Monday, May 5, 2014

This Smart, But No Smarter

When I wrote Friday's post, I hadn't yet started reading Elvin T. Lim's The Anti-intellectual Presidency (Oxford, 2008), though I had a copy in my reading pile and the subject was clearly on my mind.  It turned out to be the right book to read.  Lim's thesis is that presidential public language has been progressively simplified and evacuated of most content in an effort to make it seem that the President is just a regular Joe talking to John Q. Public, man-to-man, in a commonsense way; and not a long-haired, pointy-headed intellectual out of touch with the real America.  His argument is based on analysis of presidential communication since George Washington, plus interviews with those former presidential speechwriters still living and a study of the writings of earlier ones.  He found that Flesch readability scores of presidential speeches have dropped (becoming more easily "readable") ever since Washington, and has become more oriented toward sloganeering and emotive cheerleading than substantial content.  The evidence of the speechwriters indicates that this trend was a conscious and deliberate project throughout the twentieth century, as speechwriting became assigned to specialists rather than the President himself and his advisors, and as the speechwriters lost access to the President, so that their speeches had little connection to actual policy.

Unfortunately, The Anti-intellectual Presidency was published in 2008, just as that year's presidential campaign was heating up, so Lim's analysis ends with George W. Bush; but some remarks in the concluding chapter indicate that Lim saw both McCain and Obama continuing the tradition he describes.  When I have a chance I'll look at Lim's blog and see what he's had to say during Obama's presidency.  (Hm... this post indicates that Lim fell under Obama's spell: "this is not a president willing to mince his words any more."  No, Elvin, when any president uses that trope, it's another example of the plain-speaking man-of-the-people smokescreen you've analyzed so well -- and Obama's no exception.)

Lim touches on issues that have interested me for some time.  For example, he is not saying that the presidents themselves have become less intelligent: rather their rhetoric has become more anti-intellectual, which is another matter.  He distinguishes between "intelligence" and "intellectuality," arguing that the former is generally respected or at least paid lip service, while the latter is everybody's favorite whipping boy.  (He also points out that "rhetoric" originally referred to discourse in general, and to the study of how to use language to communicate and persuade.  Usually nowadays the word is used pejoratively, to refer to empty verbiage and propaganda, but as Lim indicates, that tactic probably goes back to Plato at least.  I am eloquent and thoughtful, a humble artisan of language; you deploy sophistical rhetoric, hiding your elitist emptiness behind flowery, fancy-pants words.)  There was a spike in the trend during the Nixon administration, after marketing and media consultants were brought in to help Nixon overcome his poor media skills, and except perhaps for Carter, presidents since then have followed Nixon's example.  Still, this is a difference of degree rather than one of kind, since orators have always been accused of manipulating their audiences with rhetoric.

Lim describes how presidents would demand that their speechwriters simplify the rhetoric in their productions, so that "speechwriters in turn have observed a Janus-like quality in their bosses, who are articulate, formal, and sophisticated in private, but decidedly casual and simplistic in public" (42).  This applies even to Eisenhower, who before Reagan was probably the paradigm of "casual and simplistic," i.e. dumb, presidential self-presentation.  It takes a lot of work, through endless drafts and revision, to remove all the intellectual content from a speech.

What I want to talk about today is something else, though, namely how intelligent Americans want their presidents to be.  As Lim says, citing Richard Hofstadter's classic book, anti-intellectualism is a hallowed American tradition.  It's pretty clear to me that the right wants to be led by people who aren't too bright.  In 2008 I heard a right-wing co-worker, annoyed by students' derision of Sarah Palin, splutter, "At least she's normal!"  Palin was probably the closest to a "normal" American to run for such high office in my lifetime, but as a state governor she was still hardly as regular a gal as she pretended.  When she was tapped as John McCain's running mate, moreover, she went on a Party-funded spending spree on clothing to spiff up her image; she knew, no less than the Beltway city slickers, that looking too normal would hurt her with the voters she hoped to win over.  It's worth recalling that her attackers included not only snobby liberals but the same conservatives who at other times would praise the common people and denounce liberals for supposedly looking down on them.

I have the impression that American rightists are willing, even eager, to believe that their heroes are "normal" even when, like Reagan, they are wealthy former movie stars in the pay of big corporations, or like Bush, they are spoiled brats from rich and corrupt elite families, sporting post-graduate Ivy League degrees.  At the same time, a Tea Party favorite like Paul Ryan peddles himself as a "wonk," a technocrat if not necessarily an intellectual, and right-wingers like my RWA1 waver between being elitists and populists.  (Randy Newman captured this right-wing ambivalence perfectly in his song "Rednecks": College men from LSU / Went in dumb, come out dumb too.)  Bill Clinton worked this side of the street too, and Lim found his speeches to be high on the anti-intellectual scale despite his Fullbright Scholar / Oxford accomplishments.  I was brought up short, though, when Lim constrasted Bill with Hillary in that department:
According to one observer, "Bill Clinton sounds intimate and conversational when he’s discussing energy policy.  Hillary Clinton sounds like a policy wonk when she talks about her mother’s childhood struggles" [76].
Wait a minute -- I distinctly remember Bill being attacked by the Right (and sometimes celebrated by his fans) as a "policy wonk" himself as well as for being trailer trash, of course.  True, he was good at fake compassion, but his policies were something else.

Democrats, by contrast, now largely identify themselves as the smart party -- smart, at least, compared to the Republicans, which doesn't set the bar very high.  They make much of Obama's intelligence, signaled by his Ivy League education and his status as a Constitutional scholar, but they also embrace his vacuous sloganeering rhetoric and object strenuously to any application of critical thinking to his speeches or policies.  Their interest in intelligence, or in the intellect, is largely virtual, a partisan token.  Like evangelical Christians who've pointed to C. S. Lewis as evidence that you can be Christian and smart, Democratic loyalists use Obama's vaunted intelligence vicariously: he's smart so they don't have to be.

Lim does a good job countering the claim that it's "elitist" to object to anti-intellectualism in politics:
My objection to presidential anti-intellectualism is not a knee-jerk moral panic provoked by an elite suspicion of mass involvement in politics, but it emerges from the assessment that the theories of the anti-intellectual presidency are, at multiple levels, impoverished.  Americans need to be politically educated so that they develop the intellectual and moral capacities that are necessary for competent citizenship, among them, a capacity to look beyond individual interests toward collective interests, and an ability to think through and adjudicate the various policy options that their leaders propose.  While we do not expect democratic citizens to be policy experts, there is a threshold level of political knowledge below which their ability to make informed and competent civic judgments is impaired [113].
Paradoxically, anti-intellectualism is largely an elitist tactic.  Those who defend it will claim that ordinary folks can't understand complex foreign-policy or economic issues, and should just be left to live their little lives, taken care of by the benign folk at the top of the pyramid.  In practice, however, those at the top and their toadies don't necessarily know what they're doing, but even more, they hold the ordinary voter in contempt, especially when she doesn't vote for their candidate. It's not that they want to translate complex issues into simple language, it's that they want to tell the public what they believe we want to hear:
The manmade teleology of presidential anti-intellectualism stems from the perceived benefit of going anti-intellectual, which is nearly universally felt, as my interviews have shown.  I say “perceived,” because there is no reason to think that these calculations are objectively true; we know only that presidents and speechwriters appear to believe them true.  As each president and his team of speechwriters seek to simplify his public rhetoric even further, the effect of such efforts is cumulatively felt even if each administration does not feel individually responsible [48].
Lim points to those who claim that anti-intellectualism increases public "participation" in politics, but "participation" here evidently means that the public cheers when the Leader gives a speech.  If that were so, Hitler and Mussolini would have been great democratic leaders.  He quotes the Reagan speechwriter and hagiographer Peggy Noonan on
the groupthink behind contemporary speech craft: “It is simplicity that gives the speech its power. … And we pick the signal up because we have gained a sense in our lives that true things are usually said straight and plain and direct” (original emphasis).  But simplicity does not guarantee the truth, only the semblance of sincerity.  Paradoxically, in heeding Noonan’s advice, presidents have to be untruthful or duplicitous – altering their innate speech patterns – in order to appear truthful [47].
But this fits with the myth of American meritocracy, the belief that those at the top earned their status through innate superiority expressed in grit, hard work and street smarts.  In practice, again, we may doubt the superiority of elites, either in work capacity or in intelligence.  The best and the brightest, every time they've been handed the reins of power, have screwed up repeatedly, from John Dewey's campaign to get the US into World War I through the bipartisan technocrats who engineered the US invasion of Vietnam to Barack Obama playing eleven-dimensional chess with his opponents.  Because of this I'm skeptical of Lim's assertion that "Americans need to be politically educated" by their leaders.  We need to educate ourselves, recognizing that our leaders are people just like us, as given to wishful thinking, irrational hopes and fears, and incomplete information, as the rest of the citizenry.

The hard but crucial question, I believe, is: How intellectual do we need to be?  If there is a valid distinction between being intelligent and being an intellectual, as I believe there is, it's largely a difference of degree rather than kind.  My personal definition of an intellectual is someone who works with ideas, the same way a mechanic works with machines.  But everyone does that to some extent; we just don't all do it equally well, and it's not surprising that some people have more talent for the job and more interest in it.  As Kath Weston said of "theory," everyone -- not just professional theorists --  has theories about human nature and how society works.  "The question then becomes: What kind of theory do 'we' want to do?  And who occupies themselves with which sort of theory?"

I've observed that the same people who despise intellectuals and "theory" often love arcane and convoluted systems, like Gnosticism (which maybe I should call neo-Gnosticism, since its present-day adherents have no real connection to the original movement) or Tibetan Buddhism with their multiplication of heavens and deities and angels and devils. They may admire imaginary worlds like J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth or the Star Trek universe, with their many peoples and cultures and invented languages, and may aspire to world-creation themselves.  They can be intensely attentive to and critical of weaknesses or contradictions in those systems.  But when it comes to the real world, they're not interested.  My third right-wing acquaintance -- a former schoolteacher with at least a bachelor's degree -- has told me that she simply chooses to believe the news slant she likes; she's not interested in questioning why she likes it, and certainly not in examining for logic or factual accuracy.  So she sees herself as a bold skeptic, just as most of my liberal friends do, because she disbelieves reports and analyses she doesn't like, but is utterly credulous about those she likes.  In this I believe she differs in degree, not in kind, from many more "intellectual" people.  I don't ask how she (or they) should be "educated" by others, by their leaders or by me; that won't work.  Besides, she is if anything too willing to be educated by her leaders.  I think that's the real problem with public political discourse.  What to do about it, I have no idea.

Democracy is sometimes defended (or criticized) as the belief that the People, given a chance, will make better decisions than elites will.  I disagree, since I don't think the People are any smarter, or dumber, than the elites.  I can't remember who (Paul Goodman, maybe?) said that the real reason for democracy is that people are affected by events, and by government policies, so they (we) have a right to a voice in the making of them -- and to accountability when they turn out to be wrong.  Accountability, of course, is not very popular, except as something to demand for the other guy, and then what is usually meant is punishment, not accountability.  I believe that most people are capable of critically examining their own beliefs and ideas as well as those of others, to varying degrees.  Whether enough of us can learn to do it well enough (and what is well enough), I don't know, but I don't think anyone does know.  It's always a good time to begin.