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.


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.


Climate Change in Schools? Not If Fox News Can Stop It

How do conservatives feel about climate-change curriculum for public schools?  The only good climate-change curriculum, they might say, is a dead climate-change curriculum.

We saw a telling example recently of this sentiment.  Fox News host Stuart Varney warned viewers recently that the Environmental Protection Agency was filling kids’ minds with all kinds of climate-change malarkey.  The watchdog Media Matters included Varney’s warning in a compilation of Fox climate-change riffs.  (It’s the first video clip on the MM page.)

Varney was reacting to a new set of climate-change lesson plans made available by the EPA.  Bad enough, Varney exclaimed, that such pernicious ideas had penetrated public education.  But even worse was the fact that such notions had been peddled by a bloated tentacle of the federal octopus.

The problem with this sort of federal overreach, guest Monica Crowley insisted, was that “We are paying for the indoctrination of these kids.”

The federal government ought not use taxpayer money to fund such controversial anti-science, Crowley warned.  The science itself was ridiculous, she insisted.  But worst of all was the fact that the federal government used taxpayer dollars to undermine proper public education.  As she concluded, “We wonder what kind of propaganda they’ll be teaching our kids, on our time.”

Host Stuart Varney agreed.  “And it is propaganda,” he insisted.  “On our time and our money.”

What can this sort of school jeremiad tell us about conservatism and American schooling?  I have two comments and I invite others.

First, we can see from this brief clip how climate change stands poised to become the new contentious science issue in America’s schools.  Conservative traditions of opposition to evolution education seem to be retooling for an eerily similar fight over the science of climate change.  Science-education activists such as those in the National Center for Science Education have warned about this for a while now.  Indeed, the NCSE’s Glenn Branch recently called climate change the “second front” in the culture wars over science education.

Second, Varney and Crowley offer us a near-perfect demonstration of a long tradition in conservative educational activism.  We might call this the “Not In My Kids’ School” (NIMKS) tradition.  Just as protesters have often fought against bad influences in their own back yards, so have conservatives often presented cultural issues as a threat to young people.  This rhetoric hopes to energize conservatives to fight against educational programs on the threat that such programs will soon be spreading their dangerous tentacles into schools everywhere.  Bad ideas are bad enough, the thinking goes.  But such notions are far worse, far more menacing, far more likely to mobilize activists, if such ideas can be portrayed as meddling with the minds of innocent young people.