Monday, August 29, 2011

Opinion Page Irony

David Sirota (on the left) and Ed Quillen

This weekend, The Denver Post featured columns by three different writers. One of them, George Will, is typically thought of as a conservative columnist. The other two, Ed Quillen and David Sirota, are more anti-Republican in their point of view.

I’ll reproduce all three columns in sequence, so that you get the impact of their messages. First the column from George Will:

CASTLE ROCK — The red stone outcropping that gives this community its name is just a facet of the histrionic geology of Douglas County. The county is named for Stephen Douglas, who defeated Abraham Lincoln in Illinois' 1858 U.S. Senate election. Lincoln opposed Douglas' repugnant "popular sovereignty" plan for allowing territories to vote for or against accepting slavery. Today, Douglas County has an admirable plan for popular sovereignty in education: school choice.

But the plan has been disrupted by a judge who says that providing parents with scholarship money that can be spent at religious or secular schools violates Colorado's constitution. That document says "no person shall be required to attend or support any ministry or place of worship, religious sect or denomination against his consent."

Such "compelled support" clauses in state constitutions were written to prevent establishment of official state religions. But Douglas County's scholarship program is religiously neutral, enabling families to choose whatever school best suits their children.

Prudently, opponents of the program do not claim that it violates the U.S. Constitution's proscription of "establishment" of religion. In 2002, the Supreme Court, considering an Ohio program legally indistinguishable from Douglas County's, said the Constitution is not violated by a scholarship plan that is "neutral with respect to religion" and involves parents directing government aid to schools by their "own genuine and independent private choice."

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, ruling on a similar school choice program in Milwaukee, cited the U.S. Supreme Court: "The crucial question is not whether some benefit accrues to a religious institution as a consequence of the legislative program, but whether its principal or primary effect advances religion."

The judge ruled against Douglas County at the behest of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is indiscriminately opposed to any public money reaching any religious institution in any way, and by others eager to protect public schools from competition. School choice usually is sought by poor parents victimized by failing schools in inner cities. Douglas County's case is notable because the median household income here is $99,522 and only 1.9 percent of families are below the poverty line.

The county opted for choice because a few years ago conservatives were elected to the school board, and conservatives are pro-choice about most things — owning guns, driving SUVs, using incandescent light bulbs, etc. — other than killing pre-born babies. Liberals are pro-choice mostly about the latter.

In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right of parents "to direct the . . . education of children under their control." This might seem to be a facet of the privacy right so dear to liberals. Douglas County's 500 scholarships empower parents to exercise the right the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed. In 1927, Colorado's Supreme Court upheld the "right of parents to have their children taught where, when, how, what and by whom they may judge best."

This is not an abstract legal question for Diana and Mark Oakley, whose son Nate, 13, has Asperger's syndrome. Desperately unhappy at a large public school, he is, thanks to his scholarship, flourishing at a small private school.

The Oakleys have taken a line of credit to cover the $11,325 of tuition not covered by the $4,575 scholarship and other aid they have received. Such scholarships cost the county less than the more than $8,000 it spends per public school pupil, so the program frees up money for public schools.

Mark and Jeanette Anderson wanted their son Max, 8, to have the math instruction offered by a small private school where he described his initial visit as "the best seven hours of my life." This school, with just 31 students, is in peril because it hired two teachers in anticipation of the 12 scholarship students whose aid is now in jeopardy. Derrick and Florence Doyle want the religious dimension of the Catholic school they have chosen. These parents are represented by the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which has helped make the case law that will, eventually, vindicate the county.

The judge did not enjoin the scholarship program until Aug. 12, when many scholarship recipients were already enrolled in their schools. Happily, many of these schools are trying to keep their scholarship students, pending the predictable decision by a higher court that the disrupting judge has ignored settled law.
Mr. Will presents an analysis of a public policy issue: whether or not taxpayer-funded school choice is to be allowed within the state of Colorado. He sides with the parents on this one, indicating that they should have a right to the state funds set aside for their child’s education, and that they should be able to employ those funds at schools outside the public school system.

Mr. Will is not registering an emotional appeal against one group of people or another. He simply presents a set of facts and lets the readership of The Denver Post know where he stands.

Contrast that with the work of Ed Quillen.  His column is next:

Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and American ambassador to China, has about the same chance as you or I do of getting the Republican nomination for the presidency. A recent survey of likely GOP primary voters by Public Policy Polling showed Huntsman as the only candidate with a net negative approval rating.

That's kind of surprising, since on the surface, Huntsman is a perfect 2012 Republican candidate: rich, white and religious.

But Huntsman has trouble with modern GOP orthodoxy. Last week he let loose at his opponents, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry: "I think there's a serious problem. The minute that the Republican Party becomes . . . the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said . . . I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position . . . ."

"I can't remember a time in our history where we actually were willing to shun science and become a party that was antithetical to science . . . . It's not a winning formula."

Obviously, there are many Republicans, perhaps a majority, who think Huntsman is wrong, that being anti-science is a winning formula. But why would any Republican think that, given that science has given us the internal combustion engine, deepwater drilling and weapons of mass destruction?

One common thread in American politics, going back at least to Andrew Jackson, is populism — opposition to elites. Populist politicians traditionally attack financial elites, complaining that "the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few" who "propose to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of mammon."

Instead of promoting traditional economic populism, the contemporary GOP practices cultural populism. In the Republican view, you don't worry about the billionaire Koch brothers, not when our country confronts a clear and present threat from the out-of-touch elitists who listen to NPR and the condescending snobs who can make subjects and verbs agree. And, of course, those elitist scientists.

When it comes to science in this country, the non-elites have some rightful grievances. Back in the 1890s, when the economic populists were organizing, many American scientists were touting what came to be known as "social Darwinism."

The doctrine of "survival of the fittest" should be applied to human society. The strong should prey on the weak, they argued, and if government tried to protect the weak, it was disturbing the natural order and dire consequences would follow.

In the 1920s and '30s, there was eugenics, a related scientific fad. Selective breeding, it was argued, could improve the national character. It influenced immigration policy — "inferior" types from Asia and southern Europe were slighted in favor of northern Europeans — and inspired compulsory sterilization laws in many states.

From 1932 to 1972, there was the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. Impoverished black sharecroppers were denied treatment for their venereal disease, long after the discovery that penicillin was an effective treatment.

So scientists aren't always right. But the GOP base seems to believe that non-scientists are guileless innocents incapable of corruption or avarice. They seem to forget that there was only one Forrest Gump, and he was a fictional character.

Mr. Quillen uses his space to take us on a tour of anti-Republican characterizations. He teaches us that Republicans are particularly dimwitted and inclined toward voodoo science. He begins with a profile of a typical Republican politician:

“…[Jon Huntsman is] a perfect 2012 Republican candidate: rich, white and religious.”

He goes on to describe the “science” Republicans prefer, which includes eugenics and human experiments:

“Selective breeding, it was argued [by Republicans?], could improve the national character.


“…the Tuskegee syphilis study… [where] impoverished black sharecroppers were denied treatment for venereal disease [by Republicans?].”

He then summarizes the Republican mindset:

“They [the GOP base] seem to forget that there was only one Forrest Gump, and he was a fictional character.”


“…there are many Republicans…who think…that being anti-science is a winning formula.”

David Sirota is an ideological soul mate of Mr. Quillen. Here is his weekend column:

Republican guru Karl Rove recently appeared on Fox News to dispute the idea that America is a "Christian nation." And he was right to do so, but not because our country lacks an overarching canon. We certainly do have a national religion — it's just not Christianity. It's Denialism.

Some branches of this religion deny the science documenting humans' role in climate change. Others deny tax cuts' connection to deficits and deregulation's role in the recession. But regardless of the issue, Denialists all share a basic hostility to facts.

As this know-nothing theology expands, none of its denominations claims a bigger membership than the one obsessed with race. Today, many reject the fact that black people typically face bigger obstacles to economic and political success than whites. Instead, they insist that whites are oppressed.

If you've followed politics, you're familiar with this catechism. In the 1980s, lawmakers often implied that welfare programs persecuted whites. In the 1990s, the same lawmakers demonized affirmative-action initiatives that tried to counter college admission preferences for white "legacy" families. These days, demagogues cite Barack Obama's political ascendance as supposed proof that black people are unfairly privileged.

The late Democrat Geraldine Ferraro first floated this specific fable in 2008, when she said that Obama was "very lucky" to be black and that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in [his] position." Obama rightly noted that "anybody who knows the history of this country . . . would not take too seriously the notion that [being black] has been a huge advantage."

But the meme nonetheless persists. In May, Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., said Obama's election "comes back to who he was: he was black." Now, it's Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who last week declared that "as an African- American male," Obama received a "tremendous advantage from a lot of [government] programs."

Though Coburn's dog-whistle racism is (sadly) mundane, his statement is news because of its timing.

In the same week the Oklahoman insinuated that government gives African-Americans a "tremendous advantage," The New York Times reported on data showing black scientists are "markedly less likely" to win government grants than white scientists. A few weeks earlier, the Pew Research Center reported that "the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households."

These representative snapshots remind us that despite Denialist rhetoric, institutional racism and white privilege dominate American society.

This truth is everywhere. You can see it in black unemployment rates, which are twice as high as white unemployment rates — a disparity that persists even when controlling for education levels. You can see it in a 2004 MIT study showing that job-seekers with "white names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews" than job seekers with comparable resumes and "African-American-sounding names." And you can see it in a news media that looks like an all-white country club and a U.S. Senate that includes no black legislators.

Denialists imply that this is all negated by Obama's success. But while his rise to the Oval Office certainly was an achievement, Obama was correct when, upon becoming Harvard Law Review's first black president in 1990, he said, "It's crucial that people don't see my election as somehow a symbol of progress in the broader sense, that we don't sort of point to a Barack Obama any more than you point to a Bill Cosby or a Michael Jordan and say 'Well, things are hunky dory.'

Of course, things aren't "hunky dory" for most people in this recession — but they are particularly awful for black Americans. Unfortunately, if you refuse to acknowledge that truth, there's a whole Church of Denialism ready to embrace you.

Mr. Sirota continues in the direction of Mr. Quillen’s column. He knows that the anthropogenic global warming political movement supports the theme that “Republicans are destroying the environment.” He also knows that our anti-Republican culture supports the notion that only Republicans are racists. Through his construct of “The Church of Denialism,” it all comes together:

“We certainly do have a national religion — it's just not Christianity. It's Denialism.”


“Some branches of this religion deny the science documenting humans' role in climate change.”


“As this know-nothing theology expands, none of its denominations claims a bigger membership than the one obsessed with race.”

What observations might be made about the Opinion pages of The Denver Post? Here are three of them:

1. There is a double standard in play. One type of “opinion” tends to analyze current policy issues. The other pays homage to our anti-Republican culture. The Denver Post gives them equal prominence and assigns equal legitimacy to both.

2. The field of science has become politicized. Certain scientific claims are given favored status in our culture while others are denigrated. As Mr. Sirota points out, “…if you refuse to acknowledge that truth, there’s a whole church of Denialism ready to embrace you.” It is fascinating that, even in this politicized environment, our social sciences have no interest in studying the phenomenon.

3. The editors of The Denver Post have a great sense of irony. While they legitimize Mr. Sirota’s characterizations of Republicans having a “know-nothing theology,” they provide an exact parallel with Mr. Sirota’s column being delivered as a homily to the faithful. The editors of “The Church of The Denver Post” make sure the paper maintains its dominant political allegiance.

Keep in mind that these examples are not an "outlier." If you look at the newspaper serving your individual community, you will see similar examples,

The good news is that the widely accepted anti-Republican themes are becoming caricature. Former Vice President Al Gore provides the most recent example.

On Friday, 8/26/2011, Mr. Gore gave an interview in which he explained how to confront “the deniers.” The former Vice President believes that it is Republicans who are against the science of global warming and that Republicans are racists. He exhorts Americans to fight and "win the conversation."

We are watching a prominent individual suffer embarrassment and loss of credibility simply to maintain allegiance to our anti-Republican culture. At some point, it’s just not going to be worth the price.

UPDATE 8/30/2011:
And along came Krugman...

It is becoming apparent that the "Denialism" anti-science narrative is scripted. Mr. Krugman's column appeared the same weekend as those of Mr. Sirota and Mr. Quillen, and the coordinated theme is reminiscent of Journolist activities.

Sadly, it also appears that Republicans accept the characterizations without any sense of indignation. Rich Lowry at National Review Online rises to their defense, but that is not enough. It is not a good thing that people in our culture accept characterizations of themselves as monsters drawn toward "final solution" eugenics and Frankenstein-like syphilitic studies. Republicans need to react to this.

UPDATE 11/8/2011:
Glenn Reynolds brings up some specifics on the eugenics work of Wallace Kuralt in North Carolina.  It might be interesting to Mr. Quillen that North Carolina was run by the Democratic Party at this time in its history.

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