The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism on the Left

We have long known about the anti-intellectual fervor on the political right.  Dumb it down.  Make the question not "which candidate would more likely help people like me?" but "which candidate would I like to have a beer with?"  Or, if you prefer, its latest incarnation: "is she sexy and does she wink at me?"  More seriously, the rabid anti-intellectual stream on the right creates hatred for science, public education, and civil rights.  But all of this is due to a recognizable phenomenon: ideological rigidity, the setting of a frame of arguments, and accept only the facts that fit that frame, discarding or maligning the facts that do not.  In other words, the adherence to an argument irrespective of factual situations.

A form of dangerous anti-intellectualism that follows this pattern has been emerging, frighteningly, on the left from many media figures, influential bloggers and even organizations.  Although there can be no moral equivalence of the actions that the rabid anti-intellectual right supports (openly advocating violence) and those supported by their leftist counterparts, the basic tenet of anti-intellectualism stands.

In case someone has questions about just whom I'm referring to when I speak of anti-intellectualism on the left, I will be rather specific.  I am referring to blogs, bloggers, commentators and news leaders that specialize in bashing President Obama and the Democratic Congress from the left.  I'll name names: Cenk Uygur, David Sirota, Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher and Firedoglake, Dylan Ratigan, many of the reports at the Huffington Post, Adam Green of the PCCC, Michael Moore and to a good degree, Ed Schultz.  This isn't a comprehensive list, of course.  Even Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos -- who is generally a sensible commentator -- has delved into the ridiculous claim that Obama's backers just want the left to clap louder.

Now what do I mean by this anti-intellectualism?  You look at these professional outrage artists and you will notice a common theme: bash and complain about everything the Obama administration does - and does not do - without regard to reality, context or facts.

Health care reform was a terrible horrible no good piece of legislation because the Senate didn't have the votes for a public option even though reform would mean over time the end of pre-existing condition exclusions, coverage 32 million additional Americans, end of lifetime and annual coverage limits, expansion of Medicaid (a real public health insurance program) and a massive expansion of Community Health Centers (you know, actual health care).  Yet, all you heard about from these professional outrage artists for the most part is how horrible it was not to have the weak public option and how that meant that there was no reform at all.

They hooted and hollared over a so-called deal with pharmaceutical companies to keep the public option off -- even though reports of it are substantiated by nothing more than unnamed sources who quote even more unnamed health care lobbyists (lobbyists who are evil and liars unless they are telling some anonymous source a story to sell to Huffington Post anonymously).  Instead of educating their significant spheres of influence on the whole of the reform, they simply glossed over it and concentrated on the pie fight against Obama.

The most significant reform of the financial sector since the 1930's was dismissed by the same cadre as too lenient on banks (although they didn't really bother to tell you how), even though it granted regulators the authority to liquidate banks that would threaten the stability of the system.

Student loan reform?  Who even needs to talk about that?

Whatever the issue, the narrative is set.  Nothing is satisfactory.  In fact, nothing is progress, for them.  We get instead a bunch of childish attacks based on personalities.  RAHM!, goes the dynamite these days, I guess.  Ed Schultz constantly whines about Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff calling progressives "retarded."  Except it never happened.  Emanuel called the idea of running ads against Democrats during the health care debate retarded, not any person.  Oh, and Rahm said "F*ck the UAW!"  Poutrage!  Except it overwhelmed the story about the success of the auto rescue and the saving of UAW jobs.  Supposedly, Rahm hates labor unions and middle class and then helps build policies good for both.

There's more focus on personalities.  There's a hit on Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner, it seems, every day.  Rumors of Geitner opposing Elizabeh Warren to head the newly created consumer protection bureau spreads like wildfire, despite facts to the contrary.

There's been concentrated fire on President Obama's fiscal commission.  Those who deride it as the "catfood commission" are too busy setting it up as the villain that wants to cut Social Security and Medicare.  The Republican co-chair of the commission Alan Simpson says something asinine and all the rage just flies, without regard to the fact that it will take 14 out of 18 members of the commission to actually recommend anything, necessitating a consensus of the left and the right to deal with the budget crisis.  David Dayen of Firedoglake flat out lied about the House's commitment to vote on the commission's recommendations (there was no such commitment).  Lost in the jumping up and down in sheer speculative fear of the commission is the fact that President Obama is trying to make serious attempts to deal with our budget crisis by representing in the commission interests from the left to the right.

All these things.  Simplifying the narrative and fighting against progress when it comes to policy and riling people up to believe no progress is being made.  Concentrating fire on personalities and bad words rather than policy impacts.  The attempt to take down the fiscal commission, lying about it, and scaring people that it's there to cut social safety nets.  I'd say this is just about purism from the left, but it is something different from it.  It is the refusal to examine facts and context that contradict one's narrative.  It is the rejection of the reality that compromise is a necessary component of the legislative process.  It is riling up their audiences and not telling them the whole truth.  It is their attempts to demoralize the base by pounding the podium about various ponies not obtained, and then blaming the President for it.  It is, in short, classic anti-intellectualism.

A lot of this comes from what you hear from these anti-intellectuals all the time: look how the Republicans got their way when they were in power -- by arm-twisting, setting a narrative (of lies) and insisting on it, and refusing to tolerate compromise or dissent in their ranks.  Tactically they want Obama to be the Democratic Bush: different in political outlook and positions but similar in tactics.  At the core of that tactical strategy, whether we realize it or not, is seething anti-intellectualism.  And wittingly or unwittingly, the professional outrage artists on the left are adopting it.

Intellectualism doesn't always help you keep your audience on the edge.  It doesn't always help you show your poutrage and anger.  But it is necessary in journalism and punditry if we as a progressive movement are to succeed.  We will not beat the right's anti-intellectualism by adapting our own anti-intellectual screeds.  We will not succeed by making our part of the electorate uninformed parrots.  We have the tougher job, but progressives always do.  We have the responsibility to inform, to tell the whole truth, to be intellectually honest.


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