I’m sorry. I really wanted to say something incredibly clever about how dumb I think a new study from Berkeley is. I’ve been sitting here staring at my computer for over an hour trying to come up with some Simpsons quote or fresh joke that captures the gravity warping, oxygen-depriving, heart-palpitating idiocy of this thing. Instead, I feel like a three-year old on his first trip to FAO Schwarz — I keep dashing from one shiny plaything to another, incapable of concentrating on a single object for more than a moment. I feel like I could spend a lifetime peeling this thing like an onion — finding new layers of stupidity, fresh eye-watering spouts of acidic absurdity, all the while keeping in mind that each seemingly intelligent layer is actually paper thin, insubstantial, translucent.
But dangnabit all I can come up with is: Cow Farts!
That’s what I kept thinking as I read this summary of a report (Full PDF version here) from a team of Berkeley scientists who’ve been cloistered away studying the psychological state of homo insipiens, or unthinking man. After scouring the academic literature — and no doubt laying their calipers to the craniums of whatever conservatives they could manage to tranquilize and tag (picture a squirrelly YAFer trying to break out of his restraints on a metal slab somewhere in the psych annex at Berkeley) — these scientists have concluded that the psychological factors which contribute to political conservatism are:
Fear and aggression
Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
Need for cognitive closure
But first, what is it about this that makes me think of bovine flatulence? Well, everything. Scientists spend millions of taxpayer dollars studying the methane which comes out of the academic end of heifers, reportedly because such gaseous discharge contributes to global warming. Whatever their reasons, they think it’s important work. They either don’t mind that their research stinks — literally — or they think all of their efforts are worth the money poured into them. And while words like gassy, insubstantial, and malodorous certainly apply to the Berkeley study, there are two chief differences between the study of cow flatulence and this study of conservative psychology. First, the cow-scientists can claim that there’s a legitimate purpose to their pursuits. Overblown or not, global warming is something scientists should study. Secondly, while the earth-sciences folks are primarily concerned with what rises up and away from the back end of a bull, these bozos at Berkeley are 100 percent committed to studying and disseminating what plunks to the ground when it leaves the same anatomical disembarkation area.
ME KONSERVATIVE, YOU MUCH SMART
I know, I know, some who look positively on this study might say I’m just proving the researchers’ conclusions. After all, the scientists in question performed “ten meta-analytic calculations” to come to their conclusions while conservatives like me spend most of the day opening and closing the refrigerator door applauding when the happy-fun light magically turns on. Moreover, we conservatives need “cognitive closure” and we are “intolerant of ambiguity.” When something complicated or unexpected happens we leap about the room shrieking like a chimp who didn’t know the jack in the box would pop out or Alec Baldwin after learning that you shouldn’t put your car keys in an electrical socket.
I’m sorry, but not since Professor Peter Singer explained that we should give as good as we get from dogs who hump our legs, have I been so exasperated with the way some academics think they can use their head for a colonoscopy and then crab-walk around expecting all the world to think their new hats make them look smart. And, as with Singer’s efforts to get pet stores to carry Viagra, I have a very hard time taking this seriously and I’m not sure taking it seriously helps anybody. But I just know that if I don’t address the “substance” of this study, I will hear from numerous silly liberals who think I’m afraid to deal with the ambiguity and that my scorn is just another attempt at “terror management.” So, let me splash some cold water on my face and shake off the giggles.
LOOKING FOR THE CAR KEYS
Okay. <snort> <chortle> Okay. <Giggle> I can do this.
Okay, first of all, the actual study is fractionally less outright stoopid than the summary released to the media. Still, the summary is what 99 percent of the media will read and it contains what the authors presumably want the public to know about their work. Here’s the first problem: When asked that this might be seen as a “partisan exercise,” Dr. Jack Glaser explained that they studied conservatism simply because there have been a great deal of studies on conservatives but not on liberals. Now, putting aside the fact that the authors included in their research numerous speeches by conservatives and judicial opinions by conservatives and the last time I checked there was no shortage of liberal speeches and liberal judicial opinions, I take them at their word that there have been few psychological studies of liberalism and many of conservatism.
