George Will Shows Why Conservative Old White Men Suck

Sarcastic quotation marks have become a favorite writing tool for George Will, who of course is one of the most “respectable” public intellectuals in the eyes of modern conservatives.

Did you notice? I did it myself. By putting quotes around “respectable,” I’m telling the reader that the description is someone else’s, not mine, and that its accuracy is questionable. George Will loves that device.

Take for example Will’s recent column lambasting liberals—and the Obama administration in particular—for their attempts to address the issue of campus sexual violence. We can see his eyes rolling in disgust as he types the words “Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault.’”

Notice the term “sexual assault” is in quotes, because any sensible conservative knows that what’s happening on America’s college campuses isn’t really sexual assault. Will does it again a few lines later, writing, “Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of ‘sexual assault’ victims.” Unable to stop himself, he uses quotes once again to mock the idea of women as sexual assault “survivors.”

These quotation marks are necessary because to Will, and surely much of his conservative audience as well, these privileged college women have no right to call themselves “survivors” of “sexual assault.” Weren’t they out partying? What were they wearing? Clearly, liberal values are just out of control.

Seeing this rhetoric from Will, it’s important to understand his place in the pantheon of conservative journalism. As we saw in 2012 when Rep. Paul Broun called evolution and the Big Bang “lies straight from the pit of hell,” American conservatism is not exactly an intellectual movement at its core. However, with GOP politicians racing to the bottom to please a base that insists that government should keep its dirty hands off their Medicare, and with cable news anchors and talk-show hosts who do nothing to raise the level of discourse, the conservative movement realizes that it occasionally needs an intellectual voice in popular media. This is Will’s niche.

For decades, Will has provided commentary on American politics and culture, always confidently claiming philosophical consistency, which under the conservative banner allows him to disdain not just big government and market regulation, but modernity itself. The aforementioned article, for example, not only dismisses the very notion of “sexual assault” and ridicules the idea of calling college women “survivors,” but it also derides the “ambiguities of the hookup culture,” which Will describes as a “cocktail of hormones, alcohol, and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.”

Sounds smart, doesn’t he? For Will, all subjects—even baseball and beer—can be discussed philosophically. This alone is sufficient to make him a cerebral heavyweight in modern conservatism. By calling progressives “intellectually defenseless” and “intellectually dormant,” he becomes a hero among conservatives with minimal intellectual effort of his own.

As a leading conservative thinker, Will gives invidious conservative stances the cloak of high-minded principle. Thus, the Obama administration’s attempts to address campus sexual violence offends Will not just because it relies upon government meddling (rules by which colleges must abide if they seek federal funding), but because it attempts to protect hedonistic women who simply don’t deserve protection. Please call that philosophy, not misogyny.

It’s ironic that Will criticizes “privileged young adults” because as an educated white man he represents the demographic that is undoubtedly the most privileged in America. Oblivious to this, he charges forward in his criticism without considering that empathy might be preferable to audacity. The old white guy has the entire issue figured out, and he concludes that young women are whining and taking advantage of an overly permissive culture to expand government and oppress men. Thus, once again the conservative analysis has come down squarely against women, and Will provides the intellectual cover.

There are of course legitimate issues to discuss if government is going to address campus sexual assault (such as the legal standard that should be applied to the accused, for example), but Will’s commentary is not an attempt to engage on those issues. Instead, his job is to smugly assure the conservative base that these liberals and women need not be taken seriously. The designated public intellectual has spoken.

Using his bow tie to carve a pop culture image for himself, Will is not so much an intellectual but a caricature. To the angry white masses, he is the nerdy honor roll kid who now, as an adult, validates their emotional, reactive, and sometimes hateful impulses. They are mad as hell, convinced that government can’t be trusted, suspicious of those unlike themselves, and certain that America has lost its core values—and they know they’re right, because that smart guy with the bow tie backs them up.

In fact, however, Will is far from an intellectual powerhouse. He writes well and has a clever wit, but his arguments more often rely on anecdotes than evidence and logic. In the campus sex story, for example, he tells the tale of a strange encounter between an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend who spend a night under the sheets together. This scenario results in an accusation against the man, which to Will and his followers leads somehow to the irrefutable conclusion that Barack Obama doesn’t understand the issue of campus sexual violence.

Will selects his statistics the same way he selects his anecdotes—not because they are directly relevant to the issue at hand, but because they make a nice story and are sure to satisfy conservatives. Thus, he crunches numbers from one university to make a case that the number of sexual assaults nationally must be exaggerated. In doing this, he demonstrates that the reflexive conservative approach to women’s issues is to scrutinize any claim made by women.

More egregious than these shortcomings is the fact that Will’s claimed philosophical consistency is meritless. Uncritical of corporate power, his views are light years from the pure capitalism of Adam Smith or even the American framers. He does nothing to advance any consistent agenda other than that of the corporate institutions that have seized the American system in recent decades. He may be a public intellectual, but at the end of the day he represents a movement that is driven by a crowd that thinks the world is a few thousand years old, climate change is a liberal hoax, and tax cuts and deregulation are the answer to every economic woe.

Thankfully, this crowd is shrinking, and it increasingly consists of little more than a bunch of angry old white guys.

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