>> Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I don't suppose that I ought to be too surprised when Newsweek, until recently owned by the once-great Washington Post, doesn't get it. Consider this recent comment about Delaware's most-lovable daughter, Christine O'Donnell:

One would think even Tea Partiers might be unnerved by witchcraft, but it's doubtful O'Donnell's support will erode because of things she said on TV during the 1990s. The more pressing concern for her campaign has to be how moderate voters will react to an emerging theme, that of apparent moral absolutism.

See, the problem for O'Donnell--well, the second problem now that she's been accused of misappropriating campaign funds for things like rent and bowling outings--isn't that there's an emerging theme "of apparent moral absolutism"; the emerging theme is that Ms. O'Donnell isn't very bright. Or, as Chez Pazienza put it so wonderfully this past Monday:

You gotta love the folks on the right.

They'll totally twist themselves into knots over Christine O'Donnell admitting that she was once an emo kid while ignoring the fact she's still a moron.

This is where we get back to all those Politically Incorrect clips that Bill Maher is threatening to show until/unless O'Donnell agrees to come back onto his show: when you watch the clips, you pretty quickly notice the problem with O'Donnell isn't so much with what she said almost twenty years ago as it is with the fact that she was so obviously willing to foolishly let herself get goaded into saying dumb things on national television for the amusement of people who were pretty obviously laughing at her and near her, not with her.

Of course that was back in the '90s and now it's 2010: very nearly two decades have passed, and the Arkleseizure itself knows most of us can probably think of something we said twenty years ago that was pretty mentally defective--hell, I'll bet I can come up with something yesterday. Except O'Donnell keeps saying stupid stuff now; it's bad enough that one suspects her dodging the press isn't because of all the nice picnicking weather.

But the real point of this wasn't merely to point out how dumb Christine O'Donnell sounds: she certainly speaks for herself on that score. No, the real point goes back to that Newsweek opinion piece: how credible can Newsweek expect to be when they have to dress up the situation and can't just state the obvious, if they're going to comment on it at all. I mean, just to start with, they don't actually have to comment in the first place, or they could merely point out that some polls indicate Delaware voters are concerned with the candidate's qualifications. Or they could gloss it up in a less-blatantly-inaccurate way by alluding to "perceived verbal missteps" or "some critics have found unintended humor in Ms. O'Donnell's statements." That kind of thing. They don't have to just come right out and say that O'Donnell sounds dumb whenever she says anything, though that would certainly be a justifiable statement.

I don't know why they don't just come out and say that. If they're concerned about an appearance of sexism arising from derogatory statements about a female candidate's intellectual gifts (or lack thereof), one might point out that Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and South Carolina Democrat Alvin Greene have both offered the press a copious amount of amusing fodder by way of various dim-minded pronouncements.

A couple of observations arise from this situation. One is that this is why mass-media punditry may ultimately fall prey, for better or worse, to amateur or unaffiliated bloggers who are less shy about calling shots as they see them. If Newsweek is going to beat around the bush while, oh, say Bob Cesca, f'r'instance is going to be blunt, why should I pay all that much attention to Newsweek (or whomever).

A second observation is that pieces like Newsweek's end up giving a candidate like O'Donnell more credit than she really deserves. After all, one certainly can articulate a well-thought-out, informed and intelligent morally absolute position on some issues, or there are some moral issues which are so self-evident, so fundamental, that it's hard to conceive of an articulate, intelligent contra position--we might agree to agree, for instance, that forcing another person to have sex against their will by threat or use of violence is morally reprehensible with no idea how one would go about arguing that clearly-defined acts of rape are sometimes justifiable or okay.1 One might also present a debatable absolutist point in a way that invites respect; i.e. one might be able to point out hypothetical or actual scenarios that make absolutism untenable while agreeing that the absolutist's principles are noble or their doctrines admirable in idealized situations or are simply well-argued. O'Donnell, of course, does none of this: she offers her absolutism in the context of espousing a view of human sexuality that is (at best) preciously naïve and dated and at worst foolish and possibly dangerous or in the baffling context of the story about the time she went on a date "on a satanic altar and I didn’t know it, and there was little blood there and stuff like that." (Given her choice of preposition, one can't help smirking about where the blood came from.)

