Babes in Wordland
by Stephen Cox | Posted March 28, 2017
Like many people who have been to college, I once harbored the idea that Democrats are smarter than other people — a conception on which Democratic electoral power in large part depends. When I became one of those other people, I abandoned the idea. Occasionally, however, something happens to revive it.
That’s what occurred on March 21, when I unluckily turned on my television and encountered the Senate hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The first, and last, thing I heard was a question from some senator who was clearly not a Democrat. He wanted to know how Gorsuch “interpretated” the First Amendment. Gosh, I thought, during the second it took me to change the channel, maybe the Republicans really are dumb. And there have been other indications, through the years . . .
Having interpretated Senator Klobuchar, which was somewhat harder than interpretating the Constitution, Gorsuch assured her that in his view a woman could become president.
I was startled out of my speculative mood when, later in the day, a talk show played another clip from those hearings. This one featured the remarks of Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who was discussing the fact that the Constitution refers to the president as “he.” Just what, she demanded, did Gorsuch think about that?
For a while he was baffled. What could she be after? Then he got it — she’d come up with a new way of challenging his originalist approach to constitutional interpretation. How could he be an originalist when the Constitution kept saying “he”? Didn’t the pronoun mean that the text, the original text, barred women from the presidency?
Having interpretated Senator Klobuchar, which was somewhat harder than interpretating the Constitution, Gorsuch assured her that in his view a woman could become president; he hoped, indeed, that one of his own daughters might do so.
So much for that. I hadn’t been worried about the intellectual value of originalism, but I had been vaguely concerned about the intellectual caliber of Democratic senators from Minnesota. I was therefore happy to find that Amy Klobuchar was every bit as intelligent as Al Franken.
Hannity's entire intellectual apparatus is a list of four or five factoids, constantly recited, as if he were a child asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
In my view, modern “liberalism” lost the intellectual argument about three generations ago, and it’s useless to expect any remarkable level of political intelligence from people who continue to believe in the stuff. But there’s a more distressing problem: what level of intelligence can we expect from people who have the unchallenging profession of arguing against the Democrats?
Consider Sean Hannity. He’s a nice guy, and his radio and TV shows are very popular, but they are a joke — a bad joke, a joke that’s far too boring to be funny. His entire intellectual apparatus is a list of four or five factoids, constantly recited, as if he were a child asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And like the “personalities” on the local news, he cannot ask a question without turning it into five questions, which he throws at his guests until there is no time left to answer.
You know how this works on the 10 o’clock news. Somebody interviews a witness to an auto accident:
Interviewer: Can you tell us what you saw tonight? I mean, what you saw while witnessing this horrendous accident? We’ve been told that the car might have been going as fast as 40, 50, even 60 miles an hour — is that what you saw?
Person being interviewed: Well, I . . .
Interviewer: It must have been a pretty frightening experience, right? I mean, how did you feel when you saw that car flying past you? Did you feel like, oh my! That car is gonna go right into that ditch? Or was it just going by so fast that you didn’t have time to think? I mean, was it just sort of a blur? Or what?
Person: Maybe. I was . . .
Interviewer: I’m sure it must have been a scary sight. It isn’t often that we see an accident on this scale, is it? I mean, we don’t see such things very often, do we?
Person: Well, I, uh . . .
Interviewer: But thank you for telling us your story. And now back to our studio. Brian?
Did I say the local news? I should have added ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC . . . . The same interview style can be seen on all of them. But Hannity is about the worst. It goes something like this:
Hannity: Dr. Krauthammer [Charles Krauthammer, a literate man who is paid by Fox to subject himself to Hannity and other nitwits], would you please tell us, in your opinion, isn’t it obvious that President Trump is right when he says that the swamp should be drained? I mean, we’ve got intelligence agents that are spying on the president. We’ve got these scandals at the VA. We’ve got Bill Clinton, collecting money from the Chinese, the Saudis, and God knows who. We’ve got his wife, Hillary Clinton, who’s trying to stage a comeback. We’ve got all these things. So don’t you think it’s clear by now — as if it wasn’t clear before — that President Trump was right about draining the swamp?
Krauthammer: Well . . .
Hannity: I mean, isn’t it clear that the president was right when he said that the swamp should be drained?
Krauthammer: Actually, my idea . . .
Hannity: And wouldn’t you agree that the swamp is even larger than we thought way back in April, when I said, and I was the only one that was saying it way back in April, that something really needed to be done to reduce the size of this intrusive federal bureaucracy?
Krauthammer: As to the bureaucracy . . .
Hannity: So wouldn’t it be fair to say — to say, just on the elementary basis of fairness, honesty, and above all, of integrity— wouldn’t it be fair to say that President Trump was right? That he was right after all? About the swamp being drained?
Krauthammer: (Sighs) Yes. The president is right.
