19 September 2011

Stupid is as stupid says?

With Gov. Perry practically asking for Democratic insults by joking about his poor academic record on the campaign trail, Kathleen Parker attempts to warn critics against pouncing too quickly.

There are, of course, lots of ways to be smart and lots of ways to be dumb. We often talk about book smarts and street smarts, as though the two are mutually exclusive. We know from experience that brilliant book people can be nincompoops when it comes to common sense, while people lacking formal education can be brilliant problem-solvers. We know these things, yet we seem to have fallen in love with the notion that only book smarts matter when it comes to the nation’s problems. At least Democrats have. Republicans, despite having a few brainiacs in their midst, have taken the opposite approach, emphasizing instead the value of being just regular folk.

Parker is, of course, perpetuating stereotypes in both cases. The party of the poor, which is what Democrats still claim to be, can hardly argue that only academics can lead us. It's not so much an actual Democratic assertion of academic superiority as it is their disparagement of the forced folksiness and apparent contempt for higher learning indulged in by Perry and his predecessor in Texas that gets Democrats, liberals and progressives accused of elitism. With the elitism charge comes the ivory tower fallacy, the assumption that liberals privilege theoretical speculation over practical know-how because they lack experience of practical life. As for Republicans:

Republicans have earned some of the ridicule aimed their way. Many are willing to dumb themselves down to win the support of the party’s base, preferring to make fun of evolution and global warming rather than take the harder route of explaining, for example, that a “theory” when applied to evolution has a specific scientific meaning. It isn’t just some random idea cooked up in a frat house.

Nevertheless, Parker believes that Republican anti-intellectuals have an advantage with the electorate, simply because " most people in this country didn’t go to Ivy League colleges — or any college for that matter. Most haven’t led privileged lives of any sort, but nonetheless have unspoiled hearts and are willing to help any who would help themselves." But where do these people get the impression that liberals, even "Ivy Leaguers," won't let them do this? Where do they get the idea that Ivy Leaguers want everyone to depend on them? From the Ivy Leaguers themselves? I suspect not. Parker advises that "until someone emerges to remind Americans of who they are in a way that neither insults their intelligence nor condescends to their less-fortunate circumstances, smart money goes to the “stupid” politicians." This takes for granted what remains unproven. Where is the condescension? Where can it be found in writing, or on tape, or on video? Whatever liberals say, it probably sounds like condescension to those who don't feel dependent on government, or on the Ivy League, but where did they get the idea that anyone was saying they were dependent, or should be? To me it sounds like one group feels insulted on behalf of other groups who don't necessarily share the feeling. Their attitude requires a more critical examination, no matter how condescending it may seem, than Parker is willing to provide.


d.eris said...

I see your point in this piece, but, I'll take a stab at answering your question. You ask: "Where can it be found in writing, or on tape, or on video?" As a potential example I would offer the desire among so many Americans, and not only in government, to micromanage seemingly every aspect of all our lives. It sometimes strikes me as an almost a quasi-totalitarian impulse. I was thinking about this after reading an article Bob Morris recently published at CAIVN lambasting the California "nanny state," where legislators are incapable of formulating a budget, but find the time to regulate everything from bed sheets to babysitting to ski-wear. The piece has even more impact because Bob comes from a hard left perspective.

(See: http://caivn.org/article/2011/09/15/nanny-state-getting-out-hand)

I think the insult and outrage can be summed up with a simple rhetorical question directed at the perceived condescender: "Who the hell are you to tell me how to live or what to do?! etc."

I would argue that examples of such condescension are easy to find among both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, on Long Island, there is a Republican state legislator who is backing a bill that would force all high school students to be tested for drugs. The main proponents of the bill are a couple families in his district whose teenage children died of overdoses. So now, to apparently compensate for their failure as parents, they want to have everyone else's children forcibly submitted to drug testing by the state.

The next question, I guess, then becomes: if this impulse is so prevalent, how did it get identified primarily with liberals and Democrats? The most obvious answer would be "effective Republican messaging" then, or something along those lines, no?

Samuel Wilson said...

d., I see your point in return, but in response I offer an observation and a question. The observation is that democracy, on some level, means everyone telling each other how to live, within agreed-upon (i.e. constitutional) limits. The question is, why is that so often perceived as "condescension?" I suspect it has at least as much to do with the attitude of those who make the charge as with the attitude of those so charged. Republicans seem to dodge the charge because they idealize self-reliance, but many of them are inconsistent in their resistance to condescension. Few of them seem to have problems with religious experts (often self-appointed) telling them how to live, yet many bristle when any secular suggestion is made. Something like the reverse attitude prevails among many on the left; they concede no legitimacy to religion, and are more likely to give the state the benefit of the doubt, as long as the good guys govern. Mutual accountability is a matter of perpetual negotiation, and cries of "elitism" seem designed only to pre-empt the deliberations necessary to democracy.

d.eris said...

I think it might be perceived as condescension because the attitude often comes off as one of: "we know better than you."

This, I think, is exacerbated by the fact that many hardcore D's and R's are not interested in deliberation and negotiation because they already believe that they are in the right. They begin from the position that there should be no negotiation or deliberation because the matter is already effectively settled. This is an anti-democratic impulse. As I said above, I think it is quasi-totalitarian.

Anonymous said...

I see at least 2 different things we're discussing here. The first is called "regulation". The state imposing it's will on the private sector to ensure a certain amount of ethical, if not moral behavior, on behalf of consumers.

The second is the state attempting to legislate "common sense", which seems to be very uncommon in this day and age.

The bottom line is, people in this country apparently don't like to be "told what to do", but just as obviously, most people, if left to their own devices, will make the wrong or stupid choice. As far as I'm concerned, if it affects only them, the state should butt out and let "Darwinism" run it's course. But the minute irresponsible behavior - on the part of big business or private individuals - begins to have a negative impact on innocent people, the state has an obligation to step in.

A proper parent does not allow his or her children to act with impunity and do whatever they "damn well please". A good parent sets rules for behavior and punishments for breaking those rules. No one accuses such a parent of being a "nanny parent". Why do we accuse the state of this?

Some people, quite frankly, need to be "stepped on" just as a good parent will step on an unruly child.

Samuel Wilson said...

Where does "Darwinism" end and politics begin? Lots of people think that Darwinism is a competitive process through which the survival of the fittest is determined. Some of those people are likely to argue that one person's "negative impact on innocent people" is another's perpetual competition that winnows out the losers who can't keep up with change. I don't disagree with your own distinction, but when you appeal to Darwinism as a limit on the scope of regulation you open the door to more extreme Darwinists who'll claim that many if not most restraints on competition unfairly get in the way of the natural selection process. You can try to argue that they misunderstand Darwin or you can simply reject him as an authority on policy.