians weren't "before our time", necessarily, they were just somewhere else, beyond our pale horizons. With us always. Stuck, like us, in the amber of fate.
In Medieval times Historians, beginning with Augustine, saw the arc of history as developing, from the primitive to the more advanced. The stories of the Torah set the stage for this, but it was Christianity (see? I promised you: irony) that gave human thinkers their first ideas that we were moving towards something, something greater and better.
The problem was: it was a narrative frozen in time, a fixed Before, Currently, and Final. For a millennium religious thinkers -- the only kind in the West -- tried to suss out what God intended. The German baronies invade your Gaulist precinct? God required this. The Roman emperors failed to hold their territories? God wanted this. Humans suffer and die? God's plan.
And why? Because he wanted us to reach our readiness for Christ, then endure the centuries of struggle toward him, then be rewarded at end time with his return.
History as fulfillment of a larger narrative. But this, too, was NEW: progress, not cycles. And while they were building skills at parsing motives and causes and all aspects of Progress, they honed Crtical Thinking Skills.
Enter the Renaissance. As religious ideas failed to explain, to satisfy, despite centuries of councils and debates, elaborate apologias by devout and learned theologians, historians began to see human beings as Prima Causa. Yes, faithful, Newton was a believer, but -- more irony -- once he established natural laws, historians could consider: if gravity is a law that requires objects to fall, what laws require empires to fall?
It took centuries, and millions dead, thousands tortured and burned, but the Age of Reason prevailed.
And thus the Great Irony: all of us, even the most fundamentalist among us, are products of, participants in, the creed of Reason.
(Wait! Don't mistake creed for faith!)
Religions are systems of belief. Scientism (materialism) is a system of belief. Secular Humanism, animism, cynicism, optimism, flying-spaghetti-monsterism, are all systems of belief.
And thus all have creeds.
To borrow happily from Susan Wise Bauer, the creed of reason is this:
- Reason is "autonomous" or independent of any other part of man.
- Institutional Authority is suspect.
- Every effect has a cause, and that cause can be discovered.
Even the most hidebound believer lives fully in our world, wherein we expect and rely on rationality, not intuition or faith, to discover the principle of aerodynamics and flight, to discern between good and better outcomes, to improve our direct-mail methods, to correct machinery's imperfections.
They are embedded in this perspective, like us.
While religious conservatives invoke the logical fallacy of argument from authority (the Bible, their ministers, Glenn Beck), their rhetoric today is filled to the brim with awareness that authority is about power, not truth. They rail against real and imagined intellectual control over their lives and want to swap it with the ancient authority.
But they are nonetheless stuck, like us, with the permanent awareness that authority has no permanent capital A.
There is no monolithic church anymore. The 500-year-old reality of thousands of schisms in Christianity is a result of the Age of Reason, whereby individuals began to think for themselves, using human thought, to understand first the will of God, then the workings of reality.
And cause and effect is intrinsic to Christian doctrine, leading generation after generation "astray" as they see the good unrewarded, the wicked unpunished. Christians raise children, and thus know magical thinking must be overcome in order to function in a technological world.
Science is the embodiment of reason. Through applied, systematic experimentations and testing we arrive at a world where the practical benefits of independent thought, distrust in arbitrary authority, and careful examination of effects has made us healthy, wealthy and wise.
Well, wiser, anyway.
So when the Right fights against intellectuals and intellectualism, it rings hollow.
Do they really want to return to the 8th century? Of course not. They are engaging with the left in the world of ideas, using ideas to fight ideas, using critical skills to debunk, or attempt to, the follies and fallacies of progressive thinking.
They sometimes succeed. Workfare is vastly superior to welfare. Ok, so that was 1994. What, Right, have you offered up since?
In his review of "Intellectuals and Society" by Thomas Sowell, Alan Wolfe takes this apart far better than I. It is at once a coherent dissection of the empty, repetitive vacuum that is conservative thinking, post-Goldwater, post-Buckley, and a soaring paean to the ecstatic vision of Reason, to the gifts of thinking.
Sowell, like many on the Right, pretends to be against intellectuals, while working tirelessly as an intellectual (46 books!).
We need ideas, whatever the provenance, that hold our interest, generate discourse and deliberation, and cause good effects. Blind Authority will not do, it's too late for that. And we have exhausted the ancient wisdom books. They have long ago given up their secrets and benefits, and are now a subset of the testable world of ideas.
It is not enough to wait for the racists and haters and superstitious to die away. We must engage, to keep alive the idea of Ideas. Each generation must find its way. The reason the Right is stuck is Reason itself.
They are here with us, like it or not, and must make their case, think things through, reflect on reality.
Be coherent, or become irrelevant.
(I owe a greeat debt to "The Well-Educated Mind" by Susan Wise Bauer for this piece)