Outraged Intellectuals

From The New Criterion

On the morning of the second presidential “debate” between President Bush and Senator Kerry, I woke up to the sounds of Bob Schieffer exulting on the radio. This debate, the one in town-hall format from St Louis, wasn’t even the one he was to moderate a few days later, but he just couldn’t wait until that evening’s contest, he said, comparing his excitement to that which he might have felt at a heavyweight championship bout, the World Series or the Superbowl. As a Bush supporter myself, I knew that my feelings and those of most others of my acquaintance who vote for the red-state party were rather of dread. Would our man again betray the signs of impatience and irritation at his opponent’s remarks that were thought to have told so heavily against him after the first debate? Then it seemed that he had lost his lead in the polls by pulling faces — or doing what the eagle-eyed media critics we have all become could interpret as pulling faces — while Senator Kerry was making some typically ill-natured remarks about his conduct of the war in Iraq. Was ever man so proud as is this Martius? asked the tribunes of the people. Marked you his lip and eyes? Who could doubt that, being moved, he would not spare to gird the gods?

And so as Bob Schieffer proclaimed his impatience, I was sunk in gloom. What mistake would Bush make this time. Would he, perhaps, become flustered and incoherent in response to an awkward question from the audience or — most terrifying thought of all — commit some catastrophic “gaffe” as Gerald Ford did in prematurely liberating Poland in 1976 or as his father did (at least in media folklore) by looking at his watch during the town hall style debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992. As I recall it, I had a great deal of sympathy with the first President Bush on that occasion. Had I been in his place I would have been looking at my watch too. So would anyone less enamored of the now-obligatory charade of “caring” leadership than Bill Clinton. Did the people of the media consensus, in subsequently making so much of the significance of the act, themselves really believe that it betokened a politically culpable lack of feeling on the elder Bush’s part? Or, to put it another way, did they really believe in all that Clintonian humbug about “feeling your pain”? Probably some of them did. But my guess is that most recognized the charade for what it was without regarding it as any less legitimate as a kind of licensed obstacle course for the candidates to negotiate without falling. So you want to be president, eh? Very well then, say the media, let us see how well you can counterfeit an empathetic concern for the feelings of each one of a crowd of strangers we are going to place you among for an hour and a half. If you can pass that test, you’re in.

Few people even in the media could have supposed that Bush II’s evident exasperation with his opponent’s charges against him, which included dishonesty as well as gross incompetence and negligence, was a real disqualification for holding the office he holds. One who did was Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic, who was able confidently to assert that a mere look of annoyance “goes right to the heart of Bush’s problems as president: the fact that, in general, he does not surround himself with people who present opposing views, based on everything we know from insider accounts (Suskind, Woodward, etc.).” Which, says Cohn, is “why, unlike Gore’s sighs, Bush’s twitches have a broader significance for the election.” This, by the way, from a magazine so unanimously — and monotonously — anti-Bush that its current issue at the time of Cohn’s bit of deep analysis and shining insight was sporting the headline: “The Case Against Bush: Part III” That must have had the magazine flying off the newstands! Anyone not so committed as The New Republic to the cause of George Bush’s early retirement might have supposed that even the most rabid of the president’s detractors must by this time have been thinking: “Do I really need to hear still more reasons for voting against him?”

But then it was not really the case against Bush that those who hated him so were interested in so much as being reassured one more time about just how right they were to go on hating him. Richard Morin in the Washington Post reported on a recent study of students at Williams College by George Marcus, professor of political science, which was said to have shown that “anger motivated them to seek out information that confirmed preexisting beliefs — their emotional state literally ‘changed the way they processed information’. . . making them more likely to ignore contrary information and attack those who don’t share their beliefs.” This bit of research came as no surprise to those of us who had noticed that the passions excited by the election had increased as the differences between the candidates dwindled to the vanishing point. “If you’re not OUTRAGED,” read the supplemental bumper sticker to the Kerry/Edwards one on a car I saw recently, “you’re not paying ATTENTION!” True enough, perhaps, though it didn’t say paying attention to what.

