Tuesday, March 25, 2008

This Is Pretty Good

Who was it who said that you can never underestimate the intelligence of the American people? Eh, anyway, dealing with the same theme:

Obama tests America's cult of ignorance
By Kevin Horrigan

Early on in Robert Harris' new novel, "The Ghost," a literary editor says to an author who ghost-writes celebrity memoirs, "Tell me. When did it become fashionable to be stupid? That's the thing I don't understand. The cult of the idiot. The elevation of the moron."

I worried about this question last week as I listened to Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race. I wondered, is America going to get this? Isn't this speech way too carefully constructed and nuanced? Shouldn't he have explained what he meant by "Jim Crow"? Shouldn't he have explained who William Faulkner was?

What's he doing giving this speech at 10 o'clock on a Tuesday morning? Doesn't he know about prime time? Why did he write this speech himself? Doesn't he have speechwriters and focus groups who can test this stuff? Shouldn't he be shouting and waving his arms instead of standing coolly behind a lectern and talking in measured cadence? Why isn't he pandering?

In what surely ranks as, among other things, one the boldest political gambles in modern times, Sen. Obama decided that the American people were willing to wrestle with complex ideas about the most divisive issue in nation. If it turns out he's right, it will be a signal moment in recent intellectual history.

The trend surely has been in the other direction. In her controversial new book "The Age of American Unreason," author Susan Jacoby argues that the "scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functioning democracy. During the past four decades, America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic."

In other words, she argues, it's become fashionable to be stupid.

Here is a nation founded by an eerily atypical cadre of intellectuals — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and their ilk — who not only had read the Greeks but also had absorbed them, who had read Locke and Voltaire and were building a nation along Enlightenment principles.

Here is a nation that has been led by that archetypal American hero, the self-made man: the Lincoln who strides out of the backwoods with an ax on his shoulder and a book in his hand; the Truman who failed as a farmer, failed as a haberdasher but somehow, because he read widely and deeply, had the wisdom to help rebuild a shattered world.

And now, here is this same nation, led by a man who can't correctly pronounce the word "nuclear" and who once told an interviewer that he avoids reading newspapers because they're full of "opinions."

This is not to say that President Bush is stupid, only that he is profoundly intellectually incurious, willing to substitute belief for science, ideology for fact. And in this, he is typical of his age.

"Just before the 2004 presidential convention," Jacoby writes, "the journalist Ron Suskind reported a chilling conversation with a senior Bush aide who told Suskind that members of the press were part of what the Bush administration considers 'the reality-based community' — those who believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality."

The aide bragged that "when we act, we create our own reality."

These "realities" — that the Iraq war has been a stunningly successful response to 9/11, that FEMA did a heck of a job in responding to Hurricane Katrina, that tax cuts for the rich benefited all Americans, that tapping telephones in Tuscaloosa stops terrorists in Timbuktu — speak for themselves.

In much the same way, many Americans create their own reality from what they choose to believe, be it fundamentalist preachers preaching that the world is 4,000 years old to street rumors about AIDS being a white plot unleashed to devastate black communities. The A.C. Nielsen Co. reports the average American watched 4 hours and 30 minutes a day of television in 2006. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that the same average American spends 26 minutes a day reading.

Oh, and the choices TV offers! You don't ever have to watch anything hard or unpleasant if you don't want to. If you choose, you can watch people getting tattoos for an hour or two each day. You can devote yourself 24 hours a day to sports news or celebrity news or news that you agree with, and commentators who tell you only what you want to hear. And when they make fun of egghead professors and book learning — global warming, what a joke! — you can revel in your own anti-intellectualism.

Politicians know all of this, of course. That's why they use 30-second attack ads that pander to short attention spans and that reinforce distorted beliefs. TV news directors know it, too; to avoid driving off any more of their dwindling audiences, they try not to use any more than 10 seconds of any candidate's remarks. In 2000, Jacoby reports, the average political sound-bite was down to 7.8 seconds.

So there was Barack Obama, making a 37-minute speech on a very unpleasant subject, replete with literary and historical allusions, in the middle of a Tuesday morning, trusting that Americans somehow would stop and pay attention to it. Even if you don't plan to vote for the man, you have to hope he was right.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Your 'New Media' Overlords

[Apropos this post.]

