Having allowed myself the indulgence of a facetious smirk at the anti-evolutionary stance of Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownbeck, I feel that I owe my imaginary readership a somewhat more reflective response to what must surely be one of the odder turns in recent American politics.
Let me advert to an episode of William F. Buckley's television program, The Firing Line, that I watched twenty or more years ago [I have tried unsuccessfully to locate it using Google]. Buckley invited onto his show several parents, from the rural South as I recall, who had gone to court to protest the fact that their children were being taught about the evolution of species. Now, Buckley was actually on their side, having expressed reservations about or opposition to the theory of evolution as incompatible with his religious beliefs. But, to my surprise, he gave these folks a very hard time.
After a bit, I figured out what was really going on. Buckley was a famously aristocratic man -- educated at Yale [for all that he had his issues with that university], given to hosting elegant dinner parties in his New York apartment at which, it is said, he performed Bach quite creditably on the harpsichord. His stock in trade was a perpetual sneer, and a voice dripping with languid scorn that seemed to come right out of a novel by Evelyn Waugh.
Despite his ideological leanings, Buckley manifestly found his guests simply egregiously gauche. They were stiff, nervous, utterly without irony, dressed in what were clearly their very best clothes. Their objections to the education being forced on their children were as much a product of class resentment as an expression of fundamentalist Protestant faith. And despite himself, Buckley could not refrain from allowing class to trump ideology.
I was prodded to this memory by the article that appeared in the NY TIMES a few days ago written by Patricia Cohen. Headlined "A Split Emerges as Conservatives Discuss Darwin," the article focused principally on the attempt by various authors to enlist Darwin on the side of conservative prejudices. We need not engage with this latest version of Social Darwinism. Anyone who imagines that the theory of evolution provides a scientific defense of capitalism and male-dominated marriages is not really an interesting debating opponent.
But in the body of the article, both George Will and Charles Krauthammer are quoted as trying to distance themselves from their inerrant fellow right-wingers. As I read what Cohen quoted them as saying, I thought back to Buckley. Thomas Frank has a point. There are a great many people in this country who know, intuitively and with certainty, that the affluent people who have gone to the best schools look down on them as, in H. L. Mencken's immortal phrase, the Booboisie.
I am rather of two minds as to how to respond to this split in the concervative ranks. On the one hand, speaking as an upper middle class Ivy League educated intellectual, I share Buckley's disdain for people who want their children to be taught that Joshua did indeed stop the sun in the sky, that Jonah did spend an extended period in the belly of a big fish without lasting harmful consequences, and that, pace Bishop Usher, the world was created in 4004 B. C. On the other hand, speaking as a radical champion of the working class against the depredations of the bosses, I salute this rather unanticipated version of Local Control of Neighborbhood Schools.
Those of us on the left who long for company in our struggles against the forces of reaction would do well to reflect for a bit on the contradiction between our class position and cultural affinities on the one hand, and our political leanings on the other.