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Right-Wing Backlash Against 'Smartypants' Like Neil deGrasse Tyson

Conservative elites delight in tearing down smart, educated people.

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 high-falutin’ 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.

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