Extremely Mainstream

It’s uncomfortable. Listening to a high government official denounce evolutionary theory and Islam makes me nervous for the future of the USA. More important, though, it brings us back to a tough question: When is an idea “extreme?” Our answers matter, because extremism can be kicked to the curb, but strong disagreement can’t.

pruitt

Terrible? Yes. Outside the mainstream? No.

To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, this discussion will feel familiar. In recent weeks, we’ve been wondering if young-earth creationism really counts as “hate speech.” We’ve debated whether tax-funded student groups should be free to discriminate. We’ve examined the decisions of conservative Californians to shun a speaker they considered “extreme.

The details of the story this week are different, but the issue is the same. Scott Pruitt, former state senator and current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has had some of his old laundry aired in public. In thirteen-year-old radio interviews, Director Pruitt talks about a range of issues, from science to the Second Amendment.

Is evolution really the best explanation for the diversity of species? Quoth Pruitt,

There aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint.

Should some kinds of guns be banned? Not according to Pruitt:

If you can tell me what gun, type of gun, I can possess, then I didn’t really get that right to keep and bear arms from God. . . . It was not bequeathed to me, it was not unalienable, right?

Is Islam a religion that deserves constitutional protection? Pruitt thinks so, but he didn’t object when one of the interviewers called Islam

not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.

To a person like me, those ideas are both ridiculous and frightening. Ridiculous because they articulate a vast ignorance of the history of our Constitution, of evolutionary science, and basic knowledge about Islam. Frightening, because they articulate a vision of proper government that could include radical violations of Constitutional rights and dangerous inaction concerning gun control.gallup islam

But here’s the rub. The author of a Politico article about Pruitt’s 2005 interviews denounces Pruitt’s

stances that at times are at odds with the broader American mainstream, and in some cases with accepted scientific findings. [Emphasis added.]

For starters, I won’t call attention to the goof in the article about the Supreme Court’s 1947 Everson decision. The author thinks SCOTUS ruled against tax-funded bussing for Catholic schools in that landmark case, but in fact the decision went the other way.

The real issue here is not SCOTUS history, but rather the difficult definition of “mainstream.” I’ll admit it: I’m angry about Pruitt’s views. I’m angry that someone with such opinions would be posted to the head of a scientific government agency. But that doesn’t mean that Pruitt’s ideas are out of the mainstream. When an idea is shared by a plurality of Americans, how can it possibly be out of the mainstream?gallup guns

Gallup polls, for example, indicate that more than a third of American respondents who say they are not prejudiced against Muslims still have an unfavorable view of Islam. Yes, you read that right. Of the people who say they are NOT prejudiced against Islam, 36% still say they don’t like it. Of the people who say they ARE prejudiced against Muslims, that number jumps to 91%.

Similarly, the number of Gallup’s respondents who think America needs stricter gun laws has dropped in the last three decades. In 1991, 78% of respondents wanted stricter gun laws. In 2017, that number was only 60%.

The same is true with evolution. Large majorities of Gallup respondents agree that humanity was either created recently or created by God over time. At best, mainstream evolutionary theory has captured the hearts of a small minority of Americans. It’s only “mainstream” among a small coterie of scientists.gallup creationism poll may 2017

If Director Pruitt agrees with large segments of the American population—sometimes a majority—how can his views be called “at odds with the broader American mainstream”?

The distinctions matter. If an idea is extreme, or discriminatory, or illegitimate, or non-mainstream, it seems fair to push that idea outside the boundaries of polite political or cultural discussion. If not, we have to talk about it.

Like it or not, Director Pruitt’s terrible ideas are as American as apple pie.

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