W.R. Marshall: The new McCarthyism of the anti-intellectual right

Column by W.R. Marshall

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

– Thomas Pynchon

Why Pynchon?

Because he appeals to the intellect.

And because it’s literal.

There is a screaming across the sky, a constant shrill chorus filling the air. And it has been there before, but not like this, never like this.

The discordance filling the ether is an anti-intellectual symphony. It’s not new. It’s almost as old as the nation itself. Thomas Jefferson felt the dull arrows of anti-intellectualism, and there can be little doubt the rest of the founders would find themselves listed as enemies of these New McCarthyites. (Richard Hofstadter wrote about this brilliantly in his 1963 work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Susan Jacoby equals the task in her recently published, The Age of American Unreason. Both works are essential to understand the long history of anti-intellectualism in this nation.)

Ours is not a broad Heideggerian screed about “flight from thinking” in an exponentially expanding technological age, where the entire population suffers from some form of Cyber Attention Deficit Disorder, spread by the World Wide Web, leaving each of us completely alone yet somehow connected to everyone and everything at the same instant. (Martin Heidegger, “the essential philosopher,” used the phrase, “flight from thinking” in his 1955 “Memorial Address.” In that speech he warned his fellow countrymen – and the rest of us – that technology will, in a persistent, and “uncanny” way insert itself into our lives, and lack of vigilance concerning such will lead to … well, I believe we’ve already been led.)

There are, of course, other small truths to be found in this “flight,” and one explains why no single voice can be heard on the subject of our national acceptance of stupidity, or any subject – because all voices are heard. There are simply too many voices constantly shouting. Those with some pretense toward a more honest life of the mind are not without blame in all this. We more and more sit back and shake our heads and gnash our teeth, rather than entering the fray in this viral age of unreason, and not without cause. However, the celerity with which any idea spreads world wide, and the equal speed with which thousands – if not millions – of responses are piggyback atop it, precludes thoughtful consideration. Thinking takes time, and we less and less seem to take the time to think.

The focus here will be narrow by choice: right-wing media in general and Fox News specifically. It’s Fox News that constantly assaults and insults thinking people with its skewed reporting (hardly the appropriate word when thinking of journalism, perhaps dissemination is a better choice) and inane reason.

The ironic tributary feeding the river of Fox’s mis/dis/non-information is the postmodern structure propping it up. Postmodernism is the always vilified and equally misunderstood execration of anti-intellectuals. However, it is the postmodernism idea of the shattered the grand narrative that allows numerous interpretive contact points and grants legitimacy to alternative viewpoints – even the absurd and blunt ones coming out of the mouths of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. (It is the postmodern condition that allows Fox News to be unconcerned with due diligence when reporting; they know there will be someone watching who believes Fox just because the other channels aren’t telling them the story they want to hear the way they want to hear. Eventually, this telling becomes the truth … always with a small ‘t’.)

What will become history is the always random movement of time and peoples, which only gain coherence when looking backward. What perspective will give us when gazing, flinchingly, back over the first years of the new millennium, is the unfortunate ascension of George W. Bush – who, despite every attempt to make him seem more, is a stupid man – and the explosion of the 24-hour news cycle. (It is the continual and practiced refusal of ideas other than one’s own that defines stupidity. We need only look at the countless bad choices – Iraq, Russia – and the substandard minds he surrounds himself with – Harriet Meyers, Alberto Gonzales – to see the intellectual bankruptcy of the Bush Administration.)

The almost unfathomable broadening of reportage – which seemed to come from nowhere, yet always be here – has led to an uncanny metamorphosis where, in many instances, the news became “news.” Once this conversion took hold, mutations quickly appeared, and news with an agenda became practically de rigueur.

This is not to say “mainstream” media – whatever that may still be – is not complicit in this surge against reason. Either through vanity, avarice or condescension, Burkes’ once “important” Fourth Estate has become a self-important parody that rarely gives the public a chance to chew on meaty issues. There are a handful of grist-filled programs on either public-television stations or found far into the double digits on basic cable, but if this wonk TV gets more than a million viewers on any given night, someone has turned water into wine earlier in the day.

