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It’s worse than Scott Walker and Ted Cruz: Secrets of conservatives’ decades-long war on truth

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tags: politics



Heather Cox Richardson teaches nineteenth-century American history at Boston College.

Deep on page 546 of his 1,839-page budget, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker tucked in a crucial idea. He proposed to strip a principle from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, a school that attracts students from all over the nation and from 131 foreign countries. From the core philosophy that has driven the university since the turn of the last century Walker wanted to hack out the words: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” Rather than serving the people of the state by developing intellectual, cultural and humane sensitivities, expertise, and “a sense of purpose,” Walker prefers that the state university simply “meet the state’s workforce needs.” In the face of scathing criticism, the governor backtracked and, despite a trail of emails that led to his office, tried to claim the new language was a “drafting error.”

But Walker’s attempt to replace the search for truth with workforce training was no error. Since the earliest days of Movement Conservatism in the 1950s, its leaders have understood that the movement’s success depends on destroying Americans’ faith in the academic search for truth. For two generations, Movement Conservatives have subverted American politics, with increasing success, by explicitly rejecting the principle of open debate based in reasoned argument. They have refused to engage with facts and instead simply demonized anyone who disagrees with their ideology. This is an astonishing position. It is an attack on the Enlightenment principles that gave rise to Western civilization.

Make no mistake: the attack is deliberate.

The Enlightenment blossomed in the wake of the religiously-inspired Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, when thinkers horrified by the war’s carnage set out to break the fetters of superstition and tradition that had prompted the strife. Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Jefferson and other thinkers advanced the idea that if people could listen to reasoned arguments, weigh them against evidence and choose the soundest ones, progress would follow. The Enlightenment revolutionized science, culture and politics, and gave rise to the modern world.

Enlightenment ideals prompted America’s founding and reigned for generations as Americans searched for the best ways to manage the economy, changing demographics and international conflict. But in the 1950s, the idea of progress through reason presented a problem for wealthy businessmen. They hated New Deal legislation because it regulated business and protected workers. The boom years of the 1920s had been good ones for them, and they believed that the continued success of their enterprises depended on their complete control over their businesses and the workers they employed. They believed that government meddling in their affairs would disrupt natural economic laws. And with their downfall would come the downfall of the entire American economy, and with it, the nation. ...

Read entire article at Salon


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