Just in case it gets robots.txt-ed, which is unlikely given the current owner of the url (but then, like anyone else, Amanda can be overwhelmed by force majeure, which Klein's clique is certainly capable of exerting), I should perhaps copy one of the most damning of the old Pandagon links I could find.

I brought it up to illustrate the childish mentality of personality cultists, but it's even more useful as a demonstration of just what "Liberal" 'New Media' institutions are looking for when hiring new talent: shitty instincts. The idiots in this post, all of whom thought hippies were a bigger danger than the troglodyte wingnuts constituting the Bush administration, went on to get paid for blogging:

A Reading List To War

My path to hawkishness followed Matt's almost exactly.

I read Love Thy Neighbor and thought hard about the horrors of Kosovo; I flipped through We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and decided I could never be silent around another Rwanda; I read The Threatening Storm and was almost convinced by its arguments but mostly horrified at Saddam's brutality and, finally, I lived in Santa Cruz, home of reflexive dovishness and factually incorrect tirades. So I became pro-war. And, in the end, I was proved the idiot, and my predictions didn't comport with reality, and a reflexive aversion to the war would have served me better.

I'm quite ashamed that, during the whole of the run-up, I never thought to notice that the President's rationales and statements were less credible and more infantile than those of the white-bearded peaceniks denouncing him on street corners. I just figured he couldn't possibly be this stupid, his advisors can't possibly believe his rhetoric -- I was still naive enough to believe in the majesty of the office and, even if the inhabitant was not of my choosing, I couldn't imagine him completely incompetent and corrupt (sometimes, the fact that I only started paying attention to politics around 9/11 really shows). I was, unfortunately, quite wrong.

Anyway, that was something of a random reflection, but James Wolcott and Matt Yglesias have insisted on bringing it to mind today, so I was really just going with the flow.

Update: Robert Farley seems to have felt similarly:
I know that one of the hardest obstacles I had to overcome in adopting an anti-war position on Iraq was the recognition that I would be on the same side as all those dumbass hippies I knew at the University of Oregon, as well as those dumbass hippies I know in Seattle. At the time, I always strove to distance my arguments from theirs

Truly a brother-in-arms. One of the tougher lessons for me to learn was that bad arguments don't necessarily indict a point-of-view, doesn't matter how many of them there are. Nixon used to force his advisors to submit written arguments with the facts clearly laid out; he knew that a cunning oral presentation could lead him to support an incorrect position while a shoddy case could doom a good policy.

And to answer some in the comments: you're right, there were many level-headed folk making perfectly cogent points against the war. I don't defend myself for reaching the wrong conclusion. But my environment, same as Matt and Robert's, was a reactionary campus packed with far-leftists, and their arguments were the ones being screamed into my ear, and thus their arguments were the ones I reacted to. Again, I don't defend it; that's just where I was coming from.
Posted by Ezra Klein at September 18, 2004 07:46 PM | TrackBack

Among the 'Sensible Liberals' of the bad old days of 2003-2004, the only ones I know of without paying gigs are The Editors and the much-dread (and now, thankfully forgotten) Philosoraptor (and only the Editors, idiot and clueless asshole that he is, is a funny and engaging writer). Farley and Klein write for TAPped (and I don't know what kind of pictures in reserve Klein has of TAP editor Mike Tomasky, but they must be volcanic: almost every article Tomasky submits to the NYRB somehow finds a way to blurb Klein's alleged skills of punditry which I've seen fit to display for all here). Yglesias, of course, writes for The Atlantic and thus soils the pages formerly occupied by, among others, William Dean Howells.

Anyway, just to emphasize the point germane to the S,N! post, here's Klein's money quote:

I was ...naive enough to believe in the majesty of the office [of President] and, even if the inhabitant was not of my choosing, I couldn't imagine him completely incompetent and corrupt (sometimes, the fact that I only started paying attention to politics around 9/11 really shows).

