This Fish Rots from the Head Down

The embrace of crank politicians and scientists on the right quite possibly signals a conservative intellectual decline, writes Eric Alterman.

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George Will, above, is the only columnist who continues to quote articles on global cooling from the 1970s to bolster his argument against global warming. He has been rebutted by his own newsroom on these claims. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
George Will, above, is the only columnist who continues to quote articles on global cooling from the 1970s to bolster his argument against global warming. He has been rebutted by his own newsroom on these claims. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republican Representative Michelle Bachmann issued a call last week for a “house call” and a big party out on the National Mall next week, saying, “we’re going to tell Congress what they can do with their health care bill.” She went on to say that, “The American people realize this is it. Just like that brand new Michael Jackson movie came out, ‘This Is It.’ This is it for freedom. If you believe in liberty, and if you’re rejecting tyranny, this is it. Dr. Mark Levin wrote a seminal book that really swept this country called Liberty and Tyranny. And that’s what this debate is about next week. Liberty and tyranny.”

Leave aside that Ms. Bachmann likens her cause to that of a film glorifying an entertainer famous for dangling his children outside hotel windows and who is also repeatedly accused of child molestation. Such confusion on the part of Bachmann is nothing new for a woman who believes Barack Obama represents “really the final leap to socialism.”

To be fair, she’s not all that detail-oriented. Remember Bachmann’s “interesting” (her word) observation “that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter.” Actually, Gerald Ford was president during the last outbreak of the virus, but never mind that. Bachmann has also been known to complain about the disastrous “Hoot-Smalley Tariff,” which she says led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to turn the “recession into a depression.” Alas, the Smoot-Hawley Act was passed and signed during the administration of Republican President Herbert Hoover. The United States had already been in a depression for over a year.

I re-raise these incidents now because a couple of Sundays ago, George F. Will, America’s most distinguished conservative commentator—in light of the death of William Safire—recently wrote a column in which admired Bachmann as a “petite pistol that occasionally goes off half-cocked.” And yet he found “admirable” her complaints of a “gangster government” and praises her as “an authentic representative of the Republican base” (at least I think it was praise).

This would be shocking were it not for the fact that Will has proven himself a crank of late in other, perhaps more significant ways. As Danielle Ivory and I wrote in this space not so long ago, Will has repeatedly attacked the alleged “Chicken Littles” of “eco-pessimism” who, of late, have been concerning themselves with the potentially dangerous effects of rising global temperatures. And when we say “repeatedly” we meant it. Will is undoubtedly the only columnist who, in four separate columns since 1992, has quoted a Christian Science Monitor piece on global cooling from 1974, saying that “armadillos had left Nebraska, retreating south, and heat-loving snails had retreated from central European forests,” and that “Glaciers had ‘begun to advance.’”

Will was repudiated by his own newspaper’s newsroom, whose reporters, Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan, noted satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 had declined, which “contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.” So too did Andrew Freeman, at the Post’s weather blog, who noted: “George Will’s recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process.”

We spend a great deal of time in this space mocking the idiocies put forth by the likes of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. I would not be honest if I did not hear mentions of mock shock from friends and colleagues who demand to know whether “Eric, are you really saying conservative commentators on cable talk radio do not always tell the truth?”

“If it has never before occurred to you that conservative polemicists might sometimes be dishonest or hypocritical, then this book will offer a good remedial education,” was the way an unfriendly New York Times Book Review writer characterized the widely recognized chef d’ouvre, Why We’re Liberals.

So now we’re asking a different question: What about George Will? Is he a Limbaugh-like entertainer who refuses to take responsibility for the content of his screeds? Or is he the conservative who has built a reputation over the past three decades for being the most intellectually scrupulous of all right-leaning pundits? And if this multifaceted embrace of crank politicians and crank scientists is not indicative a generalized intellectual decline on the part of conservative writers and thinkers, then who or what would be?

Just asking …

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

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