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Political Animal

Hail to the Stupid

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/6/2007

The magician and skeptic Penn Jillette once said, "You should wear your intellect like James Dean wore a leather jacket."

Now, Penn is no fan of Al Gore, but to view the way Gore is being treated upon publication of his New York Times No. 1 best seller The Assault on Reason is to wonder, What ever happened to a respect for knowledge in this country?

Dana Milbank, former White House correspondent and now Washington Sketch columnist for The Washington Post, used to be one of the Bush administration's most disliked reporters in the briefing room because of his incisive questioning and his ability to pierce through the double-talk, spin, and bullshit emitted from the podium there twice a day during the press gaggles. But now Milbank the opinion columnist is mocking Gore as "the smartest guy in the room" like some high-school jock sitting in the back of the English class who hides his SAT scores from his smarter buddies.

"Imagine the Iowa hog farmer cracking open Assault on Reason, and meeting Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Lippmann, Johannes Gutenberg, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson and Marshall McLuhan--all before finishing the introduction," Milbank writes in his May 30 column. Whoa--I wouldn't want to be Milbank the next time he visits Cedar Rapids after demeaning the intelligence of some of the most politically astute citizens in the nation. Politicians often demean "coastal elites" and residents of Northeastern states (remember how they treated Vermonter Howard Dean as if he was some latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, New York Times crossword puzzle-in-ink effete liberal snob?), but a journalist firing a shot at Iowa hog farmers as if they haven't gone to college seems a hair dangerous to me.

But it all comes back to what we've subliminally been told we should want in our country's leaders for a few decades now. We are told that we want someone we should feel comfortable sitting down and having a beer with, someone who "is a regular guy." The jokers at Fox had a great time mocking John Kerry for his windsurfing after hailing George W. Bush prancing around the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit after helping pilot his jet out to the boat. War-decorated Kerry, who rides motorcycles and pilots helicopters and (lest we forget) Swift boats, was treated as some sort of dork, while Bush, who got his ass handed to him in each of their three debates, gets a pass for not being able to string simple sentences together with a subject, verb, and object.

Apparently we should lionize the stupid.

Much of it stems from how our nation conducts debate: The simple beats the complex. In his 1923 essay "The Foundations of Quackery," self-admitted elitist H.L. Mencken posited that there exists a type of American who thinks that if he himself can't understand an advanced concept, than it must be hooey. "In medicine, for example, there was nothing beyond the comprehension of the average intelligent layman. But of late that has ceased to be true, to the great damage of the popular respect for knowledge," Mencken wrote.

But outside of the people who have "the scientific mind," Mencken said, "The average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly concludes that what lies beyond is simply nonsense."

Our nation faces skyrocketing debt, an oncoming health-care crisis, the rapidly advancing retirement of the baby boom and its attendant sociological challenges, the problems due to the lack of a coherent energy policy, and the extrication of hundreds of thousands of troops from Iraq, along with the threat of terrorism. Do we really want a president with the qualities you'd find in the guy at the end stool at Moe's bar to run the country?

Republicans, with their simple bromides about terrorism, constantly mock Democrats and liberals (contrary to what you might hear from Sean Hannity, they're not the same thing) for "not understanding terrorism." The leading GOP presidential candidates approach terrorism as if they were screenwriters for 24, to the point where one candidate's chest-thumping pledge to "double Guantanamo" has to be topped with "I'd hire Jack Bauer."

The problems we face require smarts, open-mindedness, and an appreciation of (and respect for) that thing the Bush administration scoffs at: nuance. But if history is to be our guide, let's recall that Everyman isn't big on eggheads running the show. Adlai Stevenson got dusted twice by Dwight Eisenhower back in the Soviet-fraught 1950s, despite a consensus that he far outpaced the also-smart but more staid military general in the thinking department.

After sarcastically deriding him as "professor" and sniffing that he "practically oozes gray matter," Milbank concludes his assault on Gore by quoting one of the audience members at Gore's speech at George Washington University, a Germantown resident named Alan Schwartz, who asks, "how do you convince people it's OK to feel inferior to their leaders?"

I would answer that by pointing out that the last six years are what happens when your leaders are mentally inferior to you.

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Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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