College Don’t Make You Smart
by Stephen Cox | Posted November 29, 2016
This column has often drawn attention to the ignorance of our supposedly educated classes. A remarkable instance of the phenomenon was provided by Tim Kaine, J.D., Harvard, in his speech on the day following the defeat of his campaign for vice president. The performance was elaborately worked up, loaded with dreadful foreboding (about Republicans), light-hearted optimism (about Democrats), and a heavy-footed quest for applause lines that suggested he had already formed seven Voluntary Committees for his own attempt to seize the White House.
Kaine, who had trouble getting even 75 people at rallies during the climax of this year’s campaign, obviously needed some way to work up emotions about himself. He chose the Happy Warrior, Chin Up, We Won After All approach:
I’ll just say this: Hillary and I know well the wisdom and the words of William Faulkner, he said, “They kilt us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.” They kilt us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.
Because we know that the work remains. We know that the dreams of empowering families and children remain. And in that work, that important work that we have to do as a nation, it is so comforting, even in a tough time, to know that Hillary Clinton is somebody who, until her very last breath, is going to be battling for the values that make this nation great and the values we care so deeply about.
Everything is wrong about that — and wrong in a way that anyone of any intelligence should be able to see. What in the hell would it mean to “empower” children? Or “families,” for that matter? Who in the world pictures Hillary Clinton as a battler for “values”? And by the way, what exactly are those values that Kaine believes are implicit in our nation? I’m sure there are some — tell us what they are.
Kaine, who had trouble getting even 75 people at rallies during the climax of this year’s campaign, obviously needed some way to work up emotions about himself.
The business about empowering children creates quite a picture. I see Dick and Jane taking a break from their coloring books to plot the policy of the Federal Reserve or our strategy in Syria. But what really makes me laugh is the image of Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton poring over the works of Faulkner and swapping sapient glances about the wisdom of killing and whupping. The remark on whupping is reported to have incited frenzies of emotion among Democrats throughout America.
Well, William Faulkner did write something like that, but while he was responsible for the words, they do not express his wisdom. The connection is itself absurd, as if wisdom ever lived apart from words. The big problem, however, is that the words were written, not in the author’s voice, but in that of Wash Jones, a character in one of Faulkner’s novels. That book, Absalom, Absalom!, is a magnificent literary achievement, in which Wash is the least magnificent character. He is the creepy white servant and abject worshiper of the great plantation owner Thomas Sutpen — otherwise known as “the demon,” a man of ruthless energy whose great purpose is to establish a slave kingdom in Mississippi. This is an odd place to look for an inspiring quotation — an odd place for anyone to look, but most of all for apparatchiks of a party devoted to the supposed needs of minority (chiefly African-American) voters.
The occasion for Wash Jones’ remarks is Colonel Sutpen’s drunken mourning over the fate of the Confederacy. Wash, the novel says, would
put him to bed like a baby and then lie down himself on the floor beside the bed though not to sleep since before dawn the man on the bed would stir and groan and Jones would say, “Hyer I am, Kernel. Hit's all right. They aint whupped us yit, air they?" — this Jones who after the demon rode away with the regiment . . . would tell people that he “was looking after Major's place and niggers” even before they had time to ask him why he was not with the troops and perhaps in time came to believe the lie himself, who was among the first to greet the demon when he returned, to meet him at the gate and say, “Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?"
A touching scene! A drunken Confederate colonel, falsely consoled by a miserable subject, after a disastrous attempt to maintain black slavery. I can imagine other perorations that the functionally illiterate Mr. Kaine might have larded with stuff from online lists of quotations (entitled, probably, Comfort in Defeat). He could have quoted Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” And nobody in his audience would have known the difference.
I see Dick and Jane taking a break from their coloring books to plot the policy of the Federal Reserve or our strategy in Syria.
Now let’s go from the sublimely ridiculous to the merely ridiculous. During the campaign, I was amused by the complete lack of either literary or folkloric knowledge of Democratic hack Austan Goolsbee — a man who, I can’t resist observing, looks exactly like his name. Goolsbee, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview on Fox News (July 25), regarding disunity within the two major parties: “We’re all eatin’ a little humble crow.” The host did not, of course, ask Goolsbee what a humble crow might be, although that’s certainly interesting to think about. But what had happened was that Goolsbee (I love to repeat that ridiculous name, so perfect for its owner) had heard the expression “humble pie,” and he had also heard the expression “eat crow,” and he had put them together (why not?), spiced them with the faux-proletarian eatin’, and served them up to an oblivious audience.
Now that Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Harvard, has scrambled somewhere near the top of the Democratic heap, I’m sure I will have many more occasions to discuss dumb people who think they’re smart. But since Warren is also the Senator from the New York Times, it’s fair to introduce that paper’s post-election statement, which Donald Trump and others construed as an “apology” for getting everything wrong about the campaign. We all know that this was true; the Times did get everything wrong — everything from the temper of the populace to the character (or lack of character) of the Democratic candidate to the nature of the Times’ own mission, which it somehow interpreted, not as reporting the news, but as presenting daily Masses for the success of Democratic candidates. Yet when you actually read the “apology” you discover several things.
