All of us tend to read and listen to those who reinforce are own opinions. It calms us. But research suggests that exposure to opposing views not only prevents our own from settling into rigid orthodoxy, but may be good for our minds. A recent New York Times article, "How to Train the Aging Brain," brings some good news for those of us who have reached the age when we often find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of introducing two "good friends" whose names have escaped us at precisely that moment: "If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions faster than a young person can."
And how does one keep the mind in good shape? One of the ways of developing new brain connections, "jiggling the synapses," according to those same researchers, is bumping up against people and ideas that are different from one's own. That explains in part, I suspect, the phenomenal mental acuity that many talmidei chachamim retain into very old age. When one learns with a chavrusah (study partner), one can count on having one's reasoning challenged at every step of the process. And even those who primarily learn alone in latter years have already become accustomed to challenging and re-examining each of their conclusions, just as a chavrusah would. In addition, Gemara learning involves constant exposure to disputation – Rishonim with Rishonim, Achronim with Achronim – and one is constantly involved not only in understanding each shittah on its own terms but also the fundamental point over which they disagree.
Yet even those who spend most of their waking hours in the milchemes shel Torah (wars of Torah) tend to resist being challenged intellectually when venturing outside the realm of Torah learning. We all cringe from exposure to views that challenge our own.
BUT I WOULD VENTURE that there is one group that particularly suffers from this malady: left-wing intellectuals. And the reason is that they have typically grown up in a homogenous environment in which left-wing politics are something assumed, not propositions requiring proof or supporting argumentation. For all the impact of affirmative action on faculty hiring decisions, one group remains drastically underrepresented on Ivy League faculties: Those holding conservative political positions. And that disparity is reflected in the student bodies as well.
That almost everybody they meet shares their political convictions ill-serves left-wing students on elite campuses. When confronted with someone who does not share their views, their immediate reaction is to assume that person is an idiot. I once explained how Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito developed into two of the outstanding appellate advocates of their generation. As conservative students at elite colleges and law schools – Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – they were members of a small minority. They could be under no illusion that every intelligent being on the planet thought exactly like them. As a consequence, they had to learn how to fashion arguments more sophisticated than, "You're an idiot," and which took into account the fact that others might start from premises different than their own.
If it becomes untenable to assume that those holding different views are simply stupid, then left-wing elitists assume that they are thoroughly immoral. Charles Krauthammer provides a classic example of the latter, quoting a 2002 New York Times obituary of the libertarian Princeton philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick's masterwork, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, wrote the Times, "proved comforting to the right, which was grateful for what it embraced as philosophical justification." Nozick's philosophical work, the Times implied, could be no more than a rationalization for the Right's thoroughly base and self-regarding politics.
President Obama's political advisor David Axelrod does the same thing today when he characterizes Republican opposition to Obamacare as rooting for the country to fail – a trope eagerly picked up by the President of late. When Democrats opposed the war in Iraq (now claimed by Vice-President Biden as one of the administration's greatest achievements) and reacted gleefully to every setback, they demonstrated political virtue of the highest order. Why? Because the Left is the party of virtue. But when Republican's oppose Democratic legislative initiatives, that opposition can only be explained by a nihilistic desire to see America fail.
The Left cannot fathom that there might be other values that run counter to their quest for fairness or equality. (As a close law school friend explained to me recently, yes, medical care under Obamacare may be significantly worse, but at least it will equally crummy for everyone.) Among those countervailing values would be liberty. Conservatives like Thomal Sowells fear that the state power and intervention into every aspect of life required to ensure the Left's goal of an equality of outcomes must of necessity be so great as to destroy liberty. Removing children from socially disadvantaged or low IQ mothers would be a plausible policy, for instance, if equality of outcomes is the goal.
THE INTELLECTUAL ARROGANCE of the Left was on full display in the immediate aftermath of Scott Brown's special election victory in Massachusetts. The New York Times Charles Blow depicted the electorate as a "mob" – "angry, wounded, . . . riled by recession, careening across the political spectrum, still craving change, nursing a bloodlust . . . ." Massachusetts voters had emitted a "collective primal scream," opined the Boston Globe's Renee Loth, a description reminiscent of Peter Jennings's remarks after the Republicans' midterm triumph in 1994: "Imagine a nation of uncontrolled 2-year-old-rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week." (Thanks to James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal for the comparison.) The portrayal of the American voter as a member of an irrational mob also echoed candidate Barack Obama's description of Red State voters as finding solace for their failed lives in "guns and religion."
Joe Klein of Time Magazine was even more withering in his contempt. He entitled a blog post, "Too Dumb to Thrive," in response to an "amazing" poll result that three-quarters of voters believe the $787 billion stimulus package to have been wasted. Well, Klein concluded, they were probably right that it was "wasted on them. . . . " Blow wrote that President Obama had erred in not recognizing that the "people" have a hard time handling complexity and are suspicious of it. The next time the President dealt with the complexities of life, Blow suggested, someone should tap him on the ankle and say, "Mr. President, we're down here." Blow did not detail the nature of those super- sophisticated ideas from that President that had proven a hard-sell with those whose intellectual sophistication did not come to the President's ankle.
For his part, the President seemed to adopt Blow's advice to speak "in plain words of plain folks." I happened to catch a few seconds of a speech in Los Vegas last week, while walking through a hotel lobby, and there was the Great Orator dropping his final vowels in a manner that would have done Sarah "You Betcha" Palin proud. More, the President shared Blow's analysis that he had done a poor job of explaining Obamacare to the American people. He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, that he had made a mistake in not spending more time explaining his healthcare initiative; "I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we're making a good rational decision here, then people will get it." In short, he his mistake was overestimating the intelligence of the American people.
The President's faux modesty here is filled with numerous howlers. The first is the claim that he was preoccupied with policy. In fact, he farmed out healthcare reform almost entirely to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The even funnier claim is that he spent insufficient time trying to explain the proposed reforms. If 29 speeches on the subject were not enough, it is doubtful that 30 would have led to a different result. As someone who once appeared on five interview shows on one Sunday morning, and gave 411 speeches and 158 interviews in his first year in office, President Obama need not have fretted that he should have concentrated more on communicating.
IN A FASCINATING PIECE ENTITLED, "The Roots of Obama Worship," (Weekly Standard, Jan. 25 2010), James Ceaser traces those roots of that worship to the 19th century French thinker Auguste Comte, the father of modern "sociology." According to Comte, world history is marked by the progression upward through three great epochs from theological thought to metaphysical thought to the modern age of scientific or "positivistic" thinking. Comte preached the necessity of replacing traditional religious thought with a new "religion of humanity," whose goal would be a global community aimed at the betterment of mankind. The clerics of the new religion would be scientists, and most particularly those who applied the scientific method to the study of society. The utopian thinker Saint-Simon, who proposed running society with "Councils of Newton," was a disciple of Comte.
The Obama campaign combined the worship of science, as in his inaugural promise to "restore science to its proper place," with religious ecstasy. Global warming constitutes the paradigmatic campaign of the "religion of humanity," in its claim to base itself on the "best science" and the large role global warming activists would accord scientists in determining policy. Not by accident, did candidate Obama celebrate his nomination to his rapturous followers as the moment when "the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal."
In this schema, Obama's constant invocation of George W. Bush is not merely the politician's typical trick of shifting blame to an early administration, but a depiction of a Manichean universe, in which the forces of progress are at war with "retrograde" forces, of which Bush, with his insistence on the primacy of the nation and American exceptionalism, serves as the symbol.
The precipitous decline in President Obama's popularity over his first year in office is not just a consequence of the inadequacy of "progressive" policies to tame such retrograde forces as the Iranian mullahs or the x-mas day bomber. It owes as much to the growing recognition on the part of many Americans that the religion of humanity "rests ultimately on contempt for the people" and that their President, anointed as a priest of the new religion at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, does not share their values or concerns.