Find Ben Stein’s Ethics

May 1, 2008

As the Bush administration prepares to slither its way into history, the ongoing inquiry into how best to define this Crazy Little Thing Called Conservatism is nearing its end as well.

Though its core values add up to little more than it being a tax scam for the wealthy, there are other descriptors of conservatism worthy of note, such as the ability to swallow things that would gag a maggot and ask for seconds with a great big smile — especially if they’re served up by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, a Daddy Wingbucks or somebody with a Bible clutched in his paw.

So it’s of more than passing interest when a right-winger slams back his plate, gets up from the table, throws down his cloth napkins and says “I’m outta here!” This week’s outbreak of conservative intellectual hygiene comes courtesy of John Derbyshire of the National Review, who asks Ben Stein what the hell he’s doing lining up with the intellectual frauds who slapped together the creationist pseudo-documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The straw that triggered the camel’s gag reflex appears to have been Stein’s appearance on the Jesus Whooper Network show Behind the Scenes with Paul Crouch Jr. (Follow the link here, but you’ll have to use the search function to find the show.)

For a long time I thought of Ben Stein as one of the more presentable conservatives — a guy you could let into your house and not have to worry about him dragging knuckle tracks through the carpet. Not only that, but a Bob Dylan fan to boot! So to hear him telling Crouch that evolutionary theory inevitably leads to the Holocaust is to wonder how low a man can go in the cause of ideology.

Derbyshire wonders as well. He also cuts right to the heart of what makes the whole creationist movement so squalid and seamy:

When talking about the creationists to people who don’t follow these controversies closely, I have found that the hardest thing to get across is the shifty, low-cunning aspect of the whole modern creationist enterprise. Individual creationists can be very nice people, though they get nicer the further away they are from the full-time core enterprise of modern creationism at the Discovery Institute. The enterprise as a whole, however, really doesn’t smell good. You notice this when you’re around it a lot. I shall give some more examples in a minute; but what accounts for all this dishonesty and misrepresentation?

My own theory is that the creationists have been morally corrupted by the constant effort of pretending not to be what they are. What they are, as is amply documented, is a pressure group for religious teaching in public schools.

Nicely put. When “intelligent design” bobbed to the surface of society in the 1990s, it quickly became apparent it was just creationism with a new coat of paint. It’s not a different approach to science, because science is the one thing ID cultists won’t do. They simply look for gaps in evolutionary theory and declare that those gaps discredit the whole foundation of modern science. When the gaps are filled, or turn out never to have been gaps at all, they simply shift ground. It’s that whack-a-mole quality that makes arguing with them so exhausting and, ultimately, pointless. As soon as one cluster of boneheads is exposed and discredited, another mob of them shambles into the daylight to start grunting the exact same discredited arguments.

As for the film’s childish linkage of evolutionary theory with Nazi doctrines and the Holocaust, Derbyshire is properly horrified — and unforgiving:

Our scientific theories are the crowning adornments of our civilization, towering monuments of intellectual effort, built from untold millions of hours of observation, measurement, classification, discussion, and deliberation. This is quite apart from their wonderful utility — from the light, heat, and mobility they give us, the drugs and the gadgets and the media. (A “thank you” wouldn’t go amiss.) Simply as intellectual constructs, our well-established scientific theories are awe-inspiring.

And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone. Stein claims to be doing it in the name of an alternative theory of the origin of species: Yet no such alternative theory has ever been presented, nor is one presented in the movie, nor even hinted at. There is only a gaggle of fools and fraudsters, gaping and pointing like Apaches on seeing their first locomotive: “Look! It moves! There must be a ghost inside making it move!”

The “intelligent design” hoax is not merely non-science, nor even merely anti-science; it is anti-civilization. It is an appeal to barbarism, to the sensibilities of those Apaches, made by people who lack the imaginative power to know the horrors of true barbarism. (A thing that cannot be said of Darwin. See Chapter X of Voyage of the Beagle.)

And yes: When our greatest achievements are blamed for our greatest moral failures, that is a blood libel against Western civilization itself. What next, Ben? Johann Sebastian Bach ran a slave-trading enterprise on the side? Kepler started the Thirty Years War? Tolstoy instigated the Kishinev Pogrom? Dante was a bag-man for the Golden Horde? Why not go smash a few windows in Chartres Cathedral, Ben? Break wind in a chamber-music concert? Splash some red paint around in the Uffizi? Which other of our civilizational achievements would you like to sneer at? What else from what Waugh called “the work of centuries” would you like to “abandon … for sentimental qualms”? You call yourself a conservative? Feugh!

When I read something like this I want to shout with enthusiasm. As the great Jacob Bronowski pointed out, the questing spirit of science is the single best defense we have against the brutish certainties that fueled so many atrocities and disasters in man’s history. That’s why the intellectual vandalism of the “intelligent design” cult, and the sleazy manipulations of a film like Expelled, are so disgusting.

So why doesn’t this intellectual clarity carry over into other observations, such as the fact that Bush and Cheney can lie the paint off the walls of the Oval Office without blinking? Or that the Iraq invasion is going to be the defining disaster of the 21st century, the way the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand helped set loose the horrors of the 20th century?  Or that the endless drive to find bigger and better tax cuts for rich people is pauperizing America?

How nice it is that John Derbyshire can inch his way up the beach to reach one good conclusion, but beyond the beach lies a veritable continent of wingnut lies he has no trouble accepting. I guess evolution is a very slow process after all.


One Response to “Find Ben Stein’s Ethics”

  1. Bitter whig Says:

    I can’t figure out whether Stein actually believes the nonsense he’s peddling, or is just fleecing the rubes. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. In either case, how long can it be before he gets himself baptized (full immersion of course) and takes up a new career as a television evangelist?

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