One is that the Times is still one of the nation’s most dependable sources of bad writing. Look at the first sentence:
When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.
Turned on a dime? What Harvard seminar teaches you to write like that? Probably all of them, but this is no excuse. There doesn’t need to be a New York Times Book of Clichés; the content appears in every issue. But let’s follow up on this particular cliché. Turned on a dime — from what? From bad reporting and bad writing? No, no; that’s impossible. The Times never could have published anything it had to turn away from, and in fact, nothing of the kind is mentioned. What we are supposed to picture is the Times turning on a dime and also doing what it had done for nearly two years. I give up; I can’t picture that. I also give up on what it means to report the news with creativity, unless it means making stuff up, a charge that the Times always haughtily ignores.
The host did not, of course, ask Austan Goolsbee what a "humble crow" might be.
This is the second thing one notices: the “apology” is just one more service of thanksgiving for the wonderfulness of the New York Times, now “rededicating” itself, as the “apology” goes on to say, to the glorious public mission that the august journal has continuously fulfilled: “We aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor,” blah, blah, blah. That’s not exactly what the Times’ “public editor,” Liz Spayd, had in mind when she wrote about the failings of the paper’s agile and creative performance — but she has a mind, and the Times, for all its alleged erudition, does not.
The Times was not alone in its unmerited self-esteem; the ability to criticize oneself was in remarkably short supply almost everywhere this year. Republicans seemed incapable of reflecting on the huge majority that Trump might have had if he’d hesitated to make an absolute fool of himself on countless occasions. Democrats could not really imagine that anyone not a bigot or a dumbass tool of bigots could possibly have voted for Trump. In this delicate moral situation, I find the Republicans less guilty than the Democrats, who not only refused to consider their own failures but violently projected them onto others.
Of course I’m referring to the wave of hysteria, ordinarily self-induced, that is still sloshing back and forth in modern-liberal America — hysteria about the actions of Trump, who so far has taken no action, not yet being in office. It is striking that demands for tolerance and diversity should be voiced by mobs in the streets, by employers persecuting employees who voted the wrong way, and even by merchants rejecting the business of customers who became part of the wrong ideological formation. I don’t like to give Freud any credit, but his idea of projection does seem appropriate. I don’t know how else to explain the passionate intensity of people who violently denounce all who disagree with them, because of the latter’s vicious intolerance.
I once, in a minor way, was an organizer of demos against the Vietnam War. There were many angry shouts from our crowd, but I don’t remember any shouts being directed against angry shouting. Now we have people spewing grossly obvious hate against their opponents, because they consider their opponenst “haters.” This isn’t how the Civil Rights Movement got its way; it’s specifically the tactics that Martin Luther King refused to adopt; and it isn’t a tactics that will work now. I just wish it were funnier.
The “apology” is just one more service of thanksgiving for the wonderfulness of the New York Times.
The entertainment personalities who vowed to combat the haters by moving out of the country — they were funny. I’m not sure they were funny because, as someone aptly remarked, they all promised to move to Canada, Australia, and other such places, never manifesting their anti-racism by contemplating a move to Mexico. But it was hilarious to find such deep thinkers as TV actress Lena Dunham denouncing people who noticed that promisers like her weren’t keeping their promises. The Washington Times quoted Dunham’s Instagram:
And for those demanding I move to Canada based on something I said when this man [Trump] seemed like a steak salesman with a long shot at the presidency: stay busy reveling in your new regime . . .
I will go many places during my lifetime, surrounded by kindreds on a mission to spread justice and light. I can’t wait for all of this, and for the change to come, as we use what we’ve been given to protect those who can’t protect themselves. . . . What are you living for?
I wonder what she thinks “kindreds” means. I also wonder what she means by “light” — of which she is shedding a lot, even now, before the start of her “mission” — but only on herself, not on the benighted souls who don’t know what they’re living for.
For hardcore fans of farce, the 2016 campaign was lots of fun, and for them the fun will continue, as long as there are Lena Dunhams. I’m not that hardcore, but I do have good things to say about the campaign. Though it was long on illiteracy, it was short on idol worship — at least when compared with the idolatry of the various Kennedy campaigns, the idolatry eventually lavished on Ronald Reagan, or the posthumous idolatry accorded Harry Truman. (In the 1948 campaign, Truman was generally regarded as an accidental president, an embarrassment to his party. At the start of the 1952 campaign season, when he expected to run for reelection, he received no, zero, nada support from the party, and dropped out.) We did have some idolatrous statements about Trump the Builder, Trump the Man of Action, and even (gasp!) Trump the Seer, but I doubt that many of his supporters took any of that seriously.
