Culture of Intellectual Corruption

By Richard Cohen
Special to
Thursday, March 9, 2006; 12:00 AM

It will be nearly impossible in the next several months to avoid the phrase "culture of corruption." It is of Democratic vintage, coined to take the sins of Jack Abramoff, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and maybe some others and visit them on all Republicans running for office, especially congressional incumbents. Strictly speaking, it's a bit of a smear. But if it applies anywhere, and it does, it's not to corruption having to do with money, it's to corruption having to do with thought. The Bush administration is intellectually corrupt.

Some of this corruption is induced by the inability to keep religion in its place. The president suffers mightily from this. After just eight months in office, George Bush drew a line between acceptable and unacceptable stem cell research and based it entirely on religious views that had nothing to do with science. Destruction of the cells was likened, as so much is nowadays, to the supposedly overriding issue of abortion or, as it is sometimes put, the "culture of life."

That culture, as applied by the Bush administration, holds that what works is what ought to work. So, for example, the official policy of the United States government is the promotion of sexual abstinence (outside of marriage), which is all right in and of itself but not as a substitute for a workable policy of population control and HIV-AIDS avoidance. The latter should entail sex education and, of course, the use of some sort of contraceptive device, particularly (for AIDS prevention) condoms. The Bush administration eschews that approach, exhorting the young and the randy just to eschew sex. That approach works until it does not. Then catastrophe hits.

Similarly, the Bush administration has somehow bottled up Plan B emergency contraception so that it is not yet available over the counter to women 17 and older. This is the case not because Plan B is dangerous or ineffective or even because it is an abortion agent (it is not), but because it is manifestly something that's needed if abstinence is, somehow, not practiced. In other words, the scientific basis for this policy apparently comes down to this: A good girl should not need such a pill.

In the same way, the Bush administration for too long virtually insisted that there was no such thing as global warming. It has since changed its tune, conceding some of the case, but the epiphany has come late and not until additional damage was done both to the environment and, with the rejection of the Kyoto treaty, to America's international standing. "On issues ranging from population control to the state of the environment, and from how science is taught in the classroom to whether Iraq's research establishment was capable of producing weapons of mass destruction, the administration has repeatedly turned away from traditional avenues of scientific advice," writes Michael Specter in The New Yorker.

Specter is right to link Iraq with everything else, because the debacle there is a product of the same magical thinking that rejected global warming, stem cells and condoms alike. Underlying it all is a commitment to belief over fact, what should be over what is. It is evidenced in the insistence by Bush and others that "intelligent design" is, like evolution, worthy of teaching. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," Bush once said. Yes, and astronomy and astrology, too, and maybe chemistry and alchemy as well. It's a totally bogus proposition.

It was a chat about a religious moment that purportedly bonded Bush to Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader of increasingly dictatorial bent. It's as if Putin, an ex-KGB spy, read Bush's file -- and conned him. He knew Bush would rather believe than think -- and that others in the administration, who knew better, would simply go along.

Intellectual corruption has cost Americans more -- much more -- than the occasional crooked congressman or lobbyist. Maybe they represent a corrupt system -- one in which the Democrats also partake -- but they pale in significance to a neoconservative theory that took the country to war to face a threat that did not exist. In the war, as with stem cells, we are talking about unnecessary loss of life -- right now on the battlefield, a bit later when the cure for some disease arrives later than it might have.

Corruption of any kind corrupts. It costs us either money or confidence or both. But intellectual corruption is far more dangerous. It ruins and costs lives.

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