A little from column A, a little from column B

>> Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Over at Slate, Jessica Grose wants to know why Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are supposedly treated differently by critics. The rap on Perry, see, is that he's dumb and the rap on Bachmann is that she's crazy, and maybe it's somehow sexist to make that distinction between them for some vaguely unspecified reason, although Grose herself notes:

Of course, it's just as easy to make the argument that Perry is crazy and Bachmann is stupid. As Rebecca Traister, the author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, points out, a lot of Bachmann's early gaffes—that the Revolutionary War started in New Hampshire (that would be Massachusetts), that John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa, (that would be serial killer John Wayne Gacy)—were more "stupid" than "crazy." Conversely, to many secular Americans, Perry's ties to religious groups that claim that Texas is "the prophet state" sound, well, crazy.


...well, yeah.

I think I've mostly gone with "crazy" because I think Michele Bachmann is crazy, not because she's a chick. And, in fact, I'd even go so far as to say that notwithstanding some of the crazydumb things that come out of her mouth, I'm more inclined to say that Bachmann is crazy than stupid because she's at least shown some indicia of some kind of intelligence: I suspect you're not getting an LL.M. from William & Mary without having some kind of intellectual ability.

You know, this is where we have to step back, though, and agree that "dumb" comes in flavors, just like smart does. There are probably definitions of "dumb" that you could apply to Michele Bachmann, it's just not something I'd be inclined to do, because I don't think getting specific with your definition of "dumb" just so you can use the word as a general descriptor of the Congresswoman sheds more light than heat; that is, it's one thing to specifically allude to a particular thing Bachmann said that was a dumb thing to say, or to a specific belief she holds that's a pretty dumb belief, than it is to just say in general, "She's dumb," a statement that's pithier but inaccurate and probably misleading in that it antagonizes some people (although they perhaps deserve being antagonized) and doesn't really get at the heart of how Bachmann's beliefs fit together into a crazy, misinformed, disingenuous, skewered, dangerous, rather paranoid picture of the world. When Bachmann says something dumb along the lines of "HPV vaccine made a girl mentally retarded," for instance, there's an interesting mix of cagey calculation and cynical indifference to truth that calling Bachmann "dumb" doesn't really do justice to.1

I'm trying to remember if I ever misspoke and called George W. Bush "dumb". He wasn't dumb. Being a legacy at an Ivy League school only gets you so far, at some point you have to do well enough in class to make it through the rest of the way, and being a legacy doesn't get you an MBA. What I think about Bush is that he wasn't necessarily a deep thinker, that he had an insistent certainty about a lot of matters that a more perceptive person would have asked questions about. That makes him susceptible to bad advice from people who ought to know better and inflexible when a course of action isn't really working out, but I don't think that's the same as "dumb". Maybe you think it is; your mileage might vary. But all that calling him "dumb" ever did, really, was rile some people up without offering much of an explanation for why he made so many lousy decisions, and what did you mean by "dumb", anyway? He went to good schools and read a lot; showed clearly discernible political cunning on his journey from business failure to governor to President; and for all his questionable malapropisms had a knack for understanding the character his core audience wanted him to play and thereby managed (mostly) to come off as the archetype of the folksy-but-smarter-than-he-looks country boy (despite being, in fact, an Ivy League-educated Connecticut native) whose wily folk wisdom and common sense regularly shows up those educated fools with their book learnin'.2

Is Rick Perry dumb? I have no idea. Is he also crazy? Ask someone from neighboring Arkansas, maybe.3 He certainly shares a lot of the crazy views that Bachmann has expressed--I think that's why Bachmann has slipped in the polls, at least in part: Perry has sucked a lot of the air out of her room, much as I suspect Bachmann herself may end up being the reason Sarah Palin doesn't run (if she doesn't run); there's only so much room on a stage for somebody who says weird things for the benefit of the least-rational, most-misinformed section of the peanut gallery. Seems like a lot of people who have been following Perry's career think he's both more authentically Texan and more authentically clueless than George W. Bush.4

Like I was saying, I call Bachmann crazy because I think she's crazy. I went back through some of the things I've written mentioning Rick Perry over the past few years, and I think I've implied that he was cynical and hypocritical, but I don't think I've ever gotten around to coming to a conclusion about his intellect or lack thereof. I can't speak for anybody else: maybe some folks call Bachmann "crazy" when they mean "dumb", but they don't want to be accused of demeaning a woman's intelligence, and so there is some kind of sexism at work and Ms. Grose has some kind of point. Might be that it's okay to call a man dumb, but not a woman. Except that I don't quite see how "crazy" would be immune to that, when there's actually a synonym for "crazy" that's specifically named after a woman's internal fiddly bits because ancient sexists thought only women got crazy that way for reasons somehow connected to the referenced internal fiddly bits. Calling a woman "crazy" might be seen as being just as disparaging as calling her "dumb" for more-or-less-the-same historical reasons, though it seems to me that if a woman appears to be crazy, you probably ought to just go ahead and acknowledge it instead of trying to be cleverly vague and euphemistic: "I don't want to say Michele Bachmann is crazy because that word was used historically to marginalize women, let's just say there is a peculiar disorganization of her logical thought-processes such that characterizing her as 'sane' or with similar synonymous terms would be extremely inaccurate, flat-out wrong, in fact." No, I think I'll stick with "crazy", but thanks for bringing this to my attention.








