“The thing about Ender Wiggin was that he understood the enemy … Ender knew how to love. I’m not talking about warm, gooey emotions … I’m talking about putting yourself inside someone else and embracing their needs, understanding what they hunger for … understanding them better than they understand themselves … You love your enemy to destroy him.” — “Bean,” Shadows in Flight
In Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin consistently wins battles and ultimately becomes the best hope of mankind against an alien menace because, as the character Bean in a later novel in the series puts it, “he understood the enemy.”
“I’m talking about putting yourself inside someone else and embracing their needs, understanding what they hunger for … understanding them better than they understand themselves,” says Bean. “You love your enemy to destroy him.”
If my fellow conservatives haven’t yet seen the film version of Ender’s Game, I would encourage them to do so — and not just because doing so will annoy liberals who are boycotting it because of author Card’s opposition to gay marriage. Conservatives need to learn Ender’s lesson if they want to start winning on the political battlefield.
Conservatives today have accepted the comic-book trope that people they consider to be bad guys are self-consciously evil. They cannot imagine that liberals genuinely believe they are pursuing the public good. In truth, nearly all people, even those who fight for bad causes, are convinced that they are actually doing good, or at least believe that their bad acts are justified for the sake of the greater good.
Trying to understand our opponents is difficult and frustrating, especially when we believe that they are destroying the culture and body politic. It’s far easier to tell ourselves that they are sociopaths. It’s much less demanding to simply hate – and lose.
The emotional satisfaction that comes with demonizing the opposition has often led conservatives into the bog of conspiracy theory. If you believe that your political opponents are self-consciously evil, then it’s easy to tell yourself that they are capable of anything. Any conspiracy theory seems likely, because you already believe that the evil villains are prepared to do exactly that kind of thing.
Of course, there really are such things as liberal conspiracies, but understanding the mindset of our liberal opponents can help us understand whether a purported conspiracy is feasible. A conspiracy to delay Tea Party applications at the IRS is plausible, but a government conspiracy to murder thousands of Americans is certainly not.
Fighting the phantom menace within conspiracy theories often causes conservatives to waste time, resources, and reputational capital fighting threats that don’t exist. In the 1950s, the John Birch Society had an annual income of over $3 million, a staff of over 200, and aired millions of dollars of TV and radio programming. As Ron Paul said in 2007, pointing out the valuable work of the JBS,
“Anyone who has been in the trenches over the years battling on any of the major issues – whether it’s pro-life, gun rights, property rights, taxes, government spending, regulation, national security, privacy, national sovereignty, the United Nations, foreign aid – knows that members of the John Birch Society are always in there doing the heavy lifting. And most importantly, they approach all of these issues from a strong moral and constitutional perspective. Lots of people pay lip service to the Constitution, but Birchers study it, understand it, apply it, and are serious about protecting it and holding public officials accountable to it.”
All this is true, to a point. But it’s also true that giving their minds over to conspiracy theory – President Eisenhower was a secret Communist, fluoridating water was a Bolshevik plot to poison Americans, etc. – destroyed the Birchers’ credibility, as well as the reputation of anyone affiliated with them.
In 1965, William F. Buckley, Jr., cast the Birchers out of the mainstream Right, calling them a burden to the conservative movement. The JBS was a toxic issue for Ronald Reagan in his campaign for California governor in 1966, with Reagan actively working to keep Birchers out of campaign positions and constantly refuting Democratic charges like the one made by State Controller (and later U.S. Senator) Alan Cranston that Reagan’s campaign was a front for the JBS.
Conspiracy theory is a self-justifying epistemology, consigning those who don’t agree with its premises or conclusions as either dupes or closet conspirators. In this way, conspiracy theory sets its adherents up to proceed into the political arena with only the dimmest idea of what makes people act in the ways that they do.
Contrary to the imagination of conservative conspiracy theorists, all the major accomplishments made by progressives in the last 100 years have come from convincing the public that their ideas were better than ours. The New Deal, the Great Society, even Obama’s stimulus spending – the Left accomplished all of these things not behind closed doors, but out in the open. Conspiracy theory thus reflects a losing mindset. Like the sports fan who blames the referees for every loss, conspiracy theory succors the hurt feelings of conservatives who simply can’t accept that we have failed to persuade the electorate to vote for us.
Which brings us to the Tea Party. It arose admirably in opposition to the big government policies of the Obama administration, but it is now descending into outright conspiratorial crankiness. Facebook friends fill my feed with breathless screeds about things like billions of rounds of ammunition purchased by the Department of Homeland Security or the “fact” that President Obama is a secret Muslim — all of which serves absolutely no purpose and is unnerving to people whose knowledge, expertise, and just plain common sense teaches them otherwise.
