Saturday, August 8, 2015

The GOP Debate and the Pursuit of Intellectual Mediocrity


How fitting was it that Donald Trump, the candidate currently leading the Republican field, should be front and center in the first primary debate? And standing next to him? None other than Jeb, I'm not my brother, Bush. Coincidence? I doubt it. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the standing arrangements were deliberately set by Fox News so as to convey a message.

Think about it. The anti-establishment and establishment candidate standing side by side, flanked by a host of candidates, supposedly somewhere in the middle. Except we all know that isn't the case. The fact is not one of these candidates differed all that much from each other. Trump may have been the most obnoxious, but he was hardly out in left field. As I said in an earlier piece, "the real problem for the GOP isn't that Donald Trump's views are so out of step with the party; it's that they're completely in line with it."

But watching the debate Thursday night, I discovered another problem, one that is even more nefarious than the outlandish ramblings of a billionare buffoon or the stubborn reluctance of an entire party to acknowledge that 1955 was sixty years ago. It's become clear that the number one problem besetting the GOP, and perhaps America itself, is this assault on intellectualism. In my opinion it runs a lot deeper than most pundits would admit.

There can be little doubt that the establishment has done a lousy job, at least so far as politics is concerned. The gridlock in Washington, regardless of who you think is primarily responsible for it, has left a very sour taste in the majority of Americans' mouths. It is no accident that Congress's approval rating is as low as it is. They've earned every barb and derision thrown at them.

The ensuing vacuum of effective leadership however has allowed a kind of anti-establishment sentiment to set in among the population that should be a cause of great concern to the nation. It has permitted a kind of anything goes mentality that has enabled ideologues to pawn off opinion as fact. Everything is now on the table, so to speak.

There's a line in that great Buffalo Springfield song For What It's Worth that perfectly describes the plight. "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong." If the experts can't be trusted, then let's turn it over to the non-experts. After all, how much worse can they be? Sadly, a lot.

Imagine for a moment that the surgeon who operated on your knee did a terrible job and made it worse. Would you allow your mechanic to take a look at it? Amazingly, an alarming number of people would say, why not?

The majority of Republicans have flatly rejected global warming, claiming they are "not scientists" while at the same time holding nothing but contempt for the field. Many of them have equally scoffed at the universally accepted fact that the universe is 13 billion years old. And in some parts of the country, children's textbooks are being rewritten to reflect an American history completely devoid of any introspection or criticism. The founding fathers, we are told, were devout Christians, no doubt directly descended from Jesus himself. And America is God's gift to the world.

It sounds absurd, I know. How could any thinking person willfully shun facts for such ludicrous opinions. Well, in the new order, facts are irrelevant. The only thing that matters are opinions. If I think my mechanic can do a better job on my knee, I'm entitled to think that, no matter what the evidence reveals. If I choose to believe God created the universe in six days, then not only am I entitled to that belief, I'm even entitled to call it a science.

We shouldn't be all that surprised by this phenomenon. It's been slowly building steam for quite some time. Twenty years ago, the late Carl Sagan warned us about it.

We've arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don't know anything about it?

Remember that old joke, what's the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don't know and I don't care. Well, it couldn't be more relevant or ominous than it is now. Except this is hardly a joke. It's a catastrophe in the making. An informed population is the best defense a democracy has against those who would seek to destroy it. Conversely, an ill-informed, or worse, a deliberately detached population is an open invitation to the very same agents of destruction.

It is easy for those of us on the other side of the political aisle to scoff at and ridicule what has happened to the Republican Party. To be honest, I had a tough time keeping a straight face throughout most of the debate. But what is happening to the GOP isn't just limited to them. This infection is rapidly infecting the whole of society and if it is not stopped soon, it may be too late.

I remember years ago watching William F. Buckley's Firing Line. While I strongly disagreed with just about all of Buckley's positions, I nonetheless was impressed by both his passion and his ability to frame arguments that were thoughtfully laid out and intellectually stimulating. There was a time when conservatives were thought of as learned men and, in some cases, women. They held strong views to be sure, but were capable of playing with the other kids in the sand box. Compassionate conservatism wasn't just a punch line back then.

I saw none of that Thursday night. Instead what I saw was an assault on the senses. Moderators who couldn't frame an honest question and candidates who were nothing more than bobble heads, regurgitating the talking points their constituents demanded to hear. It was the dog wagging the tail in all its glory.

And lest you think this was merely the fault of the network in charge of the debate, think again. Virtually all of these candidates has had ample time to "develop" their ideas and visions. I say virtually, because, among the lot, only one candidate - Ohio Governor John Kasich - broke from script, if only for a moment, when he said he would accept a child who was gay. I give him about a week, two at the most, before he gets religion.

The Republican Party has become home to a movement that is terribly afraid of the future, contemptuous of education and considers informed opinion as both snobbish and superfluous. And Donald Trump has become their leading spokesman, much to chagrin of the Party who would much prefer to keep everything hush, hush.  Even if he doesn't survive his dreadful performance, there will most certainly be someone to replace him. There always is when it comes to the ignorant and the gullible.

The dumbing down of America is no accident; it has been carefully and painstakingly planned out by powerful forces that have a vested interest in ensuring that the electorate is as docile as possible. The Roman poet Juvenal coined a phrase that is quite apropos here. He called it bread and circuses.

Already long ago, from where we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions - everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

That quote should serve as a warning to all of us. There is nothing more depressing than the sight of a society slowly and methodically being driven off the proverbial cliff into the abyss. And there is nothing sadder than knowing that that society willingly went along for the ride.

To quote a line from the sci-fi movie The Fly: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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