Matt Yglesias's Blind Spot

Yglesias has been referred to by some pretty prominent bloggers as one of the most brilliant young pundits out there, and in a number of areas, they're probably right. He writes on a wide breadth of issues intelligently and with a great deal of insight. But as I said earlier on a similar subject, I think Matt's got it wrong on this issue, and since this is the second time in a very short period, I'm starting to think that when it comes to the tactics and end desires of christian radicals in this country, Yglesias just has a blind spot.

In a piece on Tapped a couple of days ago titled Intelligent Design, Who Cares? Yglesias made the following three part argument:

First and foremost, this simply isn't an issue the federal government has control over. Second, the judicial rulings prohibiting the teaching of religious doctrines in science classes are firmly entrenched, and there's no sign the Republican Party is making a serious effort to overturn them. The realistic option on the table is that state governments might, as Kansas did a few years ago, take evolution out of the school curriculum. What happened there, however, was that business groups and conservative elites pretty swiftly countermobilized and got the policy changed because they wanted their kids to be able to get into good colleges.

Last but not least, nothing whatsoever of practical importance hinges on whether or not life on earth originated as a result of intelligent design. The theory is exceedingly silly pseudo-science, but it doesn't actually threaten anything. There is, moreoever, no reason to think it's especially crucial for the average citizen to have an accurate grasp of state-of-the-art biological theory. Most people don't understand quantum mechanics, general relativity, or any number of other scientific and technical topics and life goes on just fine.

A couple of points to make--as long as the federal government controls any funding of schools, they potentially have control over what's taught, and if you think that Santorum or Coburn or Brownback (and let's not even get into what House members are capable of) wouldn't put Creationism into the Department of Education if they could, then you're dreaming. That they're not currently capable of it simply means that they understand the idea of incrementalism. First comes ID, next comes theology.

Secondly, you can't count on business groups to keep doing your dirty work for you, because those businesses depend on consumers to stay afloat, and right-wingers have no compunction about boycotting businesses that don't go along. If they're able to convince enough people that there really is a controversy about evolution, and then get them to sign on to pressure businesses that oppose their agenda, the business community will cave.

Third, there's a huge difference between asking the citizenry to understand the difference between provable scientific theory and myth and understanding the details of advanced scientific knowledge. I'm not saying that the average Joe ought to be able to discuss the intricacies of shared genetic heritage, but they ought to be taught in school that there's a real divide between what science's role is and what religion's role is and that ID/Creationism falls firmly on the side of religion.

But where I really take issue is with Yglesias's conclusion on the matter:
Getting snooty about this just feeds into perceptions of liberalism as fundamentally a snobbish, anti-religious, elitist view while distracting attention from the basically reality that the Republican Party is a front organization for corporate managers that puts on a cloak of social conservatism to disguise what it really does in practice. If you must worry about social conservatives, worry about women's reproductive rights and basic equality for gays and lesbians. There's just no there there in the evolution issue.

Asking that our children be taught science in a science class so that they can compete on a global stage with children who aren't subjected to religion disguised as science isn't snooty--it's a matter of long-term survival. And there's nothing anti-religious about asking that there be a line drawn in the classroom between science and religion. It's simply a matter of recognizing that each subject has its place and that the two don't speak to each other, that they have different languages and are not meant to be reconciled. It's not like religion and science are two cousins who got into a fight at Prom and haven't talked since--it's more like they're creatures from separate dimensions who can see each other through a magic mirror but can't communicate because they share no common frame of reference.

One of the great strengths of the US has been the idea that genius can come from practically any social and economic class, because our university system is so all-encompassing. But if we allow the religious wackos to handicap our children by forcing their teachers to teach a nonexistent controversy, we'll significantly reduce the chances that those geniuses--or even those people who become competent--will arise, especially in the hard sciences, where we're already starting to fall behind the rest of the world.

I understand that Yglesias is more concerned with the corporate side of the Republican party than the religious side, and in some respects I agree with him--in the short term, corporatism is far more of a threat to the country than the religious right--but that doesn't mean that there's no there there. The potential long-term damage from what the religious right wants to do to our educational system is at least as large a concern as the increasing corporatism of the US.

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