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Condescension on Left & Right

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The DC blizzard has resulted in, among other things, getting your Sunday paper on Monday afternoon. The Post’s “Outlook” section gave top billing to an article by Gerard Alexander entitled “Why are liberals so condescending?” which examined the ways that liberals dismiss conservative ideas rather than engaging them.

Alexander is on to something. There is a sense of intellectual and moral superiority among some on the left, and it truly does impede political decision-making. That said, chastising politicians for considering politics is hardly a uniquely liberal or conservative monopoly and, besides, if you spent five minutes with a member of Congress, you would prefer they stick to politics and not dabble in, say, theology.

Nowhere is this liberal condescension more pronounced than in discussions of science. Elsewhere, recently, I called attention to an astounding example of how ideological bias can coexist with a commitment to science depending on the topic. Ira Flatow had as his guest Michael Specter, author of "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives." A caller asked if we could prove scientifically that a fetus felt pain and therefore experienced physical pain during an abortion, and how such knowledge would affect our views on abortion. Both Flatow and Specter dodged the question. Evidently, some denialism is okay.

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Consider evolution and the opposition to it. As science, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, yet fundamentalists insist that the Genesis account of Creation is the only true account. (No one ever asks them which account of Creation in Genesis they favor? The one where God creates man and woman together or the one where he pulls out a rib from Adam to form Eve? The question ties fundamentalists up in knots.) What evolution does not teach is that there is no order or purpose in the universe. This is a question science cannot ask or answer on its own terms. There is a kind of scientific fundamentalism, however, which posits the randomness found in the physical universe’s processes as normative for the moral life of human beings. That is silly too. As Leon Wieseltier once wrote when assessing the racial arguments in the infamous tract "The Bell Curve," there is not a chart in the world that can explain the role of charts in the world. Science tells us many things but it cannot explain the human significance of all of our decisions, still less whether or not there is meaning and mystery in the cosmos.

But, back to the Post. The author finishes his defense of the rational concerns of conservatives in the age of Obama by unwittingly providing a concluding example that is, well, strange. “Prehaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend,” Alexander writes. Funny, given the current economic crisis, and how we got here, I am astonished that anyone would seek the counsel of “free-marketeers” on anything more complicated than the location of the nearest gas station. And, for all the difficulties with government programs that he cites, he fails to note the many government programs that do fulfill the objectives sought by their architects. Social Security has turned out pretty well and America no longer fears having millions of impoverished elderly going hungry. Medicare and Medicaid also have worked pretty well. I think the Interstate Highway system has its problems, but imagine life without it.

So, while it is true that liberals have sometimes been inalert to the oversights and deficiencies in their programs, and need the likes of a Daniel Patrick Moynihan to point them out, conservatives have to do a whole lot better than appealing to the free market as justification for their skepticism about universal health care. What Americans understand – and what the Founders understood – is that powerful interests need to balance each other out to preserve freedom. In America today, we need a strong government to restrain the free-marketeers from further destroying the environment, ignoring basic human needs, and undermining their own free market. But, the idea earns only condescension from the right wing bleachers.

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