This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Down With Smarties!

Gays. Women. Scientists. People who use birth control. People who are not religious fundamentalists. People who support social programs besides giving taxpayers’ money to churches. You knew that wouldn’t be the end of the list comprising the anti-American “Satan”, right?

Now you can add universities to the roster of things Rick Santorum hates. On Saturday, the Man of God doubled down on his statements characterizing President Obama as a “snob” for trying to make college education affordable for all, and juxtaposed “good and decent people” without college education against “liberal professors” who usurp people’s right to indoctrinate their children. Even grown children, who have reached the age of majority and can presumably think for themselves, may not be exposed to views that conflict with their parents’ views, according to Santorum. Rick’s supporters have chimed in that giving the poor and the lower middle class a chance to attend college makes no sense, because who will clean the streets and pick up garbage then? And finally, if elected, Santorum plans to compel public universities to teach the views of religious and political conservatives uncritically, presenting dogma and fantasy as scientific fact, as well as mischaracterizing and falsifying the findings of social sciences, all in the name of “diversity”. The effect of such regulation would be to outlaw objectivity and investigative rigor in higher education and research, as well as to ban whole swaths of sciences whose findings do not conform to the Biblical account or to conservative social views.

Gutting universities and repressing intellectuals has a long and glorious history.

The late Saparmurat Niyazov, a.k.a “Turkmenbashi”, President For Life of Turkmenistan from 1991 to 2006, is the most spectacular example. Rather than get bogged down trying to separate obliging mouthpieces from troublesome thinkers, he got rid of them all and let God sort them out. In other words, he simply outlawed education above the 8th grade. Up to the 8th grade, education was radically reformed to consist only of the Quran and Niyazov’s own rambling, insane rants published in book form. The Turkmenbashi shut down all medical schools and universities, destroyed libraries and banned the sale and possession of textbooks. Privately teaching any subject not formally approved by the him (i.e. anything besides Islam and Niyazov’s own “philosophy”) was tantamount to treason. The crowning achievement of Niyazov’s anti-intellectual program was a law making it a crime for Turkmenistan’s citizens to travel abroad to study. To his citizens, Niyazov explained that these measures were necessary to ensure their liberty from perfidious un-Turkmen indoctrination by ideological enemies of Turkmenistan. And to foreign diplomats and journalists, Niyazov explained, with a frankness that’s positively adorable, that an illiterate populace is easier to govern.

But if Turkmenistan sounds like too exotic an example, consider Russia, whose autocratic governments — and as I’ve written before, Russian communists have much in common with folks like Rick Santorum and almost nothing in common with people that his supporters accuse of being “commies” — spent more than a century hounding and periodically decimating the country’s intellectuals, until they finally succeeded in eliminating Russia’s intellectual class. The country that gave us the word “intelligetsia” no longer has one. Sure, there are still a few respectable Russian scientists, artists and writers, but most of them live abroad, never to return. The few who stick around continue to risk persecution, even death, for demonstrating the slightest ideological impurity.

What a dreary sight Russia is! It is a culture steeped in nostalgia, like a body that pines for its soul. Its television shows nothing but old movies, over and over, and people watch the same thing hundreds of times. There is a realization that culturally, Russia is well past its golden age, but almost no one who lives in Russia says it — because to engage in critical self-examination is an intellectual exercise, and in Russia, crude nationalism takes priority over everything. To acknowledge a home-grown ill, instead of blaming “foreign influences”, is widely considered to be un-Russian, unpatriotic. And so, in the last twenty years, we have seen this sad, vulgar society drift back into tyranny, wallowing in anger and self-pity while continuing to drive its thinkers away.

In times of war, it was schools and libraries that suffered the most vicious destruction, not churches. There is no better way to break a people than to destroy its repositories of wisdom and knowledge.

In 1258, when the Mongols took Baghdad, they sacked the city’s library and threw all of its scrolls in the Tigris; for several weeks afterwards, the river ran black with ink.

In 642, Arab invaders destroyed what was left of the Great Library of Alexandria (already previously decimated by Christian fanatics). Caliph Omar is reported to have said: “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” And so they did.

In the last century, every totalitarian regime in existence went after the intellectuals, turning universities into mere shells and and replacing knowledge and inquiry with ideology.

The United States has some of the best universities in the world. This is not just something I am saying to be nice — it is a fact. Secondary education in this country is abysmal, but its universities — owing as much to the freedom of speech and lack of governmental control as to wealth — are undeniably excellent. This is, truly, one of the best things about this country. How shockingly ignorant one must be, then, to characterize universities and intellectuals as “un-American” and critical, informed thinking as antithetical to our country’s values!

It has become very popular and fashionable in America to scoff at educated people and to mischaracterize intellectualism as snobbery or ego — or worse, to paint education as a threat to family and society’s “moral fiber”, or whatever. I would have Santorum’s supporters ponder this, however: as much as science fiction loves the idea of the mad scientist taking over the world or a handful of smart people subjugating everyone else, history knows no example of a dictatorship of intellectuals. Every dictatorship that has ever existed, however, was a raging mediocracy. Every dictatorship that has ever existed did its damndest to punish, silence, or kill society’s brightest. Every dictatorship that has ever existed described intellectuals as enemies of the people and a threat to national security.

Kids today grow up in the cozy — and sometimes, not so cozy — confines of their immediate circle. Their parents or their parents’ friends sit on the school board. Their neighbors teach. All their classmates have similar backgrounds and ideas. For many, going to college represents the very first time they are confronted with serious differences of opinion and the reality that many things we are used to taking for granted are subject to critical examination. I suppose this IS a threat to people who have neither the ability nor the interest in credibly defending their beliefs — in other words, authoritarians.

But what of all that? According to Rick Santorum, his college years were marred by the unspeakable torture of being unliked and unagreed with. This is obviously a world-class injustice that should never be allowed to befall good, honest people’s children, especially since according to Santorum 62% of them end up questioning themselves. Clearly, such a thing cannot be tolerated in a moral, if not entirely civilized, society.

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3 thoughts on “Down With Smarties!

  1. George Weaver on said:

    So well-written. And so terribly frightening. I hear it on TV, but I can hardly believe it. I am fearful that you are absolutely correct. What is to happen to us?

  2. One of the most well-written and clearly articulated summaries of the danger to our freedoms posed by anti-intellectualism. I have always felt that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of our world was critical to the survival of our species. We can live our short lives in ignorance and fear, or we can celebrate our existence by striving to understand how things work and how we fit into that complex system. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one frightening vision of where these Republicans want to take us. It’s no longer a far-fetched dystopian look at the future. That future is already here.

  3. The way I see it, Santorum is the snobbish one with his implication that a university education is only for the privileged few. College may not be the right step for everyone, but everyone should have the opportunity to make that decision for themselves, no matter what economic background they come from.

    Any political philosophy that seeks to limit education in any way is both intellectually and morally bankrupt and should be opposed by liberals and conservatives alike.

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