Those few remaining electors who had so far avoided feelings of outrage, might have begun to feel a little bit bewildered instead. Why, for instance, was so much effort being expended in “The Case Against Bush Part III” to demonstrate what, in the eyes of New Republic readers anyway, must have seemed the obvious? Could there have been just the shadow of a doubt lurking in the advertising or circulation departments that Bush was quite as awful — dishonest, unprincipled, corrupt, incompetent — as he was routinely represented as being in the magazine’s pages? Maybe Noam Scheiber, the author of the piece, was like Mr Cohn and the rest of their New Republic colleagues answering the people with opposing views with whom they surround themselves — though they apparently didn’t think it necessary to print the opposing views for anyone else to read. It seems a little doubtful. But if we look in vain for “The Case For Bush, Part I,” that rhetorical phantom limb, it is because there can be hardly anyone, certainly anyone in power, who surrounds himself with people who present opposing views — apart from John Kerry who acts as his own opposition.

Anyone who did not suffer, as The New Republic does, from an advanced case of self-righteousness, was more likely to take the view that presidents may be allowed their little moments of pique and irritation with the appalling criticisms they are daily subjected to, but that, as it is all a recognized part of the “debate” game not to suffer these, or to show that one suffers them, at such moments of staged confrontation, Bush deserved the clobbering he got in the press for doing so — and possibly to lose the election as well. Such an attitude must have arisen out of the deeply contradictory attitude of both press and public to the debates. On the one hand, everyone agrees that they are no debates at all, merely a “joint press conference” or an opportunity for both sides to spout their standard campaign speeches in quasi-dialogue form. You couldn’t watch them and not acknowledge as much. On the other hand, everyone agrees not only that they are of extreme importance, that a single slip, or “gaffe,” a wrong gesture or facial expression could cost one of the candidates the election, but that it is somehow right and proper and in accordance with the way the world ought to be that a significant proportion of the electorate — perhaps enough to decide the election — could change their votes because of such trivialities.

The media, it’s true, have some excuse for learning to live with this contradiction. In their position, barred by the pretense of “objectivity” from taking a substantive approach to the campaign apart from occasional and laughably tendentious “Fact Check” pieces, all they could do was make it into a game with themselves as umpires and wait for that glorious moment when an inadvertent word or gesture could be turned into the mini-scandal that would sink a candidature. Or a presidency. Hence the sporting metaphors in Bob Schieffer’s rhapsodic aubade. Of course there was another reason for his excitement, and it was the same as my reason for gloom. His candidate — for we may safely assume that he belongs to the 90-odd per cent of Washington-based journalists who back Kerry, according to John Tierney’s informal survey at the Democratic convention (see “Smug Self-righteousness” in The New Criterion of September, 2004) — was widely expected once again to show to advantage against mine. The people who look forward to the Superbowl with greatest excitement are those whose teams are heavily favored to win, and Kerry’s performance in the first debate had produced something like euphoria among his supporters, in the midst of which no one, to my knowledge, paused to ask whether or not such a triumph as he enjoyed on that occasion was a reasonable method for a politically mature democracy to choose its leaders.

But the debates were pretty obviously a given for the Democratic candidate, like the black vote or the media’s support. If it wasn’t a “gaffe” for Kerry to announce, as he did at the beginning of the second debate: “Well, let me tell you, straight up, I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq” then he had to be pretty well gaffe-proof. It was as hard for him to lose as it was for Bush to win. Like Professor Marcus’s passionate students who were “more likely to ignore contrary information,” the Kerry people both in and out of the media were clearly prepared to assume that somehow, in some nuance of a nuance of the extensive ratiocination with which Kerry had approached the question of war, as he does all other questions, and certainly in his own mind, he had been perfectly consistent. But no such benefit of the doubt would have been extended to such a contradiction by Bush. So too when, during one of Kerry’s fluctuations of opinion, he had briefly seemed to be more hawkish than Bush, “his abandoned antiwar supporters celebrate[d] the Kerry personality makeover [and] shut their eyes to Kerry’s hard-line, right-wing, unilateral, pre-election policy epiphany,” wrote William Safire in the New York Times. Those who were OUTRAGED about Bush must have been paying attention to something else at the time.

