About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Newt, anti-intellectualism, and family values

by Massimo Pigliucci

The consensus outside of the Republican party is that the GOP — broadly speaking and with the due exceptions — has become a party of anti-intellectuals in thrall to the religious Right. Chris Mooney, for one, has devoted quite a bit of effort to documenting the Republican mindset, first in his The Republican War on Science, and now with the forthcoming The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science (or Many Other Inconvenient Truths).

That the GOP base is obsessed with its own peculiar definition of “family values” is also well known. They — allegedly — care a lot about the right of fertilized eggs, as well as the “sanctity” of family and marriage. But, peculiarly, other obviously relevant issues often don’t blip on their moral radar, for instance war, access to health care, or poverty.

Whence, then, Newt Gingrich? The former Speaker of the House is currently the frontrunner in the Republican group of Presidential hopefuls and — bearing in mind the caveat that predictions in politics are usually as good as those of psychics — appears to have a very good shot at facing Obama in the general elections, but it’s not clear why.

The Newt question has been asked recently in the New York Times by Frank Bruni: “How does an ostentatious know-it-all fare so well in a party supposedly hostile to intellectuals and intellectualism?” How indeed. Well, I have a theory.

First, let us refresh our memories with a sliver of the ample record on Newt’s deeds and misdeeds. The guy, you will recall, led the Republican charge to impeach then President Clinton for lying about an affair with a much younger intern — at the same time that Newt was having his own affair with a much younger intern (though, to his credit, he later made her his third wife, which in turn reminds us of the ugly episode of Newt serving divorce papers to his first wife while she was in the hospital with cancer. Compassionate conservatism!).

Gingrich also thought, at some point, that global warming is real, though he has conveniently flip-flopped on the issue recently. He also supported a provision in the Obama stimulus package that promoted the use of electronic health care records, since apparently big government is good when it comes to benefiting clients for which he was consulting, like Allscripts and Microsoft. Newt was also positively fuming at the big government bailout of Freddie Mac, one of the two giant federally-sponsored mortgage companies — conveniently neglecting to note that he made $1.6 million to $1.8 million as a “historian consultant” of big Freddie.

I could go on, but I think I have established that Newt is not: a) anti-science (unless it’s convenient for him); b) a particularly family-value oriented guy; c) an enemy of big government (at least when it comes to him making profit from bloated bureaucracy). So why is he the current darling of the anti-science, get the government out of my Medicare, family values above all, base of the GOP? Because that base isn’t really about any of those things. It is a hate group that relishes a confrontational son of a bitch who can stick it to whoever they delude themselves is the anti-Christ of the moment.

This isn’t cheap demonizing of one’s opponent at all costs. There used to be a time when I would have gladly had a conversation with Republican politicians, or with a Republican friend (I still have some of the latter). We would have disagreed on many issues, but there would have been a sense that we were talking to each other, and that political compromise was possible on a number of issues (as indeed has been the case on and off throughout the history of the American Congress — just think of the fact that Nixon and Reagan would look like liberals by the standards of today’s right wingers).

But these days the Republican base (and therefore the politicians they elect) is simply not interested in dialog or compromise. They are not even particularly interested in their own self-avowed values. They just want to kick Obama (or any Democrat, for that matter, but particularly the Black-ish Barack Hussein Obama) out of the White House. That’s the beginning and the end of their political wishes. Consequently, they simply want a confrontation, they want to punch the other guy in the stomach, at least metaphorically (well, many of them do show up armed at politically rallies, so who knows). They even relish their own candidates engaging in an unusually high number of unusually bloody debates, because they enjoy the spectacle of kicking an opponent — any opponent — in the teeth.

That is also why Faux News is so popular, and why its abrasive, ultra-partisan approach has rubbed off on other networks and has turned political analyses into shouting matches. Fox isn’t just partisan, it has no sense of coherence whatsoever, as demonstrated over and over by Jon Stewart, whose comedy for a while has often consisted simply of showing a clip of someone saying something on Fox, immediately followed by another clip of the same person arguing exactly the opposite — the only thing in common between the two occasions being that the commentator in question was attacking the Democrats for either X or ~X, depending on the specifics of the moment.

Some are now anticipating with gusto the stark contrast that we might see during the general campaign, when a notoriously introspective and calm Obama might face off with an abrasive and aggressive Gingrich. It will make for good spectacle, but it is really a sorry commentary on just how low the self-professed best democracy in the world has sunk.

There are ways out of this situation, of course, but none of them is a quick fix, or particularly likely to happen. To begin with, we could have some meaningful election financing law passed, so that our politicians aren’t going to be picked from the ranks of millionaires (the entire US Senate and many Representatives) or beholden to billionaires and their corporations. Or perhaps cultural and demographic shifts may finally relegate the moral majority to permanent immoral minority status, as evidenced from nationwide trends on issues ranging from the death penalty to gay rights — all moving in a progressive direction. Or maybe we could finally have a viable third party whose candidates can get on the ballot in all 50 states. Someone is trying for the 2012 cycle, though frankly the idea of a “moderate” party that strikes a middle way between completely crazy (the current GOP) and sold out to Wall Street (the current Dems) isn’t exactly one to get excited about. But hey baby, small steps first...


  1. You're throwing in with Mooney on his book about how the brains of people who don't agree with him about politics are broken?

  2. I don't think most of the Republican base would admit to being anti-intellectual, and hear them claim that their conservationism is based on "facts and logic", and that's whey Gingrich sounds good to them because he puts on a facade of right-wing intellectualism.

  3. Brendan,

    I'm not throwing my money for or against Mooney's book. Nobody sensibly can, since the book is not out yet... However, I have checked some of the literature he refers to in his blog, and on which the book is based. And yes, I'd throw my money with that research.

  4. Or maybe we could finally have a viable third party whose candidates can get on the ballot in all 50 states.

    That puts a different twist on "spoiler alert."

    Until the voting system is reformed (i.e. converted from "winner takes all" to some version of ranked voting, like IRV), the logic of lesser-evil reigns (and ought to, in my opinion).

    though frankly the idea of a “moderate” party that strikes a middle way between completely crazy (the current GOP) and sold out to Wall Street (the current Dems) isn’t exactly one to get excited about

    That's putting it mildly. No dilemma there. :-)

  5. Kind of rronic that this essay by Massimo appears one week after his essay on "The Entanglement Between Biology And Ideology" where he points out how science has a history of "being used for nefarious ideological purposes"

  6. DJD, It's ironic that you keep on teaching when long ago you stopped learning.

  7. jeremybee
    "DJD, It's ironic that you keep on teaching when long ago you stopped learning."
    Did I say something which you disagree with?

  8. So, the point of this post is... complaining about Republicans? Whining that they don't play fair? I'm not sure what the point is, but all I hear is, "Waah, they're mean!"

  9. I appreciate the article and how it attempts to understand the underpinnings of modern republican "thought" (if you can call it that).

    As for a 3rd party, we don't need a moderate one. We just need one with the same ideals Obama ran and won on in 2008. It will be a landslide (assuming we can overcome the fact that 3/4 of U.S. voting machines are now blackbox, proprietary electronic paperless machines owned and operated by one private corporation - ES&S - which is owned by a republican).

  10. @Unknown,
    yes, they are mean! And their policies harm this country. You got a problem with those facts?

  11. Well said, Professor.

    I recall when the differences between the parties were "workable" differences... it felt that each party represented relatively rational points of view, and that they could, ultimately, work together. Unfortunately it hasn't been that way for a long time. As you said, its just become incredibly aggressive and confrontational. These are incredibly scary times we live in.

  12. Interesting to see "confirmation bias"
    in a blog devoted to rationality.
    See "The Gingrich Divorce Myth" at


  13. Unasked,

    interesting to see that your bias did not permit you to read the post accurately enough, as nowhere did I write that Gingrich's wife was dying or is now dead. My sentence is perfectly compatible with the factcheck summary.

  14. "But hey baby, small steps first..."

    Let us for the sake of the existence of civilization hope not.

  15. @Unknown: The idea is not so base as "Waah, they're mean!," my friend.

    I think the point is: "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

    You see? Our country must get this under control in a reasonable and rational manner because, unlike France, Russia or China, the citizens of the United States of America have a document that instructs them to reorder government when it becomes destructive toward the ends of their "unalienable Rights: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Whereas the French Russians and the Chinese had the good sense to do it, Americans actually have legal precedent. And, anyone can tell you that precedent is critical in a "nation of laws." Now, Americans are a reluctant lot and this is not an idea most would sponsor casually or even in extreme curcumstances, but it can happen.

