Thursday, January 08, 2004

I just ran across a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that touched a nerve. In a column entitled, "Just Another Leftist Loon," James E. McWilliams, assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Marcos, writes about the hate mail he received after writing an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times about President Bush (the op-ed piece is available free online from the Dodge City Daily Globe, at least for now, at

So, why do I care that a professor in Texas got hate mail for criticizing the president? I find it disturbing that so many people cannot learn about and respond to issues rationally but instead are infuriated by any opinion that contradicts their own. A democracy, government by the people, requires that the people doing the governing can think and respond rationally. Instead, too many people in our nation respond to differing opinions with all the rationality of an angry mob carrying torches. Those who respond primarily with emotion rather than reason are easy to manipulate with emotional appeals, making them--and our nation--easy prey for an aspiring tyrant who can fuel their fears and kindle their anger for nefarious purposes.

And there are others who stand to benefit from a populace ruled primarily by their guts rather than their brains--marketers. Most advertising appeals to emotions, and often our less-honorable ones--greed, envy, fear, and lust come immediately to mind. The more people make decisions rationally, the less likely they are to fall for the latest spiel dreamed up by Madison Avenue. So, as a capitalist democracy, we face two conflicting needs: a well-educated, rational populace capable of effective self-governance, and a large population of not-too discriminating consumers to buy products and thereby fuel our economy.

Interestingly, our aversion to reasoned argument is a big part of the op-ed piece that prompted such angry letters. McWilliams argues that we Americans find the "yeoman with a sledgehammer" more appealing than the "smarty-pants with a book." Hence, according to McWilliams, the appeal of George W. Bush. But much of the McWilliams essay is devoted not to Bush but to his yeoman predecessor, Andrew Jackson, who also eschewed intellectualism in favor of instinct. As McWilliams points out, many Americans have long been driven more by the gut than the mind, yet our nation has survived and prospered in the 175 years since Jackson took office. In this fact I find some comfort.

No comments: