"Aristotle was not Belgian."

>> Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Otto: Apes don't read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, okay? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

I'm confused. Sort of. I came across something the other day that broke my brain a little, and I think I'd like your help, if you can help me, though I strongly suspect you can't. I could be wrong. I've been wrong before. I've been wrong a lot.

But let me rewind a little, back things up a little. Two words will give you some idea of the nature and scope of my problem. And those words would be "Newt", which is a small amphibious salamander, and the other word would be "Gingrich", which is the name or title or species (I'm not entirely sure which) of a short, squat, potbellied green hominid who sneaks into Who houses and heists their holiday ornaments, meals and hors d'œuvres. (No? That's not quite right? Well, you'll admit it's close enough.)

I jest, I kid. I meant to be slightly serious here, but I already wandered astray a little. I didn't want to be wholly serious, because the subject of this post doesn't deserve it.

Here's the thing I wonder, but it isn't my question (my question, when I get to it, the thing I need help with, isn't a rhetorical question like the one I'll raise in this paragraph). The thing I wonder is how on Earth anybody considers Newt Gingrich an intelligent man. Okay, I understand Gingrich has the accoutrements of intelligence. He went to Emory and Tulane, which are good schools, and he received a M.A. and Ph.D. from the latter, titles and documents that say he studied and labored and wrote and read and thought (supposedly, allegedly); documents that implicitly claim he went before academics in his school and field and argued with them to defend a thesis and satisfied them with the force of his mind. And then after he got his doctorate, he went and taught college classes for several years before getting into politics. His curriculum vitae doesn't sound like that of a stupid man.

Newt Gingrich personally, on the other hand, does sound like a stupid man. It's a bit mind-blowing, really. He writes books and he quotes things, and you read or listen to what he says and it reminds you of that bit from A Fish Called Wanda about apes reading philosophy. Wanda calls Otto an ape and he protests that apes don't read philosophy; well, they do, they just don't understand it.

To be fair, Gingrich's intellect isn't universally admired. Lots of people point out he's a bit stupid. And some of the people who praise Gingrich's staggering genius are folks like Jonah Goldberg who make Gingrich look like Leonardo da Vinci. I mean, of course Jonah Goldberg thinks Newt Gingrich is a mental giant, if Jonah Goldberg's mom hadn't been a fairly important literary agent at one point in her career, Jonah would probably be somewhere flinging semen on the other inmates. But even smart people will sometimes credit Gingrich with some kind of intelligence. My friend Jim Wright recently wrote:

Now, it would be disingenuous to call Gingrich an idiot. He’s anything but – and there’s a fine bit of irony for a millionaire history professor and author with a doctorate from Tulane to be accusing other people of elitism, but again I digress.

Jim's a bright guy and it's hard to imagine he's being generous to Gingrich, considering everything that precedes and follows that one digressive sentence, but he's also wrong. Sorry, Jim. It's not disingenuous to call Gingrich an idiot because listen to what the guy says.

Which brings us to today's blog post. I was reading bits and pieces on the Internet the other night, and I come across this excellent blog post Jonathan Bernstein wrote back in February, before Gingrich officially threw his hat in the presidential circus ring. It's a good piece, and I suggest you take a look at it if you have time; I agree with everything the author says and wish I could give a tip'o'the hat to whomever pointed me to it, because I can't figure out how I got to it. Anyway, the post was written in response to a February New York Times piece, which Bernstein does a pretty good job of tearing apart, and I was enjoying the hell out of it until I got to this mental roadblock, which is worth quoting in full:

Meanwhile, the only substantive quotation in the article is gibberish: speaking of religion, Newt says that "To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979...In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life." The second part, about the cultural elite and driving out God is fairly normal Christian conservative rhetoric. Newt's special part is the first part: that USA 2011 is just like Poland in 1979. The Newt touch is to add the veneer of Serious Intellectual Heft to whatever he's saying. Often, it's with citations to some trendy book he's adopted; here, it's a fatuous historical analogy. As usual, the "analysis" doesn't bear more than a second's thought (Poland? In 1979? How? Has the US been a Soviet client for thirty years, and we haven't noticed it?). It's not supposed to; the purpose of these things is to remind everyone, or at least the gullible, that Newt is an "ideas man."

So I agree with Bernstein that (a) there's only one substantive quote and (b) it's gibberish and (c) it's typical of Gingrich's pseudointellectual posturing to polish whatever turd he's pushing out with "the veneer of Serious Intellectual Heft"--I mean, I agree with everything Bernstein is saying in that paragraph. Where I hit the roadblock is, dammit, I overthink it, I start trying to figure out what the hell Gingrich is referring to. Because he has to be referring to something, right?

Maybe there was some kind of context missing from Bernstein's version of the Gingrich comments. A clue as to what he meant in the original passage in the Times piece:

On a recent winter night here [Columbus, Ohio], Mr. Gingrich, 67, stood on stage at a Catholic school with his wife, Callista, and introduced a film they produced about the role Pope John Paul II played in the fall of Communism in Poland. As Mr. Gingrich looked out over a crowd of 1,300 people, he warned that the United States had become too secular a society.

"To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979," he told the audience, which had gathered at a banquet for Ohio Right to Life, one of the nation’s oldest anti-abortion groups. "In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life."

So he's talking about the Papal visit in 1979?

Let me see if I have this straight: not only, as Bernstein remarks, is Gingrich saying that the United States in 2011 is like Poland in 1979, but he's saying, basically, that Poland was "being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized [country], in which God is driven out of public life."

Let me cop to this: I recall jack about Polish history. Poland was invaded a lot, I've got that down, repeatedly demolished by all of her neighbors. Joseph Conrad, one of my all-time favorite authors, was Polish, and so was Copernicus, who revolutionized one of my favorite sciences. And that's about all I've got aside from vague memories of the covers of the issues of Time I nicked from my parents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was how I sort of remember Pope John Paul II being Polish and how I remember that Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa, were big honking deals around that time.

So, y'know, I go looking up Polish history online, hitting the Google and the Wikipedia, Otto, and guess what? I don't think Aristotle was Belgian.

First of all, Poland wasn't just a Communist country and Soviet buffer Warsaw Pact state in the 1970s. It was a really Catholic Communist country and Soviet buffer Warsaw Pact state. It was a Pact state in which the Catholic church was visible, active, and prominent enough in the worldwide church for the Archbishop of Kraków to be elected Pope in 1978. The following year, the Polish Pope returns home, and according to Wikipedia a quarter of the country's population goes and sees at least one of the guy's outdoor masses. As far as I can tell, this secularized government that's turning away from God treats the Pope like an honored guest and the country's intellectuals... are all Catholic dissidents and/or members of organized labor (I can't help thinking about how much the Republican Party adores organized labor). And then the next year a Catholic labor union forms that eventually wins free elections and brings down the communist government.

Okay, so I'm one of these people who thinks the godless country Gingrich rants on a bit about sounds like a wonderful ideal to strive towards. I'll cop to that. But--and here, finally, is that question I said at the beginning of this post was blowing my brain out--what the fuck is Newt Gingrich talking about when he describes Poland as being this secularized nation led by intellectuals turning the nation from God? Of all the countries in the world, the country Gingrich describes sounds like almost the complete opposite of 1979 Poland, or am I missing something? Poland wasn't one of those "godless Commies" countries you were always hearing about back then, it was the godly communist country where everybody loved the Pope who used to be their fucking archbishop.

So, dear reader, what am I missing? Please, point me to a link. Send me to an article. Give me a succinct explanation of what the hell Newt Gingrich is talking about. Because, the way I see it, there's only two possibilities: (1) I don't know what the hell I'm talking about and every place I looked it up was horribly misinformed, (2) Newt Gingrich is an idiot who pulls shit out of his ass and has no idea what he's saying or just doesn't care, which is almost the same thing. I mean, I guess it's possible that Gingrich is the Jedi Master of Polish history and he just didn't care whether what he was saying was accurate, but that doesn't make him any less of an idiot, it just makes him a different kind of idiot, one who is indifferently dishonest and doesn't worry about being caught as opposed to one who just doesn't comprehend squat.

If it's #1, please, please tell me. I'd be happy to know. Otherwise, I'm standing by my gun: Newt Gingrich may be a well-read ape, but he's still an ape.


Nathan Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 10:20:00 AM EDT  

I'm hardly an authority - I'm decidedly more Otto than Wanda -- but I can find evidence for both of your possible conclusions.

In the quote you cited, Gingrich is a genius...a cold, calculating genius. Nobody has a detailed memory of Poland's history, so you can say anything you want about it and sound like you're telling the truth. The only people who will contradict you have funny accents, so who's gonna listen to them?

On the other hand, there's this recent quote (referring to his grandchildren): "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." I think he's overstepped a little there, by throwing in every set of scare words he can come up with. Either he's an idiot or radical Islamists have been pushing a secular atheist agenda all along. Who knew?

Soon, he'll discuss how terrible it is that his syphilitic brain is being taken over by the scourge of penicillin. The horror!

Eric Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 10:22:00 AM EDT  

Or how the purity of his essence has been compromised by fluoridated water!

Jim Wright Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 10:31:00 AM EDT  

Eric, never mind Newt's intellectual abilities or lack thereof, you sir are a genius. To wit "if Jonah Goldberg's mom hadn't been a fairly important literary agent at one point in her career, Jonah would probably be somewhere flinging semen on the other inmates." Well done, sir, well done indeed.

Let me think about this a bit.

Janiece Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 10:40:00 AM EDT  

I swear, you people make everything so damned complicated.

The answer, of course, is that Ole Newt is simply the most disingenuous, manipulative, pandering asshat currently in public life. He's speaking to the lowest common denominator, because doing so will allow him to remain a powerful, shadowy figure who strides the halls of power, pontificating on how to Make America Great.


Eric Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 11:26:00 AM EDT  

Y'know, Janiece, you may have solved the entire thing in a few sentences. Thank you!

Warner (aka ntsc) Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 11:45:00 AM EDT  


I'll give you that newt is way up there on that list, but Stalin, who has returned to his bunker in Wyoming, beats him.

And is Roger Ailes in public life?

Steve Buchheit Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 1:39:00 PM EDT  

Eric, it's simple. You know the real history, but Newt is referencing the conservative (especially conservative catholic) myth that archbishop Karol Wojtyla (aka JP II) was the leader of the underground Polish Catholic Church who barely escaped with his miter and toothbrush to become Pope (you know, after being instantly recognized as the papal reincarnation, because, God knows, he wasn't involved in Vatican affairs while being pursued by the commies in Poland). He was persecuted and his return in 79 (of which Newt is also comparing himself to in that quote, in case you missed it) was a triumph of religion over godlessness. And he made his way back in by force of his will and God's protection. And barely made his escape again before thwarting several assassination plots and have a quicky with Barbara Bach. And then he lead his lifelong career of bringing down COmmunism (yes, both him and Reagan, but in the double think they're never mentioned at the same time) by his holiness.

That's the history he's referring to.

Seth Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 5:11:00 PM EDT  

2nding Janiece. Gingrich is a completely amoral opportunist who will say anything -- anything at all -- that sends the right dog whistle frequencies to the right people. Sometimes, as in his recent speech to Georgia Republicans, he's simultaneously sending the dog-whistle frequencies out AND baiting liberals into condemning him, so he can play the victim. And he can get away with it because, as Salon's Alex Pareene likes to point out, he isn't really running for anything. He just wants to sell more books to the small, angry white minority that still takes him seriously.

timb111 Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 6:46:00 PM EDT  

Some Time Magazine facts:
In 1938 this article says that 75% of poles are Catholic.
In 1979 this article (page 2) says 70-80% of Poles are Catholic.

So it doesn't look like the communist cultural elite of Poland had much effect on religious belief in Poland.

Eric Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 7:46:00 PM EDT  

Thanks for that link, timb! In fact, the rest of the article goes on to pretty much say that the Polish Communists took a stab at eradicating the Church from '48-'56 but ultimately had to completely reverse themselves because the Church was too integral a part of Polish history and culture and the Party's efforts were unpopular enough to potentially destabilize the regime. Tensions remained--religious broadcasts were mostly illegal, priests threatened with fines, parents pressured to not send their kids to church school, etc.--but the communist regime's efforts were mostly ineffectual (the story relates the account of how an attempt to fine a bishop was thwarted by housewives, Poland was the only communist state to have a religious university, the communist party had veto power over religious appointments but was hard-pressed to actually get anything out of it).

At best, Newt's version is highly exaggerated and misleading. At worst, it's essentially, fundamentally dishonest. That does clear things up quite a bit.

Eric Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 7:52:00 PM EDT  

Oh--and the biggest threat to the Polish Church, unsurprisingly, was the threat of Soviet intervention (à la Czechoslovakia '68) because the Polish regime was becoming too liberal because they were too ineffectual to be hardliners. So Gingrich's analogy might (might) make more sense if he'd said, "To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979. In America, religious belief is being challenged by an ineffectual group of bureaucrats who are caught between the fear of a popular uprising by 70 or 80 percent of the population if they're too tough and the fear of a Canadian invasion if they're too soft."

Well, y'know, I'd hate to see Canadian tanks plowing up Washington, too, Mr. Gingrich. Sure hope that doesn't come to pass....

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