Why they really hate Neil deGrasse Tyson: Inside the right's anti-intellectual paranoia

A new National Review cover story demonstrates the seething resentment that fuels much of modern conservative anger

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 31, 2014 9:24PM (EDT)

Neil deGrasse Tyson                                    (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Neil deGrasse Tyson (AP/Richard Shotwell)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


If there’s one belief that binds the disparate factions of the American right together, it’s the belief in American exceptionalism, both for the nation and for individuals. The mythology that conservatism is about promoting excellence and encouraging strivers is found throughout conservative media and literature, from the story of John Galt in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to Reagan’s description of America as a “shining city on a hill.” While it often manifests as contempt for the poor and the vulnerable, in the abstract this conservative enthusiasm for doing better could, in theory, be channeled productively toward actually pushing people to achieve.

So why are so many conservatives abandoning this enthusiasm for the exceptional in favor of what can only be described as jealous sniping aimed at people who are actually trying to expand the world creatively and scientifically? There’s a lot of highfalutin talk on the right about supporting the strivers, but in practice, the conservative response to someone who tries to stick his head above the crowd is to beat it down with a hammer. Conservatives may think of themselves as lovers of excellence, but in reality, “Who do you think you are?” is swiftly becoming an unofficial right-wing motto.

It’s easy to see why, despite their supposed enthusiasm for excellence, conservative pundits would offer up liberal scientists, journalists, and artists as hate objects for their base. This is a time of economic instability and ordinary people are seeing their fortunes declining. It’s easy to turn that anxiety into rage at people conservative audiences think have easy, charmed lives as coastal elites.

But in doing so, conservative pundits are exploiting their audiences, turning their class-based anger away from the people who are actually causing their economic problems, such as the Wall Street elite, and toward people who may be successful but who are not doing any harm to other Americans and are often trying to help them.  If you can get your audiences to hate journalists and scientists, they won't hate the wealthy bankers who actually screwed them over.

This was epitomized by the recent National Review story by Charles C. W. Cooke titled “Smarter Than Thou” in which he fussed and whined about “the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.” An illustration of the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson graced the cover, drawn to look self-satisfied, even though deGrasse Tyson hardly gives off that vibe in real life.

Cooke’s actual article more than lives up to the cover art’s promise of the green-eyed monster unleashed, as he expands his attack beyond one of the country’s preeminent scientists to include policy-oriented journalists, economists, other scientists, and “anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.”

Of course, realizing that he’s issuing a broadside against anyone who dares to actually do things like examine evidence or consider the logic of an argument, he hastens to add, “The pose is, of course, little more than a ruse — most of our professional ‘nerds’ being, like Mrs. Doubtfire, stereotypical facsimiles of the real thing.” Instead, he argues that it’s all a pose and all these people are just dummies who are pretending to be smart because they are “popular kids indulging in a fad.”

Cooke knows that calling Tyson a poseur is a stretch even his extraordinarily gullible audience won’t buy, so be grudgingly admits that Tyson “has formal scientific training,” though he doesn't go so far as to allow that the director of the Hayden Planetarium is actually, you know, a scientist and not just some hipster in a lab coat costume. But he simply straight up denies that any of the other people he mentions—including Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman or evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins—should be considered the real deal. Instead, he argues, the emphasis amongst liberals on things like evidence, rationality, and empiricism is purely insincere, nothing more than a way to signal that you are better than “southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional” types.

His evidence for the supposed stupidity lurking behind the glasses and nerdy demeanor of some MSNBC hosts and actual scientists is “they are attractive, accomplished, well paid, and loved.” It’s not actually an argument, it’s a temper tantrum. Cooke openly argues that the folks he targets are smart and cool for no other reason than to spite conservatives, because to admit that perhaps these people are simply being themselves—and that being smart and cool tends to be inherently rewarding—would be to admit that his base jealousy is being channeled for political ends.

This behavior is hardly an anomaly. “You think you’re so cool” became the basis for an entire book by Fox News pundit Greg Gutfeld, who wrote an entire book called Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You. So much for the conservative claim that striving individuals should be rewarded for their contributions to society. If you’re a successful scientist, writer, or even just an actor, you are now one of the “termites of life” who presumably should be extinguished.

Of course, the whole thing wouldn’t be complete without Ann Coulter scratching at soccer fans, which is just a cliché in the world of hipster-baiting at this point in time. The contempt for the intended audience of conservatives in her anti-soccer screed, however, was even more evident than her contempt for the mythical hipsters: She kept talking about soccer as if it were strictly a children’s game, even though it’s the most popular professional men’s sport in the world. The column practically dared its readers to notice how stupid she thinks they are.

Having convinced themselves that urban liberals are being themselves just to spite the right, conservatives can justify spending oodles of time and energy trying to come up with ways to spite liberals just for the hell of it. It’s all just a con job. Audiences aren’t being asked to tear jealously at oil billionaires, even though they live a much more lavish lifestyle than bike-riding hipsters or bespectacled scientists. No, the targets of “you think you’re better than me, smartypants?” hate is being channeled at people who are sharing ideas that are a direct threat to the corporate and religious authorities who rightfully fear that evidence and reason could hurt their profits and their hold on power.

That’s why a $50 cocktail in the hands of a Koch brother is just a cocktail, but a $15 cocktail in the hand of Rachel Maddow is grounds for accusations of being high and mighty. Leadership on the right has very good reason to believe that if their followers actually engaged with the arguments being offered by those evidence-loving, reality-based liberals, they might start finding those arguments persuasive. So the key is to head it off at the pass, convince their audiences not to listen to the arguments in the first place. You can’t actually hear the evidence for global warming if you’re too busy slagging on the messenger for thinking he’s so smart with his PhDs and his facts. Which is exactly where conservative leadership wants their audiences to be.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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