We're supposed to forgive and forget the "Liberal Hawks," when they say they are sorry. As Homer said after Bart just destroyed the house again and offered a tepid apology: "Look at that hangdog expression. He's learned his lesson.... Let's get him a present." Yeah, well, I for one am sick of welfare for not-so-recovering Liberal Hawks. Klein hasn't changed. He's still, after all these years and bloodshed, overwhelmed "by the majesty,", if not right now of the office, then certainly of a candidate. Still a Believer. Still predisposed to trust. Still naive. Still a child.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Buckley vs. Vidal (Part 3)

Continuing from Fred Kaplan's Gore Vidal:

By the time they appeared together in September 1962 on the Susskind show, the personal pot was boiling, at least from Buckley's point of view. He was especially ill at ease about Vidal's and other people's references to his dogmatically Catholic, ultraconservative family background, with hints of dark views and unattractive prejudices. Rumors had surfaced that his father was anti-Semitic. One family incident apparently pained and worried him. In May 1944 three of his sisters, with two other adolescent girls, had desecrated the Reverend Frances James Cotter's Episcopalian church in Sharon. Apparently Buckley, Sr., had fulminated in his daughter's presence against the minister's wife, a real-estate agent, for selling a house in Sharon, a city known for its restrictive covenants, to a Jewish lawyer. The girls may have thought they were doing their father's bidding, though, according to William, Jr., his father and mother were in South Carolina at the time of the incident. With sexually suggestive cartoons from The New Yorker and centerfold Vargas girls from Esquire, they smeared and decorated some of the church pews and prayer books. The outraged Cotters and other parishioners reported the hate incident to the police, who soon, tipped off by a Buckley employee, had incontrovertible proof that the daughters had done the deed. William, Jr., himself was not involved. He was at the time at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Humiliated, perhaps ashamed, even penitent, the young Buckley girls were lightly punished by the local court. Buckley, Sr., severely admonished his daughters for the shame they had brought on the family. Soon the court record was moved from Sharon to Hartford. Whatever Buckley, Sr.'s, view on Jews and his impact on his children, the family was eager to put the incident behind them. Later, William Buckley denied that the incident had anything to do with anti-Semitism at all. It was "utterly unrelated to any real estate transaction in which the rector's wife was engaged." The record suggests otherwise. Also, having lived companionably for years with the nearby Episcopal church and the Cotter family, why would the young ladies suddenly have decided at this time that the church deserved to be desecrated? Devoted to his sisters, William Buckley, Jr., hoped, for their sake as well as his own, that the incident would receive as little publicity as possible in the future.

However, to his distress, he learned in March 1959 that the actress Jayne Meadows, the daughter of Reverend Frances James Meadows Cotter, who had been witness to some of the events of 1944, had at a television studio "regaled" CBS reporter Mike Wallace with an account of the incident. Like her husband, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows abhorred Buckley's radical conservatism. "Evidently the entire studio was your audience," a pained and angry Buckley wrote to her. "Is it your intention to publicize the episode indefinitely? Or is there a point, say on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its happening, when you will feel that the story of an evening's aberration by three of your childhood friends has earned retirement from an active role in your repertory? Do you, in recounting the story, remark the fact that my three sisters, all of whom you knew well, had distinguished careers in school and college, untouched by scandal of any sort; and that not a man or woman who has ever known them, then or now, has ever imputed to any of them a trace of malice or bias?" With a talent for taking other people's rhetorical simplifications and shorthand attacks with serious literalness, he was aggressively self-defensive about his family. Perhaps the Sharon incident had made him especially sensitive about what he considered personal attacks, and less than sharp when drawing the line between personal and political rhetoric. (When in September 1964, on a radio talk show, he allowed his audience to think he believed that American Jews were in general historically prone to be sympathetic to Communism, he gave those aware of the Sharon incident further reason to think him at a minimum insensitive to Jewish concerns and, worse, prone to making racial generalizations.) At the same time the National Review was becoming notorious for biting, brutal, often painfully insulting headlines and editorials many readers thought racist. Either there was a moral blind spot or a self-indulgent fascination with the language of exaggeration. Also, it had begun to be clear to those who disagreed with Buckley that he considered threats to sue for libel an appropriate extension of open debate. In October 1961 he had implied to the publisher of the New York Times that he might sue the newspaper for libel, a threat he made against numbers of opponents in the late fifties and now in the sixties as well, if the Times did not stop misrepresenting the National Review. "Your reporter wrote as though it were the organ of a Nazi-like movement which included Lincoln Rockwell and the California anti-semites; now you suggest that it is the right-wing counterpart of Communism." Whether or not the Times reporter was in any way culpable, Buckley characteristically counterattacked aggressively. His own rhetorical simplifications he avidly defended as incontrovertibly true. As a television entertainer he was deadly serious, and potentially lethal.