But perhaps, just perhaps, this fact illuminates a certain bias in the profession. Look at it this way. I have no doubt there is no shortage of psychological studies of murderers, rapists, people who think they’re Napoleon, and people who think Carrot Top is funny. But I suspect there’s very little data on people who like to have cereal and orange juice in the morning. Why? Because the former category of people are considered abnormal. People who eat cereal and juice in the morning aren’t particularly interesting because they aren’t seen as particularly different. So it is with conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are strange creatures. They have strange views. They defend cruelty and inequality while liberals, well, they’re baseline. They’re like, well, me. How else to explain the vast stockpile of research on conservatives and the comparative dearth of data on liberals? And if that is part of the equation, then maybe the data is skewed because researchers found what they wanted to find. They were only looking for their car keys where the light is good.
The idea that the psychiatric-therapeutic establishment is politically biased is hardly new. In 1964, 1,189 psychiatrists asserted that even though they’d never met Barry Goldwater, never mind diagnosed him, he was still so mentally unstable and paranoid that in their scientific opinion he could not be trusted with the power of the presidency. So outrageous was this “petition” of psychiatrists launched by Fact magazine, that Goldwater actually won a libel suit, which is almost impossible for a politician.
In more recent times, we’ve seen a sharp rise in what I would call the left’s medicalization of dissent. Today, on college campuses, liberal and left-wing students who burn newspapers, shout down opponents, accuse conservatives of racism, rape, whatever, are generally treated with dignity. Conservative students whose behavior falls far short of this sort of thing are often sent to counseling or therapy. My guess is that drugging conservatives will come next.
A couple quick examples: When a University of New Hampshire professor compared writing to sex — “You and the subject become one,” he said — he was forced to apologize and seek counseling. When a law lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania said, “We have ex-slaves here who should know about the Thirteenth Amendment” and was also forced to get his brain checked out by an approved therapist.
The justification for this sort of thing is not merely that the “conservatives” — broadly defined to include anyone not up-to-speed on what constitutes insensitive language — need to get right in the head but that the liberal young men and women who feel “oppressed” by contrary views, nasty-sounding words, nude pictures in the classroom, “hate” words, etc. are right in the head. In other words, it’s “normal” according to the reigning authorities of academia to have the self-esteem of a delicate soufflé, prone to imploding at the slightest discordant vibration, but it is abnormal to disagree with the prevailing worldview.
And that gets us to the heart of why this study is more bogus than a $6 dollar Rolex. Virtually all of the characteristics the authors attribute to the right can be equally laid at the feet of the left. If you think left-wingers have a high tolerance for ambiguity, tell one it’s not clear that Head Start does any good at all. Talk to them about racial differences. Say: “Even if gay marriage were worth doing, there would be many devastating negative consequences.” Mention that a factory closing can be a good thing. Tell them it’s okay for economists to put a specific monetary value on a human life. Tell them intelligence tests measure intelligence. Tell them something can be simultaneously bad and constitutional. Indeed, don’t get me started on the myopia of the left on constitutional questions; tell a campus liberal that Brown v. Board of Education had a good effect but was a terribly reasoned decision and they will look at you as if you’d said grobn gleebin grobbin grobin while standing on one foot. I’ve just watched my wife spend a year debating Title IX please don’t tell me that feminists have a rich love of exchange and a gift for understanding nuance.
How anybody could look at the anti-globalization movement or anti-genetically engineered food crowd and say that the left isn’t dependent on “fear and aggression” is beyond me. The Naderites have mastered the art of scaring the bejesus out of people on a wide spectrum of issues. Your cars are killing you and the planet, multinational corporations want to install pain collars on all carbon-based life, genetically modifying crops will result in 50-foot-tall ears of corn which will crush cities and enslave mankind. Children are taught that if their parents don’t recycle, they must be turned in to the appropriate authorities. Not too long ago feminists insisted it was unsafe for a woman to be alone in the room with a guy if the Super Bowl was on. We spent much of the 1990s listening to one liberal after another insist that if we didn’t do X, Y or Z, the children would be “left behind,” presumably in a scary place without recycling.