    Therefore it is incumbent upon our parties and politicians to work together to act reasonably and come to terms of agreement that satisfy the vast majority, while ensuring the protection of the minority.

    Would you like to guess who the minority would be under that kind of a scenario? Which beings do you think the pitchforks and torches will be demanding if it all goes bust? Have you read "A Tale of Two Cities?" Lovely book, remarkably lyrical prose and an incredible story. All too real.

    People can have a decent life at 75% - 25% and they won't complain much. In fact they'll be on the watch against anyone who wants to take their system apart. But at 95% - 5% that fragile minority is on its own and will receive protection from none, save those it can coerce; but that never works out very well.

    So, the point is, that this acrimonious approach by the right, beginning back in the early '80s, to start a class, cultural, and hate war, will only serve to harm their interests in the long run because, it's like Bob Dylan Said: "When you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose."

    Do you get it now?

    So, let's stop all of this foolishness and work together; it does no one any good to continue down the current path.

  16. Sheldon and unknown
    >"Waah, they're mean!"
    The Eagle see's himself as 'strong' and 'swift'
    the lamb see's the Eagle as 'evil' and 'mean'
    The Eagle simply see's the lamb as 'weak' and 'tasty'. The weak see evil everywhere there is strength.

  17. Worst analogy for Republicans and their intended victims ever.

  18. Massimo said:
    “My sentence is perfectly compatible with the factcheck summary.”

    Massimo’s Sentence:
    “which in turn reminds us of the ugly episode of Newt serving divorce papers to his first wife while she was in the hospital with cancer.”

    “For almost three decades, Newt Gingrich has been dogged by a story that he served his first wife divorce papers while she lay in a hospital bed battling — or in some versions dying from — cancer. It didn’t happen that way.”

    It’s a minor point, but the FactCheck summary does counter your sentence. Not the deathbed claim, you didn’t make that. But the implicit narrative that is conjured up with Newt serving divorce papers to his—we are lead to assume—surprised wife.

    • The divorce discussion was no surprise. You didn’t say this, but it’s implied.
    • Legal papers were not served at the time. And signing of any list hasn’t been corroborated.
    • Tumor removal isn’t quite “with cancer.” It’s hair-splitting, but there is a distinction.

    Your sentence would be closer to the truth, if somewhat pedantic, reworded something like:

    “which in turn reminds us of the ugly episode of Newt arguing with his first wife—though they had already separated—over details of their proceeding divorce while she was in recovery from tumor removal surgery.”

    For what it’s worth, I assure you my bias toward Newt Gingrich and GOP candidates in general, isn’t a positive one.

  19. Whoever said the US was a Democracy? It's a Republic.

  20. Robin,

    it's actually a constitutional democracy with a republican form of government.

  21. "it's actually a constitutional democracy with a republican form of government"

    The term is simply "polyarchy".

  22. No, it's a federal republic. Which by definition is democratic.

  23. 63a etc.,

    wait, are you attacking what you take to be my *implicit* claim? If you read my sentence at face value, which is the way it is meant to be read, it seems correct according to FactCheck. At any rate, as you say, it is a minor point. My broader point is that Newt is most certainly not a good example of "family values," and that value-oriented voters that support him are being hypocritical, or at the very least inconsistent.

  24. Hm, he's the frontrunner? Intrade says it's Mitt Romney for sure...

  25. Once again the prevalence of gossip about politician's personal lives flabbergasts me. I dislike Gingrich, but it's all too easy to spin something like divorce proceedings. My parents went through a divorce. Do you know how damned easy it would be for me to frame true facts about their divorce in such a way as to make one or both of them look like an asshole, if I wanted to?

    This kind of stuff is all noise & no signal.

  26. Ian,

    according to recent polls Gingrich is the frontrunner, though party insiders' keep predicting that eventually Romney will be the last man standing.

    As for the personal stuff, it is clearly relevant when a politician (and, even more, the voters who support him) makes a big deal out of "family values." A better example than his divorce papers, of course, is his affair with an intern while calling for the impeachment of Clinton based on the latter's affair with an intern...

  27. Right, the problem is that by pointing out this personal hypocrisy you are implicitly accepting certain terms of political debate, terms that favour slander over substantive critique.

  28. Ian,

    no, I don't think I am byung into slander over substantive critique, I am simply pointing out that the *voters* are hypocritical (not just the candidate).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.