For a few moments, I am ashamed to say, a new theory being advanced by an American academic set me thinking. Peter Schweizer, who is a research fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has been studying the private lives and attitudes of liberals and conservatives.
Those with left-wing views, he has concluded, are less happy, less generous, more likely to commit suicide, greedier and more selfish than right-wingers. Those that are parents – and, according to Schweizer, many liberals are simply too narcissistic and self-centred to have children – are statistically less likely to hug their children. These and other thoughts are contained in his book, Makers and Takers, which has just been published.
It is tempting, in the manner of someone slightly bored at a dinner party, to follow Schweizer down the dark alleyways of his thought processes to discover where they take us. Could he possibly be on to something? Conservatives, with a greater faith in the individual, may instinctively be more optimistic than those on the left and therefore happier.
On the other hand, liberals look forward rather than backward and believe in some kind of social equality, neither of which qualities suggest misery or lack of generosity. Righties grumble about modern life, but then lefties have a miserablist dependence on state interference. So where do all those contradictions lead us?
They lead us to profound stupidity. It is a waste of time considering Schweizer’s theory into the connection between niceness, contentment and right-wing politics for the simple reason that it is clearly and obviously asinine. If his book raises any serious question at all, it would be how it is that modern academics seem happy and eager to join – even to lead – the gadarene rush to silliness.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with research fellows slumming it by writing books aimed at a wide, undiscriminating public. It might even be commendable for them to show their political leanings. No one, for example, could argue that Peter Schweizer lacks consistency – his backlist includes several respectful studies of Ronald Reagan and Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy. But it is the way academics present their polemics and potboilers as if they were works of serious intellectual endeavour which is creepy and culturally damaging.
Because the forces of stupidity have never been more powerful than they are today, this academic trahison des clercs is particularly harmful. Already marketers and advertising agencies have discovered that a neat way of promoting a brand name in the media is to commission some kind of light sociological survey which will earn news stories and stir up discussion in the media.
These exercises, with their statistics and fake authority, are anti-thought; any kind of subtlety or complexity has been ironed out. They invariably depend on, and encourage, social polarisation and division: men vs. women, married vs. unmarried, young vs. old, environmentalists vs. consumers, and so on.
Reducing human behaviour to the level of easy generalisations suits our restless culture. Thanks to the internet and the speed of modern life, we have become used to skimming facts off the surface of things. There is no time for depth or intricacy. Our brains are becoming so habituated to power-browsing, instant surveys, bite-sized information, arguments which are little more than saloon-bar platitudes screamed across cyberspace, that we are losing our ability to concentrate.
Yet the way we read and assimilate is a large part of what we are. We may now be reading more words every day on different types of computers, but what is being conveyed is one long scream of instant, trivial information. Complexity has been flattened out.
Who is there to stand firm against the forces of marketing and technology; of ill-digested opinion masquerading as expertise? It should be writers and academics.
Yet increasingly they are the ones who are promoting stupidity. Perhaps only those who are pursuing a career on university campuses across the country could explain why this is happening. Is a process of reverse snobbery taking place, with academics trying to become part of low culture in order to appear more student-friendly? Is the pressure to publish leading them to promote ever sillier ideas?
Perhaps, without noticing it, the intellectual elite is itself finding it increasingly difficult to understand difficult ideas. Maybe academics are becoming stupider than the rest of us. It sounds like an excellent subject for Peter Schweizer’s next book.
* The Independent