A little bit of cynicism would have been a relief, considering the constant, shrieking moralism of American politics this past 30 — or is it 50? — years.
Clinton fared better in the mindless flattery department, because she had many more paid sycophants — not to mention people who, like President Obama, rightly detested her but still associated their political legacy or future employment with the claim that, in Obama’s words, Hillary Clinton was “the best qualified person ever to run for the presidency.”
If that statement makes you wonder what planet you’re living on, try the following expression of Clintonolatry, provided by Liberty’s Managing Editor, Drew Ferguson, who suggests (and I think he is right) that no one can top it. The author is Virginia Heffernan, Ph.D., Harvard:
We don't have to wait until she dies to act. Hillary Clinton's name belongs on ships, and airports, and tattoos. She deserves straight-up hagiographies and a sold-out Broadway show called RODHAM. Yes, this cultural canonization is going to come after the chronic, constant, nonstop "On the other hand" sexist hedging around her legacy. But such is the courage of Hillary Clinton and her supporters; we reverse patriarchal orders. Maybe she is more than a president. Maybe she is an idea, a world-historical heroine, light itself. The presidency is too small for her. She belongs to a much more elite class of Americans, the more-than-presidents. Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander Fucking Hamilton.
Hillary Clinton did everything right in this campaign. . . .
Well, now you know.
In general, however, the political writers of 2016 decided that they had to make the best of a bad deal and dwelt entirely on the evils of the opposing side, evils that were never hard to find. If the Clinton people, especially, had left it at that, I would not have been distressed. A little bit of cynicism would have been a relief, considering the constant, shrieking moralism of American politics this past 30 — or is it 50? — years. But no. Virtually no one except Doug Schoen, the Democratic commentator, admitted that he was being cynical, and even he repented and departed, miffed, from the Hillary side. After her defeat, we are left with the Sean Hannitys of this world, endlessly muttering about the greatness of Donald Trump — a candidate who won because people couldn’t stand him but could stand his opponent even less — and the armies of professors, Democratic office holders, “advocates for,” social justice warriors, guff-addicted leftists, university “students,” and other people who have lots of time on their hands, all huddling in well-advertised terror from the wave of fascism that succeeded Trump’s election.
The exemplary fact is this: in 2012 Obama carried one of the counties in which Youngstown, Ohio, is located by about 28%; in 2016 Clinton carried it by about 3%. In 2012 Obama carried the other county by about 22%; in 2016 Trump carried it by about 6%. Look up the history of Youngstown, which has less than half the population it had in 1970, and you’ll see why. Alleged “hate” has nothing to do with Youngstown and its vote. Lack of real jobs, regulation of every puny detail of life, insults to local culture delivered by high-paid snots in Washington, the perception that Hillary Clinton is a low-level crook who wouldn’t be welcome at a family dinner — those things are sufficient to explain the change. Invoking the sudden “racism” of former Obama voters is just going to turn the 25 or 28% difference into something like unanimity.
The bad, in fact awful, aspect of Trump’s distinctiveness is hard to analyze, because it’s hard to pay attention to.
So much for solemn words. Friends have asked me if Clinton’s defeat isn’t a blow to this column. In a way it is. She and her friends were always available to exemplify some grave linguistic sin. Trump isn’t so easy to write about. His performance is distinctive, in ways that are hard to describe. In his tweets, as in the interviews in which he used to make fun of media mushrooms like Rose O’Donnell (last seen speculating on whether Trump’s son Barron is autistic), he sometimes hits a tone of mischievous naiveté that is uniquely right. One example is his comment on the New York Times’ supposed violation of an agreement for an interview of him:
I cancelled today’s meeting with the failing @nytimes when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice
This bluntness is refreshing. Who else would say “the failing @nytimes” as if it were the formal name of the publication? Or add the childish “Not nice,” which somehow manages to suggest that it’s the Times, not Trump, that is childish? That’s an effective combination, but it’s hard to say why. As an analyst, you have to do more work on Trump than you do on Clinton, who was never an effective communicator in any way.
The bad, in fact awful, aspect of Trump’s distinctiveness is also hard to analyze, because it’s hard to pay attention to. I refer to his amazing, startling, unbelievable incoherence, which is one of the world’s great bores. If Trump has a draft of his inaugural address, it probably begins like this: “Hey! It’s great to see you all! This is incredible. I mean it, incredible. All these American people, men and women, people — simply incredible. It’s incredible. You know, just a couple days ago, I saw, and this is unbelievable. You’re not gonna believe it. But when you look at employment. I saw the figures. Folks, it’s a disaster. But we’ll do it. It’s gonna be done. Depend on it. 100%. You can depend on it. A complete disaster. But there’s gonna be a wall. I promise you. There’s gonna be a wall, and it’s gonna be an incredible wall. You’re gonna like it, I promise you. Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. ”
Had enough? Me too.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution. Newly published is Culture and Liberty, a selection of works by Isabel Paterson.
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