Calling someone dumb or accusing them of sounding dumb (not necessarily the same thing, though it often is) isn't nice, and I certainly don't want to discourage civility in political discourse, etc. However, civility isn't a virtue when it leads to dishonesty. If we're constrained from calling O'Donnell's pronouncements stupid and ridiculous because we don't want to be mean to her or because we don't want to sound like we're making things overly personal or because we're afraid someone will think we're calling her dumb because she's a woman and not because she says dumb things quite a lot, what we're really doing is debasing our political culture. What we're doing is lowering the bar by treating the infantile as mature and the ignorant as knowledgeable; meanwhile, conversely, we're framing the wise, educated and informed as elitists whose opinions shouldn't be given any special weight just because they know what they're talking about and think before they speak.

1That there might be acts which are less-clearly-defined as rape or that invite debate over our definitions is immaterial to the actual point being made.


Janiece Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 9:21:00 AM EDT  

Here's what I don't get - how come certain constituencies think it's perfectly okay to be dumber than a doornail while making public policy? Granted I'm a member of the masturbating effete elite and place greater importance on intelligence and an ability to think critically in my public officials, but seriously? How come being that dumb and being a member of Congress aren't mutually exclusive in voters' eyes?

Tom Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 9:44:00 AM EDT  

Janiece, being dumb and being a member of Congress aren't mutually exclusive, so it's no wonder that they aren't seen that way in voter's eyes. Many members of Congress have demonstrated that dumb isn't even an extreme condition, but more like just a few points away from the norm.

Eric Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 11:35:00 AM EDT  

Janiece, I get it but I don't like it. The biggest overall factor is that there is a streak of anti-intellectualism in American culture that can be traced back at least as far as Andrew Jackson's populist campaign in the 19th Century, which framed Jackson as a man of action against the passive, pampered politicians of his era. This even has appeared in American history when a leader is relatively well-educated and extremely well-read for his era: in the Lincoln mythology, for instance, the fact that he was a literate intellectual and voracious reader has taken a backseat to the whole "educated himself in a log cabin" fable.

In the present era, when formal education is ubiquitous, accessible, affordable and (up to a certain age) mandatory, the anti-intellectual tradition manifests itself as a reverence for "doers" over "thinkers," for "real-world experience" over "ivory-tower elitism" and a love of a character thought of as a "common, everyday Joe" (whatever that is in a diverse country of more than 300 million scattered across nearly four million square miles). You know, someone "you could share a beer with." In the anti-intellectual tradition, it is more important to seem authentic than to be authentic (an inversion of the common classical motto, once popular in this country, "Esse quam videri", "To be rather than to seem"). This is how, perversely, a Harvard-and-Yale educated millionaire scion of two of America's wealthiest, oldest families is perceived as being more authentic than the son of a traveling salesman raised in a podunk town by a nursing student and was only able to attend Georgetown because he was able to earn scholarships, simply because the heir to the social elite is prone to embarrassing malapropisms while the self-made kid from the sticks won a prestigious scholarship to Oxford (a school run by snooty foreigners!) and clearly chooses his words carefully (sometimes too carefully, unfortunately).

The dumb ones, in short, aren't perceived as dumb by their constituents. They're perceived as earthy, authentic, passionate ordinary folks, and to attack their dumbness is, by extension, to attack the constituents who find the dumbness relatable or charming.

John the Scientist Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 10:43:00 PM EDT  

I think you missed another aspect of the appearance verus authenticity. Authenticity that has moved on to a different viewpoint is often dismissed as someone who has forgotten from whence they came. No longer authentic.

It's actually not a totally off-base argument in some cases, Manhattan is full of cultural elites not born in NY who look down on their former compatriots.

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