Most of what is proffered is infotainment like “The View,” whose multicultural façade doesn’t mask the garden-variety stupidity of Elizabeth Hasselbeck and her one-dimensional weltanschauung, nor does it explain the continued employment of Sherri Shepard, who has set both feminism and thinking back 500 years by insisting that she not only doesn’t know whether the world is round or flat, but doesn’t care. This kind of aggressive ignorance is part of the trickle down effect of having a man in the White House who only sees in black and white, but it doesn’t point to a concerted effort to shout down reason and intellect.

Rupert Murdoch has laid claim to that land, and his employees at Fox News are his Templars. They actively campaign against the very idea of intellectualism. They denigrate any idea that is not their own. They are to honest debate what they are to intellectual curiosity, a proud stupidity, which has metastasized across the broadband into a perfect storm of arrogance, irresponsibility and indifference.

In fact, “Arrogant, Irresponsible and Indifferent” would be a much better slogan for Fox News than their absurd and cynical “Fair and Balanced.” It is Fox News who is leading this new witch hunt. What is most despicable about their anti-intellectual McCarthyism, is they do it simply for the sake of doing it. They throw up their hands in mock horror at the prurient and salacious stories they broadcast daily, but never, do they attempt to rigorously – let alone honestly – discuss them.

Anti-intellectualism has a lengthy tradition in America. Ours is a nation founded by intellectuals. Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, men of letters, men of science, men of deep and broad interests; the very definition of an intellectual. Men, who, were they living today, would be the subject of countless editorials by Patriots-for-Pay like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, daddy’s boy Bill Kristol (whose father may have had some legitimacy as a social observer, but all the son has is the name) and Fox’s lapdog, the pseudo-academic fraud, David Horowitz. Men who are truly the opposite of Americans, the antithesis of patriots. Men who happily crush any opposing view with bombast and talking points instead of reason and logic. And because they are either incapable or too corrupt to see more than one side to any argument, they will never grasp this simple truth: their claims of lineage to the founders of this nation is a sham. They are the very thing which the founders decried and revolted against.

Paradoxically, Fox News constantly stumbles blindly into one of the pits it usually prepares for the wrongheaded intellectuals they target; the expert. While bullying experts who do not agree with them, they embrace their own experts. These are men and women who never insist on the honest intellectual exchange of open ended ideas, but instead serve a very specific and very limited agenda. And their experts are always second-raters.

David Horowitz is the worst of these dull knaves. Regardless of what he pretends to be, he is a virulent anti-intellectual posing as its opposite. Horowitz’s thinking is not the studied, complex reasoning one expects from a true man of reason, but the belligerent small-mindedness of an anti-intellectual fascist. He doesn’t allow for the exchange of ideas, only the limited discussion of his own half-baked ramblings. He’s taken a page from the O’Reilly manual when approaching an idea he doesn’t agree with or understand – demonize it and shout it down. Like most McCarthyites, he is far more interested in the sound of his own voice than the substance of anyone else’s words. (To be fair, this is really just McCarthyism Lite; in spite of the damage it may do in the moment, it has limited political impact in this age of fractured loyalties and scattered thinking. The fracture exists in spite of what must be Rupert Murdock’s fervent desire to buy the world and put it back together in a way that would suit him and him alone.)

Perhaps this is unfair. Let’s suppose they’re not stupid, soulless men. Let’s suppose they’re bright, insightful and worst of all, purposeful men. That they are posing as defenders of the common man against the infection of intellectualism because it makes good TV, because it gives them their niche with white men 55 and older. True, this is horrifyingly callus, but it would indicate a mind at work.

But where is that purposefulness. Spend any time watching these modern day Tail-Gunner Joes, and one sees how shallow and intellectually weak they are. There doesn’t seem to be any long-term plan but market share; they’d rather sell cars and soap than ideas. This is no ruse to light a fire under the hoi polloi, but a genuine inability to grasp subtlety – they are, quite simply, simple.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of examples of Fox News and their lumbering anti-intellectualism, but is was never my intention to detail them here, no desire to state “I have here in my hand a list of 205…” as did the senator from Wisconsin did back on Feb. 9, 1950. But make no mistake, the bully pulpit brooks no dissent, and men like Bill O’Reilly, who regularly brandish lies and an egregious lack of historical knowledge, continue to pose as men of intellect, defenders of the rights of the common man. How absurd; they’ve never been the former, and if they ever were, they have long forgotten the latter.

“Bread and circuses” is nothing new. What is new, is our government no longer seems to care about bread, and Fox News is only interested in the circus … and they only want us to see the clowns.

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