A world of smart guys has turned against us. Everyone at Goldman Sachs is smart, but they seem to have the amorality mocked by the songwriter Tom Lehrer in his sendup of the celebrated American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun ... The oil industry is full of smart people and so is the mortgage industry. Smart people seem to have brought us nothing but trouble. Smarts without values is dangerous — threatening, scary, virtually un-American.
Cohen's analysis looks like wishful thinking to me. There remains a widespread hostility to Wall Street and to bailed-out corporations, but it isn't anti-intellectual in nature. If Americans despise intellectuals, it's not because the intellectuals have tricked or conned them, and if they're angry at corporations it's not because CEOs are too smart, but because they're slick, tricky or downright immoral. But one thing a CEO doesn't do, the thing that really riles up the anti-intellectual element, is "tell us how to live." Yes, a sociologist or Cultural Studies professor can show us that corporations do "tell us how to live" through their various marketing strategies, but the whole point of those strategies is to avoid making it look like you're being told what to do. In any event, being told what to buy isn't the same as being told how to live, and the latter is what rankles the radio-controlled rabble. I really doubt whether Joe the Plumber feels condescended to when CEOs explain themselves on Capitol Hill in the same way I presume he feels when some politician or academic or actor tells him that he ought to change his ways or challenges his traditional values and prejudices. More likely, he and those like him feel like they're on the same side as the CEO against the "cultural elite" that supposedly wants to limit their aspirations and control every aspect of their lives except those that God wants controlled. If they end up resenting CEOs, it's probably not because those executives are too smart, but because they're too successful in a way that proves to the suspicious that they cheated in becoming "too big to fail."
I can see what Cohen is trying to do here. He's a liberal (albeit of the kind that enjoys insulting foreign governments about their human rights records; he thinks that Obama doesn't do enough of that) who'd like to turn the anti-intellectual tide against the corporate elite and their presumed champions in the Republican Party. Putting it another way, he'd like to steer today's populism in its historically proper direction. But he admits in this same column that Republicans have only benefited from anti-intellectualism.
This is why a succession of arch-conservative eccentrics have succeeded. Their values are obvious, often shockingly so. We know what they want, just not how they are ever going to get it. Experience has become a handicap and inexperience a virtue. Smart is out. Dumb is in.
To point anti-intellectual populism in its proper direction, Cohen suggests, liberals need to assert their values with passion. Obama is too dispassionate about things for the nation's good, he fears. He doesn't show "that indispensable wince" when pragmatism forces him to deviate from what Cohen hopes are his core principles. To save his Presidency, the columnist argues, "It is not necessary that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven't a clue."
Speak for yourself, Mr. Cohen. I'm not going to defend the President just now, but I must note that Cohen's column demonstrates a certain cluelessness about an important sociocultural trend that might account for his mystified perception of the Obama administration, which therefore shouldn't be attributed to the general population. In other words, Obama may still be a mystery to many people, including some who voted for him, but Cohen's cluelessness may be his own problem, not theirs.