1Let me break that down a little: I think what Bachmann did here was a mix of knowing exactly what she was saying and not caring what came out of her mouth. First, she's deliberately and cynically trying to exploit people's fear of vaccination and her audience's paranoia about Naziesque government trespasses against citizens (see also: "government death panels" and "reeducation camps"), paranoia that Bachmann may indeed share, but that she's also willing to exploit; beliefs that may be a lot of things--crazy, paranoid, conspiranoiac, illogical--but "dumb" seems like the wrong word for them, and (in any case) Bachmann's conscious and knowing demagogic pander to that fear is smart. Second, Bachmann is probably conflating mental retardation with autism--and that is pretty dumb. Third, she's doubling down on her statement instead of retracting it, which is... well, this is where it gets complicated.

If she realizes she misspoke and she cynically doesn't care about facts, and thinks that she made her point with the paranoid and miseducated people she was speaking to with the attack on Perry's HPV program and they won't care if she had her facts straight, well, that's probably a pretty smart assessment of her audience and the news cycle, actually. On the other hand, if she's coming up with this story about the mother telling her that HPV vaccine made her kid retarded because she's feeling cornered and is basically trying to chew her leg off to get out of a mostly-imaginary trap (see the first sentence in this paragraph), that would be pretty dumb. Gods only know what's going on in that crazy head of hers.

My personal guess, though, is that it's mostly the first of those: that she's doubling down because she thinks she can get away with it that way, and she's probably right; it's worked for her before, at least, and will probably work for her again.

I guess what I'm really trying to get at is that saying dumb things isn't necessarily a sign of stupidity if you're saying dumb things because they advance your position and you're cynical and indifferent at least to the extent that you don't care how you go about getting what you want so long as you get it. Bear in mind that you could be a cynical idealist, you could be saying the first thing that comes into your head and not caring if it's true or not because you think you're on the side of the angels and any sins you're committing will be forgiven because you're only taking them for the team. And most people who do horrible things, naturally, think they're doing them for the right reason, there's nothing rare or special in that.

It may be dumb to not know what you're talking about, but smart not to care that you don't know what you're talking about so long as you're mostly getting what you want anyway.

2You know, smooth city slickers like that Al Gore, who never learned the things ordinary, salt-of-the-Earth country folks learn back on the family farm.

Hrm. You know, I don't want to tilt too far in the other direction just to make a point. Let's be fair: after G.W. Bush was born in the North, his parents moved south to Midland, Texas, where G.W. spent much of his childhood until he was shipped off to prep schools. And while Bush's 2000 Presidential rival spent more time on a farm as a boy than Bush ever did (Midland being an oil town, and oil being his father's sideline when H.W. wasn't employed as a professional politician and bureaucrat), the truth is that the childhood backgrounds of both men really had more in common than they did to distinguish them: Gore and Bush were the sons of political families who were raised in private prep schools until their inevitable and obligatory attendance at the top two Ivy League schools in the nation.

But that really gets at my real point with this, actually, which is that G.W. Bush's public image as a down-home, folksy, hard-working country boy was largely a smartly cultivated image. Al Gore, who certainly is a better policy wonk than Bush and has a better grasp of subjects like science and technology than Bush, never seemed to understand his avocation, politics, as well as Bush: who's the smart guy, the transplanted Yankee fourth-generation member of the American wealthy elite who successfully impersonates a country boy millions of Americans think they could just have a beer with, or the son of a rural teacher's-school graduate who somehow comes off as... well, as if he's the fourth-generation elitist, basically? Do you see what I'm getting at? "Dumb" old G.W. Bush outsmarted Al Gore, John Kerry, the Democratic Party, all the people who "misunderestimated" him and all the people who actually voted for him, and because he was smart enough to win two national elections but not wise enough to lead, the whole nation (forgive the blunt and vulgar phrasing) took it in the ass.

3Okay, so that line is mostly there as an excuse to link to one of my favorite Rick Perry pieces, and because Gene Lyons is awesome.

4Please see FN2 and the paragraph in the main text it accompanies, supra.




1 comments:

Steve Buchheit Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 10:06:00 PM EDT  

And that's why I go with whackaloon. You can have intentional whackaloon (Bachmann who goes that way because it's her personality and being and who she wants to be), and unintentional whackaloon (Perry who comes off that way because he's playing to the base to get the votes without understanding how that makes him look, because he doesn't care).

Also as I keep remembering, GW lost his first election because he came off as too intellectual. I think he took that lesson to close to heart.

But I agree, there are varying degrees and flavors of "dumb" just like there are degrees and flavors of "smart."

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