If so, it could hardly have come as a surprise. Like the Democratic voters who told the pollsters during the primaries that they had chosen Senator Kerry on the grounds not of any substantive approval of his policies or philosophies of government but on that of his “electability,” they were voting not for Kerry but against Bush. And, of course, that was another reason for them not to mind if Bush were beaten by a look or a gesture or a verbal stumble in the course of a “debate” virtually devoid of substantive content. At any rate, once you have accepted that our leaders are bound to be chosen on the most superficial basis by an almost incomprehensibly fickle and stupid electorate, it is the job not only of the candidates’ handlers but also of all committed voters on each side to give the utmost attention to those same superficial things which might be expected to appeal to the fickle and the stupid — in fact, to assume the same character of stupidity (if not fickleness) ourselves as a gesture of solidarity with the hopeful majority. Perhaps they were thinking, as someone put it to me about midway through the fall campaign, nobody but a moron could be undecided about this election now — which means that this election will be decided by the moron vote.

I think intellectuals probably believe that every election will be decided by the moron vote. That’s why they are intellectuals, after all: because, knowing as they do (or think they do) all about the way the world works their minds are already made up. This in turn means that elections are for them a matter of watching to see what the morons, who imagine that there could be still be a reason to vote for the other party, will do. Moreover, in analyzing the moron psychology, like the hidden motivations of the opposition, they affirm their own status as intellectuals. This came home to me recently at a dinner party where I sat next to one of the OUTRAGED persuasion, a man who actually identified himself as an “intellectual,” — no false modesty for him! — and who spent the entire meal trying to decide whether it was the mendacity or the incompetence of Bush’s prosecution of he Iraq war which was the more egregious. “But why,” I finally asked him, “is George Bush lying and deceiving us, as you say he is, in order to wage war in Iraq when there is no obvious electoral advantage in it — when, in fact, it may well cost him the election?”

He looked at me in a pitying sort of way, as if he thought I had just blundered into admitting my membership in the stupid party, and replied: “Because he’s in the pocket of the Israelis!”

As the man was Jewish, perhaps I should have seen this coming, but he might have said any number of other things — that Bush was doing it for the oil or to increase the profits of his buddies at Halliburton and the Carlyle group or out of Oedipal rivalry with his father or any of a host of more exotic reasons — with the same basic meaning. For I suspect that it scarcely matters to a political intellectual what are the real motivations of those in power for doing what they do, so long as those motivations are hidden from the sight of the base vulgar and only accessible to advanced powers of analysis like his own. It occurred to me then that, like the conspiratorial omnivore Michael Moore, this man would probably have been just as willing to accept any or all of the alternative explanations discreditable to Bush so long as he wasn’t asked to believe the one thing that has always seemed to me obvious, namely that the president is an ordinarily decent guy doing what he thinks is best for his country. An intellectual can’t believe that, of course, because it is what the stupid people believe. It would threaten his very identity as an intellectual, so clearly much prized in this case, for him to believe only what the lumpen mass of the cognitively challenged believe.

Kerry’s campaign could not be directly targeted at such people because, even though the ranks of the intellectually upwardly mobile have swollen dramatically over the last twenty or thirty years, they still do not constitute a majority. But neither was he required to disavow the support of Michael Moore and others who earnestly promoted the idea of Bush’s stupidity, or of the artists and musicians led by Bruce Springsteen, a rock and roll singer much esteemed for the social significance of his soulful ballads, who were touring the country and encouraging those whose conceit of themselves as being of loftier intellect, finer artistic appreciation, superior virtue and greater sensitivity than their neighbors to vote Kerry. But in the course of the debates he did permit himself, as a kind of hint to the initiate of his eager embrace of their own feelings, one or two references to the “smarter” policies he was offering, and he managed to be magnificently patronizing to Bush’s notion that a vote against the ban on partial birth abortions meant that he was in favor of allowing these procedures to remain legal. “It’s just not that simple,” he claimed.

Ah, yes, it was clearly important to be reminded, if only by indirection, that this was an election pitting the party of simplicity, of black and white moral distinctions and the war upon an “axis of evil” against the party of nuance, of fine gradations on the moral grayscale and of war — or no war — undertaken according to criteria that it would take a Ph.D. in international relations to understand. It was of the latter party that Kerry was seen as being so much more appropriate as standard-bearer than an old-line Democrat like Dick Gephardt or even the more Clintonesque John Edwards. It turns out that Edwards was right to have spoken during the campaign of “Two Americas.” He was just wrong on the question of who they were. The Two Americas were not rich and poor but smart and stupid, sophisticated and unsophisticated, nuanced and simple. What really lay behind Bob Schieffer’s excitement and my gloom in that grey October dawn was the thought that the would-be intellectuals might at last be poised to take power.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts