Charles Gray | Rethinking intellectualism
The Gray Area | The rhetoric around the Tea Party reflects a classic political tactic
September 20, 2011, 12:00 am · Updated September 21, 2011, 12:59 am·
I’ve always believed that one of the most important qualities is to assume you aren’t as smart as you think you are.
I started thinking about this when reading in The Daily Pennsylvanian last week about the disbanding of the Tea Party at Penn.
In that article, Penn Democrats President and College junior Isabel Friedman said, “Penn students are smart enough to see past the sideshow aspect of their platform.”
This is not the first time this sort of message has been articulated on campus.
Ironically, when the DP reported on the creation of the Penn Tea Party last year, then Penn Dems President Emma Ellman-Golan, now a College senior, said, “The Tea Party is made up of people who use fear tactics and have no sense of intellectualism. I don’t see why that would resonate on an Ivy League campus.”
These quotes reflect a tactic that has been used by the media and many elements of the Left when handling the Tea Party.
This political strategy is to portray the Tea Party as a group of anti-intellectuals who are unsophisticated. The fact that the Tea Party doesn’t have much representation at Ivy League political science departments is supposed to be some sort of statement about the adequacy of its policies.
When watching Bill Maher, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, the entire premise of their shows is dominated by the idea of making themselves seem smart and their political opposition (which they see as represented by the Tea Party) seem ignorant.
In Maher’s case, his show features a supposed “intellectual” who opines every week about how unsophisticated the Right is. This occurs while he is swearing every other word. How sophisticated!
Just this Sunday, Maureen Dowd wrote a column in The New York Times centered around the idea that this year’s Republican candidates are “blockheads.”
These sorts of influences and tactics show how the very incident playing out in the DP has become common on a much larger scale beyond the confines of Penn.
Ad hominem statements like these are rarely effective.
This is especially true when the “intellectuals” themselves have proven to be wrong sometimes.
For example, one of the most popular ideas that came out of universities like Penn in the 1970s was that overpopulation was going to destroy the world. In fact, it was Penn graduate Paul Ehrlich who predicted in the best-selling book The Population Bomb in 1968 that overpopulation would ruin the United States in two decades. Like many “intellectuals” of that time, he proposed all sorts of scary ideas to reduce the nation’s population immediately.
His predictions have turned out to be wrong. The fact that the United States’ birth rate has not sunk as low as Europe’s or Japan’s is one of the reasons our future prospects are brighter than theirs.
This is just one example of how maybe the “intellectuals” aren’t always as knowledgeable as Maher, Stewart or Colbert want you to think they are.
In fact, there is a long intellectual history behind the free-market ideas that the Tea Party espouses. Although there aren’t many courses at Penn about them, all you have to do is read Mill, Bastiat, Mises, Hayek or even Milton Friedman to see this.
Many people understand that there is indeed an intellectual basis behind the ideas of the Tea Party, just as there is of the opposing viewpoint. That is why it is still going strong.
But at a university like Penn, the comments that appeared in the DP are hurtful in terms of discouraging people from expressing who they are. In fact, that may be why the Tea Party didn’t last.
This trend became very clear when reading the comments to the article. In those comments, an individual who identified himself as Andrew K. expressed reservations about applying to a school with this type of rhetoric.
Andrew K., you should apply to Penn. I promise you there will be like-minded people here who give you support. Most of the time, in classes where I have expressed my opinions and backed them up, professors have appreciated it. They have grown tired of people who don’t want to engage or who simply think like their peers. But most importantly, by applying instead to a place with like-minded people, you’d be cutting yourself off from the opportunity of a lifetime. You need to learn how to engage with the opposition — and they do too.
If we don’t, all we can do when trying to defend our own positions is resort to saying the other side is ignorant. And that would make it much more difficult to achieve the real intellectualism that we seek at the university.
Charles Gray is a College and Wharton senior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is email@example.com. The Gray Area appears every Tuesday.