This is personal to me. As a professional educator – I own and manage a math tutorial company – it drives me nuts to see my fellow conservatives fall into the fever swamp over the Common Core State Standards for English and math. In a May article on this website, I explained exactly why Common Core is a conservative idea, and why liberals hate it. To date, no one has challenged the central assertions of that piece. But conspiracy buffs apparently want to believe that Common Core is a liberal plot, so the hysteria has spread unabated.
One of the hallmarks of conspiracism is guilt by association. Common Core conspiracists have consistently maintained that it was concocted by the notorious Sixties leftist terrorist Bill Ayers, who has been a “Distinguished Professor of Education” at the University of Illinois. A former associate of Ayers, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, was one of the 29 members of the committee that validated the CCSS, and is one of a number of advisors of the Smarter Balanced testing group that is a creating the CCSS tests for 22 states (not Louisiana).
This is an extraordinarily weak argument for saying that Common Core is the brainchild of Bill Ayers. And yet, the ironically-named Accuracy in Media has a scary article “connecting all the dots” between Ayers and Common Core. The popular WhatIsCommonCore website has another scary profile of Ayers. Writing in Townhall, Mary Grabar claimed that Bill Ayers was behind Common Core, though she admitted that she had no direct evidence. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum also points out the Ayers connection to Common Core. Stanley Kurtz contributed a similar article. Do I even need to mention that Glenn Beck was all over the Bill Ayers connection to Common Core?
There is only one little bitty tiny problem with all of this. Bill Ayers actually hates Common Core, and he calls it “catastrophic” for American liberal education. Watch him say it. All those conspiracists above are not only wrong; they have it exactly backwards. (Ironically, Common Core opponents insist all the time that they are not misinformed.)
Glenn Beck, Phyllis Schlafly, and the rest have actually chosen to stand with Bill Ayers in his desire to prevent American children from learning more math and English. Since they obviously believe in guilt by association, every single one of them should be asked why they are support Bill Ayers in his opposition to Common Core.
If you want to understand why radicals like Bill Ayers hate Common Core, you need to understand something about public education. Alas, very few conservatives know much of anything about public education or liberal educators. Many of them educate their kids in private or parochial schools, or do homeschooling; even fewer have become certified teachers and enter public education.
I have. Because of that, I know that the teacher is by far the most important influence in the classroom – far more important than the curriculum. If I told my students that something in the textbook was wrong, they would absolutely believe me and not the textbook. Teachers control classrooms. Bill Ayers knows this; he also knows the teaching profession, as a whole, is extremely liberal. This is what he means when he claims that they control schools. Every day, liberals in the classrooms achieve the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s goal of progressive revolution via a “march” through American’s educational institutions.
With this progressivist vanguard in control of the nation’s classrooms, American children will be educated to become liberals, regardless of the curriculum. As I explained in May, Common Core standards mean that teachers will have much less time for indoctrination, because they will have to spend much more time actually teaching English and math. Anyone who understands education and understands liberal educators gets this.
There are many other outlandish conspiracy theories supposedly explaining what Common Core is “really” about. If you’d like to know more, this website shoots down some of the more popular ones, and I may address more of them in future columns.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to prove that a conspiracy isn’t true. Any evidence contradicting the conspiracy is merely evidence that the conspiracy is deeper than previously imagined. What isn’t debatable is that the Common Core State Standards require not a penny of federal spending, and they do absolutely nothing to expand the role of the federal government.
The Tea Party has the opportunity to revitalize the conservative movement and reverse the growth of big government, if it can focus on confronting the liberal agenda and not a pretended one. But if its members allow melodramatic political fantasies to replace dispassionate analysis and reasoned discourse, they shouldn’t be surprised if ordinary people regard them as mad, bad, and dangerous to elect. If the Tea Party prefers the simple pleasures of hating their enemies to the hard work of loving and understanding their opponents, it will condemn itself to the political margins – and ultimately, to irrelevance. Ask a member of the John Birch Society, if you can find one.
Ryan Booth is a former Political Director of the Republican Party of Louisiana and Louisiana Director of the Steve Forbes 2000 campaign. He became a certified teacher and taught in Baton Rouge public schools from 2006-2009, and he now owns and manages two Mathnasium centers in the Baton Rouge area. His business is growing, but at a slower rate this year than it has in prior years before the implementation of Common Core, so he is not financially benefiting from Common Core in any way.