I invented that dialogue, because no one should be forced to read an actual transcript of Hannity, or of any of the countless interviewers who have adopted that style. One thing, however, is special to him, and it’s even worse than the ordeal-of-many-questions. It’s his addiction to the word “now.” On March 20 — a day chosen at random — I listened to the opening monologue on Hannity’s television show. It lasted about four minutes, when you subtract the news clips. During those four minutes he started nine sentences with now. If he were a mystic, I would say he was living in the eternal present. But he simply doesn’t know any better, and apparently no one will tell him. I call that dumb.
Now, contrary to popular belief, there are as many ways of being dumb as there are ways of being smart, and one of them is to assume that you’re so smart that nothing you do could possibly be dumb. My example today is Rachel Maddow, the leading or second-leading personality on MSNBC. I have heard friends say, “I don’t like her, but I have to admit she’s smart.” No, you don’t have to admit that. Please cite one intelligent thing she has ever said.
The problem with smirkers is that they actually believe in their own superiority, and it can be a dangerous thing to believe in something that doesn’t exist.
All right, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Why then does she have an audience? Well, as Bob Beckel has shown for the past million years, and Bill Moyers showed before him, and Gore Vidal showed even before him, it’s fairly easy to get an audience by turning bigotries into passwords. A password is not an argument or a fact; it’s just something insiders use to show they’re insiders. It may be nothing more than a gesture. In politicized news reporting, one of the most common passwords is a simple, even a silent indication that everyone who disagrees with you and the other kids in your club is a philistine, a yahoo, a hopeless illiterate, a fascist. You don’t need to know any facts; you don’t need to master any arguments; you certainly don’t need to read a book or research a field of history (although you can retail bogus history if you want to); you just need to say a few abusive words. Or flash an elitist smirk. Then other people who have nothing to offer but a bias and a smirk will see it, understand it, and feel honored to be members of your club — the club of the intellectuals.
Thus Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow, whose basic function is to read something, pause, smile in a superior way, and perhaps add “Really?” or “This is real; this is happening.” And that’s it; that’s the intellectual climax.
The problem with smirkers is that they actually believe in their own superiority, and it can be a dangerous thing to believe in something that doesn’t exist. That’s what Maddow should have discovered, but perhaps did not, when she managed to alienate large parts of her audience (which was only a small niche audience to begin with) by her flop with the Trump tax returns.
Hack news writers are smarter than Rachel Maddow, but not smart enough to understand that readers can see the propagandist behind the smirk.
As you recall, someone gave her a copy of two pages of President Trump’s federal tax returns for 2005. It showed him paying a respectable amount of tax, about twice as much, percentage-wise, as was paid by Bernard Sanders (scourge of the rich, friend of the working class). But instead of registering disappointment that she might, after all, have been wrong in assuming that Trump is a crook and a traitor and that’s why he won’t release his returns, Maddow decided simply to act as if some climactically horrible thing must be in those returns, even though it wasn’t. She advertised her timed release of the returns as if police were scheduled to appear at the end of the show and cart Trump off to jail. Even after the White House preempted her by releasing the disappointing information, her hype continued. Promising that she was just about to reveal her big discovery, she smirked her way through the first 20 minutes — 3,500 words — of her program, prattling about the damaging things that tax returns, of some kind, might possibly show, in some way.
It’s unfair to sample Maddow’s remarks; you need to read them for yourself in their entirety. But here is my favorite passage:
Couldn’t the tax returns sort this out for us?
If there are inexplicable dumps of foreign money into the president’s coffers that cannot be explained in normal business terms, that’s potentially a huge problem for somebody who’s serving as president of the United States, right? I mean, the interest in Trump’s tax returns is not a picayune thing. It’s not a partisan thing.
If people, if interests have inexplicably given him a lot of money in recent years, why did they do it? What do they want for that money now? Is the president in a position where we need to watch to make sure he is not paying off his past benefactors with our country’s resources, with U.S. policy, with decisions he can make as president? That’s part of why we need to see his tax returns.
And I raise this issue of this particular Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, I’ve been practicing, Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev? Rybolovlev.
Isn’t that cute? But is it smart? No, it is not. It’s the kind of dumb thing that dumb people do when they cannot conceive the possibility that they are not the smartest people in the world.
Hack news writers are smarter than Rachel Maddow, but not smart enough to understand that readers can see the propagandist behind the smirk. Evidence appears in the childish political attacks of which the “Top Stories” on Google News — News, mind you — increasingly consist. Here’s the array of headlines at 10:50 on the morning of March 16 (again, my choice was random):
Washington Post – 2 hours ago
If you're a poor person in America, President Trump's budget proposal is not for you. Trump has unveiled a budget that would slash or abolish programs that have provided low-income Americans with help on virtually all fronts, including affordable . . .
Related Donald Trump »President of the United States »United States Environmental Protection Agency »
Pelosi: Trump budget a 'slap in the face' - The Hill
Democrats rush to turn Trump's budget cuts against him - Politico
Highly Cited: Donald Trump Budget Slashes Funds for EPA and State Department - New York Times
Most Referenced: America First - The White House - The White House
Opinion: Trump's Ridiculously Skinny Budget - U.S. News & World Report
In Depth: Trump Budget Cuts to Scientific, Medical Research Will Have 'Devastating' Effect: Experts - NBCNews.com
Whoever writes and arranges these headlines thinks he is very smart, very smart indeed — putting out propaganda garbed as news and assuming that none of us in the hinterland will hitch up our jeans, scratch our noggins, and mutter to ourselves, “Gee golly, all this slashin’ an’ slappin’ an’ puttin’ po’ fo’ks down in the dirt an’ devastatin’ sci-unz an’ med’cine. . . . Guess them kids that write the nooz back in Noo York City really hate that Mr. Trump.” Which is what the normal, non-dialectical reader concludes, and seeks news elsewhere.
This kind of “news” isn’t even new. A little later on March 16, a picture turned up next to “Top Stories,” showing a woman in a Big Bird costume, parading “in support of public broadcasting.” She held a sign saying, “Keep your mitts off me!” — an apparent protest against Trump’s plan to cut support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which employs Big Bird (or the other way around, because Big Bird scratches up more than enough money to support himself independently of government handouts). Yet when I looked at the photo credit, I found that the picture was taken in 2012.
One mark of a dumb writer who thinks he’s smart is overkill. When people pile up redundant abuse, it’s often because they’re dumb enough to think that otherwise, their readers would be too dumb to get the point. Thus the Washington Post, in a Google Top Story from 6:35 p.m. on March 17:
Washington Post – 46 minutes ago
President Trump's unproven allegation that his predecessor wiretapped Trump Tower in New York ahead of the election blazed a new path of political disruption Friday as he dragged two foreign allies into his increasingly thin argument that he is right.
Emphasis added — I’m sure you wouldn’t have gotten the point unless I’d italicized those words. I love the image of world politics being disrupted by Trump’s claim that Obama’s spies listened in on him. Holy intelligence, Batman! But much quainter and more amusing is the image of yet another writer who believes that his attempts to manipulate the news will never be detected. It’s like a small child who imagines that he won’t be seen if he puts his hands over his eyes.
Lest anyone believe that this kind of smartiness exists only on the left, try this headline, from the rightwing Washington Times (March 21):
Obama tried to legalize migrant accused of murdering 15-year-old step-daughter
By a cunning feat of translation, “the policies of the Obama administration” becomes “Obama,” and “a numerous class of foreigners” becomes “migrant accused of murdering 15-year-old step-daughter.” I remain a vigorous foe of mass migration (pp. 26–32), but I wonder whether there is anyone childish enough to read that headline and believe that President Obama devoted his scheming time to protecting the alleged murderer of a young woman. Yet that is what the headline, in its childish stupidity, tries to suggest.
I’ve found CBS radio an unlimited source of such childishness, which happens, with them, to be consistently of the politically correct variety. On March 18, many hours after an attempted terror attack at Orly Airport in France, CBS radio was still identifying the culprit only as “a French citizen” whose motives were being investigated. In the news network’s peculiar dialect, “a French citizen” now means “an immigrant who proclaimed himself a religious terrorist” — because that’s what Ziyed Ben Belgacem, who shouted “I am here to die in the name of Allah,” actually was.
When people pile up redundant abuse, it’s often because they’re dumb enough to think that otherwise, their readers would be too dumb to get the point.
Here’s another example from CBS. After the first dismal day of the Gorsuch hearings, Charles (“Chuck”) Schumer, minority leader of the Senate, made another one of his attempts at coming up with a catchy phrase. He does this continually. This time, he said that Gorsuch had spent the day “playing dodgeball” with the senators’ questions. Of course, Gorsuch was just following the universal procedure of judges being examined by senators — refusing to state his position on specific issues that might come before him. But CBS was childish enough to take Schumer seriously. Its evening report on the Gorsuch hearings consisted of just one line: “Democrats are frustrated with Gorsuch, who dodged questions on divisive issues.” Divisive was pronounced “diviSSive,” as ignorant people always pronounce it when they’re trying to appear high-class.
Aren’t you glad that CBS News blandly assumed that its role is to sympathize with “Democrats” (i.e., Schumer) about Gorsuch “dodging” questions, without bothering you with information about the questions he “dodged”? What tickles me is the network’s altruistic horror of “divisive” issues — altruistic because CBS would have no politics to report if there were no divisions among us.
But of course it doesn’t report on much of anything. Like the other beings and entities I’ve noticed in this column, CBS is just doing what kids do. Children want to be doctors, so they play doctor. They want to be firemen, so they roll a plastic truck around the floor and try to scream like a siren. These other people want to be reporters and commentators and public figures, so they play “politics.” The difference is that real kids eventually grow up.
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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