Commentary Magazine


Academia’s Bigoted Feedback Loop

Yesterday, James Taranto discussed the left’s cultural contempt for middle America. He quotes the American Spectator’s Jeffrey Lord, who argued that the Democratic Party’s elite around John F. Kennedy had built up a river of resentment against the non-elite–such as, at the time, Vice President Lyndon Johnson–but that Kennedy served as something of a dam, keeping it in check. Après JFK, le deluge:

Slowly this contempt for the American people spread to institutions that were not government, manifesting itself in a thousand different ways. It infected the media, academe and Hollywood, where stars identified with middle-America like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball were eclipsed in the spotlight by leftists like Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda.

This is certainly problematic enough, both for liberalism and the American culture it relentlessly targeted. But it’s also worth pointing out that the corrupting of cultural institutions creates a feedback loop, producing political personalities who feed on the spite and bigotry of the institutions from which they emerged. And this is the feedback loop with which Mitt Romney, as a high-profile Mormon candidate, will have to contend, as Idaho State professor Thomas C. Terry writes in Inside Higher Ed.

Terry begins the article with a story: He attended an academic conference in 2008, and when the lunch conversation turned to the election, and Mitt Romney, it took a sadly predictable turn:

“I couldn’t vote for a Mormon,” one professor said. There was some polite (or perhaps impolite) head-bobbing. “It’s a cult. Very intolerant, and their opinions about women, and, well … ” and his voice trailed off.

This, in academia, is apparently the norm, not the exception, Terry writes:

Mormons are excoriated in popular culture (see: “The Simpsons”) for the way their church was created by someone who was kind of a con man. And the translation of the Book of Mormon was accomplished with a hat. And the Golden Tablets have been lost. Hmmm. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were misplaced, too. And a burning bush talking? Really? It comes down to faith, as it should. Not some sort of ignorant bigotry.

Many of the academics consider themselves liberal, socially responsible, and broad-minded individuals, the repository of the best in America. They’re proud of themselves for voting for Barack Obama (a bit too smug maybe?). They would splutter and bluster and be generally outraged to be considered prejudiced. None would consider saying anything similar about African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans . . . well, you get the idea. But anti-Mormonism is part of the same continuum that contains discrimination against any group. Why, then, is it allowable to publicly express bias against Mormons?

Walter Russell Mead responds by reminding readers the mainstream media has reflected this same anti-Mormon bias. He lists just a few of recent memory, such as Harold Bloom’s New York Times piece on his fears of a theocracy–though Mead thinks Bloom is probably “more elitist misanthrope than bigot; his hatred and loathing for Mormonism is part of a broader and deeper disgust with almost everything that the common people think or do in the contemporary United States.”

The Times is, of course, a repeat offender. Columnist Charles Blow expressed his own venomous bigotry on Twitter, and the Times stood behind Blow rather than discipline him, showing such bigotry to have a comfortable home at the Times. But in the Times’s defense, Maureen Dowd got in on the act too and, well, they can’t fire everybody, can they?

Salon’s Joan Walsh and Sally Denton joined in too, among others. As Mead asks in another post on the subject: “Bigotry is bad; how hard is that to remember?”

More difficult than it should be, certainly, for the “tolerant” left. And it is so difficult precisely because of the feedback loop. University professors shaping young minds casually express this bigotry, as do columnists and editorialists at major newspapers and online magazines. And David Axelrod, the Obama campaign strategist, has continued stoking these fires even after he promised to help put them out.

Perhaps he doesn’t mean to instigate widespread bigotry. But that’s the problem with acceptable ethnic and religious hate, isn’t it? The ignorance becomes so profound that the products of these institutions may not fully understand their own sheer moral failure.