Jane Smiley, Republican Party Recruiter

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Losing often induces hysteria, particularly in those suffering from arrested development. So it’s no surprise that in the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat we’re seeing a whole slew of tantrums being thrown by various liberal pundits. After all, much of modern liberalism, as Churchill suggested, is often the ideology of a narcissistic teen-aged sensibility that chafes at the limits reality places on the utopian idealism and inflated expectations typical of most left-leaning thought.

So far my favorite fit was pitched by Jane Smiley on Slate. Smiley is a middle-brow novelist adept at spinning tales that gratify all the received wisdom and unexamined prejudices of the sort of people who think Maureen Dowd is an intellectual, Al Franken a comedian, Michael Moore a political satirist, and Hillary Clinton a statesman.

The central myth of these folks can be boiled down to this: liberals are smart and conservatives are stupid. Liberals are cool rationalists whose beliefs are founded on logic and evidence; conservatives are in thrall to ancient superstition and irrational beliefs that compensate for various neuroses. Liberals respect the complexity of the world and so view it with sophisticated nuance; conservatives are simplistic and reductive, their absolutist beliefs charging through politics like a bull in a china shop. Liberals are high-minded, tolerant, sensitive to the plight of the poor and oppressed; conservatives are selfish, greedy, intolerant exploiters of the poor and oppressed. Liberals are idealists who want to create a better world of peace, justice, and equality; conservatives are grubby materialists who want to create profits. In short, the whole creed basically is a simple assertion that liberals are better than conservatives. In other words, it’s snobbery.

So what’s Smiley’s insightful, thoughtful, rational, nuanced take on the election? “The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry” by means of a vast “ignorance-inducing machine.” The mistake of “progressives” is not that they can’t connect with the majority of Americans on the level of core values, but rather that they “underestimate the vitality of ignorance in America.” Just look at red-state taste and religion, Smiley sniffs, her nose so high in the air that if it rains she’d drown– “they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence,” a penchant for mayhem Smiley bizarrely links to Kansas in the 1850s. Of course, Smiley doesn’t mention that blue-state hero John Brown, who in 1856 murdered five unarmed men on Pottawatomie Creek. The left has always had a soft spot for those who murder for the right cause, which is why Stalin and Mao probably have more fans on university campuses than Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

As for uncritical ignorance, consider this statement from our champion of “complex thought,” about Confederate guerilla William C. Quantrill and his raid in 1862: “The red forces, known then as the slave-power, pulled 265 unarmed men from their beds on a Sunday morning and slaughtered them in front of their wives and children.” Let’s see, the nearly 60 million Americans who voted for Bush are the equivalent not just of antebellum Southerners, but the worst of the South, terrorists who murdered innocents. Does anyone else sniff the bigoted snobbery, let alone the slanderous venom, in this lunatic false analogy?

Such ignorant prejudice is especially strange coming in the midst of a hymn to “complex thought” and an indictment of “ignorance.” Central to Smiley’s bigotry is her irrational hatred of religion, which she rails against on the basis of unexamined assumptions and debased Enlightenment clichés: “Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you-if you don’t believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell.” Anyone remotely familiar with modern Christianity, even the so-called fundamentalist variety, knows that this is a simplistic caricature at least as old as Elmer Gantry and Inherit the Wind. So too with Smiley’s assertion that faith requires that “you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it.” So much for Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Pope John Paul II, C.S. Lewis, Michael Novak, and any number of Christian intellectuals compared to whose complex thinking Smiley’s is a bumper sticker.

Of course the liberal ignorance of religion and faith must be accompanied by two-bit psychologizing brewed from equal parts of Marx and Freud: “Next, they [don’t try to figure out who “they” are] tell you that you are the best of a bad lot (humans, that is) and that as bad as you are, if you stick with them, you are among the chosen. This is flattering and reassuring, and also encourages you to imagine the terrible fates of those you envy and resent.” Faith is an “opiate” and an “illusion,” embraced simply for the therapeutic boons it grants to those child-like folks who haven’t seen a shrink, especially compensation for feelings of inadequacy at not being as sophisticated, tolerant, and intellectual as– Jane Smiley. Having been flattered into rationalizing their envy, “red-state types,” as Smiley calls them, “do not want to be told what to do-they prefer to be ignorant. As a result, they are virtually unteachable.” On the contrary, those who are “unteachable” are the so-called “progressives” whose cherished socialist and pop-psyche dogmas have been thoroughly discredited by history.

If the Tweedledum of liberal prejudice is bigotry against religion, the Tweedledee is bigotry against “capitalism.” The hoary clichés about moustache-twirling “robber barons” cackling as they tie the proletariat to the railroad tracks of history are ultimately Marxist in origin, and rest on irrational myth rather than concrete evidence. For the simple fact is that democratic capitalism has distributed the most wealth to the greatest number of people in the history of the planet. But facts will not deter a sophisticated, nuanced, complex thinker like Jane Smiley: “The reason the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections is simple: A generation ago, the big capitalists, who have no morals, as we know, decided to make use of the religious right in their class war against the middle class and against the regulations that were protecting those whom they considered to be their rightful prey-workers and consumers.” The rest of the world should be so lucky to be “prey” like us, who enjoy a level of nutrition, material comfort, leisure, product choices, entertainment, and health care that the human race once imagined only for the blessed gods.

“I say forget introspection,” Smiley begins this panegyric to complex critical thought, which apparently in Smiley’s book doesn’t include self-criticism. In actual fact, this piece is an exercise in bigotry, prejudice, snobbery, and the dullest of clichés. Its laughable combination of stale, conformist thinking and snobbish arrogance is typical of many Democrats, and explains more than anything their failure to connect with most Americans, who can see through the hypocrisy of those who patronize and dismiss the average people whose interests they claim to represent against the “selfish rich.” As such, Smiley’s rant is the best recruiting poster I’ve ever seen for the Republican Party.


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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