Buckley vs. Vidal (Continued)

Continuing from Fred Kaplan's biography of Vidal:

Buckley's first national television appearance the next week was a splendid success. Irregularly handsome, with a genius for distorting his facial features as if his skin were soft plastic and an ability to contort his figure into an infinite variety of slouches and stretches, he took to television with sly enthusiasm. The camera found him interesting if not fascinating. His face was often a highlight of the show. He knew intuitively that it was better to be a "character," visibly if not eccentrically distinctive in voice and appearance, than to be ordinarily handsome or conventionally photogenic. Outspoken, witty, clever, aggressively and self-expressively abrasive, with a sense of humor that tended toward ironic repartee, sometimes ponderous with a touch of pretension, Buckley entertainingly fenced for about fifteen minutes with Paar and his colleague, Hugh Downs. His voice and mannerisms were both riveting and engagingly self-parodic. A television star was born. As a liberal Republican, Paar engaged Buckley in an effort to define words like "liberal" and "conservative." Buckley defended McCarthy, advocated that America invade Cuba, and proposed that serious consideration be given to going to war with Communist China. In passing Buckley accused President Truman of having called President Eisenhower anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. To Paar, Buckley's positions were chillingly inhumane. Harry Golden, the Southern Jewish humorist, who came on after Buckley had left, quipped that Buckley wanted to "repeal the twentieth century and also defeat Roosevelt for a second term." The problem with Buckley, Paar told his audience, was that he did not like people. He certainly did not like Gore Vidal. As with so many of Buckley's appearances in public debate, his appearance on the Paar show was prelude to more. Statements needed verification or amplification. Vidal returned to the Paar show to respond to Buckley. Buckley and Paar exchanged additional clarifications. Vidal bet Buckley, through Paar, that he could not prove his claim that Truman had called Eisenhower anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. Buckley provided his "proof," a press report that Truman had referred to Eisenhower not being sensitive enough to Jewish and Catholic political concerns. In context it did not seem proof at all to Vidal or Paar. "Are you, on top of everything, a welcher?" Buckley responded. "I had assumed you would apologize for the distortions and untruths you spoke about my family and myself and the National Review. Very well, we'll let that go. You are not that kind of man."

Buckley vs. Vidal (The Beginning)

From Fred Kaplan's biography of Vidal:

Vidal and Buckley met for the first time in New York in September 1962, on an Open End program in which [David] Susskind pitted them against one another the entire time. They were, from an even earlier date, natural enemies who gradually became aware of one another's existence. In his mid-twenties Buckley had read The City and The Pillar and disapproved of it on moral grounds. For Buckley, homosexual acts were sinful, those who performed them inevitably to be slightly if not harshly identified mainly by this deep perversion. [Christ, Kaplan, that is a shitty string of adverbs.] When Gore and Buckley agreed in late 1961, at the request of the Associated Press, to debate in print the "liberal" versus the "conservative" position, their names were publicly juxtaposed for the first time. In preparation for his article Vidal got from a friend at Life information from its files on Buckley. In his column Buckley argued the conservative view that liberalism was an intellectually bankrupt political philosophy responsible for most of the ills of the twentieth century. Somehow liberalism was to be blamed for both Hitler and Stalin. Vidal argued that the real conflict was between conservatives, like John Kennedy, and reactionaries, like Barry Goldwater. The reactionaries, who had strong reservations about majority rule, feared democracy. To Buckley and his associates Vidal seemed a dishonest fanatic of the extreme Left and almost certainly a homosexual; they believed homosexuality to be an illness. In mid-January 1962, on one of his frequent appearances on the Jack Paar Tonight show, Vidal referred in passing to a recent National Review statement harshly critical of Pope John XXIII's liberal social positions. The Review had called the Pope's recent encyclical "a venture in triviality." The Pope supported aid to underdeveloped countries, which Buckley opposed. He also seemed insufficiently distressed about the Communist threat. To Buckley, the enemy was now within the gates. In a following issue Buckley reported to National Review readers that many American Catholics, disapproving of the encyclical, accepted the Church as "Mother," not "Teacher." Mainstream Catholics were incensed. From Vidal's point of view Buckley's attack on the Pope's views emblemized the extremism of radical conservatism. Paar agreed. Either Paar's office called Buckley and asked if he'd like to respond, as Buckley recalls, or Buckley called Paar and requested equal time, as Vidal recalls.