I have a file clogging my hard drive containing quotes from mainstream liberals who insisted that if conservatives had their way America would become a Fourth Reich. During the debates over the Contract with America, Rep. Major Owens of New York said of the Republicans, “These are people who are practicing genocide with a smile; they’re worse than Hitler. Gingrich smiles . . . [and] says they’re going to be our friend. We’re going to have cocktail-party genocide.” Charles Rangel concurred, saying of Republicans who favor small government, “It’s not ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ anymore. They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes’.”
According to the summary, “This [conservative] intolerance of ambiguity can lead people to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic clichés and stereotypes, the researchers advise.” Good lord. Even to hint that the right has a monopoly on such tendencies is to lay the torch to the bonfire of absurdity. Liberalism in America is almost entirely reactionary. During the last presidential election, the Democratic rhetoric was all about “Stopping” Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big This and Big That. Al Gore promised to distribute lockboxes and to fight urban sprawl to calm the “quiet sadness” that plagues Americans. Leftwing magazines and activists brim with fear of technology in particular and change in general. And they pass on lies about how bad the environment is doing in order to terrorize their audience into action. Public policy in this country is crippled by the maddening psychological addiction of liberals to outdated ideas and downright antique bureaucracies.
Moreover, when someone questions liberal priorities the response is far more transparently psychological than rational. It is the Left which confuses politics for human worth; they are the ones who believe ideology is a window to the soul. Propose giving scholarships to black kids in the form of vouchers and in the bang-your-bottle-on-your-high-chair logic of the left you are “mean-spirited” and “declaring war on children.” Talk about the need for a psychiatrist.
Meanwhile, conservatives are the ones demanding change. We want the Supreme Court to go back and fix its mistakes. We want the federal government to get out of the business of regulating political speech. We want Americans to make more of their own decisions, keep more of their own money, etc. We’re even willing to say that not all of our changes will have only positive effects, unlike many on the left who suffer from the sort of cognitive closure and blindness to ambiguity which forces them to believe that only good things happen when good things are done.
And that brings us to the fundamental problem, identified most famously by Samuel Huntington in his 1957 essay “Conservatism as an Ideology.” Conservatism in much of the world is situational. A conservative in Saudi Arabia or Russia wants to conserve something very different from what a conservative in America wants to conserve. A Saudi conservative wants to maintain State control of the economy, scoffs at civil liberties and wants to spread Wahhabbi Islam around the globe. Meanwhile, in America it’s true that conservatives want to defend traditional arrangements but our traditional arrangements are defined by classically liberal institutions. This is why Hayek admired American conservatives even though he distrusted European ones — because American conservatives are determined to defend the institutions which keep us free. American liberals are determined to protect the “advances” they believe keep us “progressive.”
And therein lies the debate, caliper boys. There are radicals and reactionaries — psychologically speaking — in all ideological camps. There are leftists and rightists afraid of change and in love of change. There are leftists and rightists who love ambiguity and there are those who hate it. But this study is classic scientific poppycock because it is confirmed by contradictory facts. When Stalin or Castro kill people it is because they are crypto-rightwingers when Hitler kills people, he’s being consistent. In other words, conservatives are always the bad guys.
So, yes, conservatism is a temperament, but it is also an ideology. And that ideology is not dependent on the need for “cognitive closure” or a “fear of ambiguity” at all. In fact, most conservative thinkers see their project completely differently. The threat they see is from a statist elite which seeks to impose uniformity and cookie-cutter banality across the society. Conservatism, as Russell Kirk noted, is marked by an “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.” Indeed, if these authors had spent a bit more time reading Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, they wouldn’t have bollixed up their own depiction of the conservative mind so badly.