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Stupid conservative tricks: metaphor madness, schizo Springsteen, specious Sowell

I don’t want to make it a habit, or at least not a major preoccupation, to ridicule stupid people. In fact, I’ve been telling myself that in 2009 I’ll concentrate on smart people. But then I ran across this ridiculous thing written by a guy named Rich Galen. The name didn’t ring any bells, but it seems that he’s somebody in the Republican party (he was press secretary to Newt Gingrich, for instance), and he’s on TV a lot. Last Monday he posted his “mullings” about “The Difference Between Running and Serving.” It’s a natural thing to be thinking about right now—what’s the follow-up to all those campaign promises going to be once Obama is the decider and the make-happener? In particular, Galen’s concerned with Obama’s promise to “close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions.” Galen points out that the ACLU “ran a full page ad in the New York Times to remind one and all of that promise” (this was two months ago, right after the election, not in the run-up to inauguration). At the same time, in a press release, they demanded that he ban torture and abuse (which, in Galen’s world, amounts to “foreswear[ing] anything stronger than reduced potty breaks in interrogations”). And, most ominously, they pledged to “hold [his] feet to the fire” to get their way. Coming from the fanatics at the ACLU, that’s not just a figure of speech.

In one sentence the ACLU’s demands that unsavory techniques be banned from questioning suspected terrorists. In another, the ACLU urges putting the feet of the President of the United States into a flame to force him—torture him, if necessary—to do what they want.

Interesting, huh!?

This came to my attention because of President-elect Obama’s interview with George Stephanopoulos yesterday. In one section, George asked about that pledge—the one the ACLU is willing to betray its core civil libertarian values to make him live up to—to close Guantánamo. [my emphasis]

So, if the ACLU turns up the heat—maybe they’ll target Obama with another searing ad in the New York Times, but there’s no telling what extremes they’ll go to—it’ll be (yet more) proof that the ACLU is a quivering mass of hypocrisy, perfectly comfortable with torture when it suits their purposes. Don’t worry about Obama, though. He’ll already have his nose to the grindstone (the way the shit’s gonna hit the fan, it might be a blessing in disguise). I doubt he’ll even notice the hot feet.

According to his biographical blurb, “Rich Galen has been described as ‘what you get when you cross a political hack with a philosopher.’” I don’t know about philosopher, but he’s a hack, for sure. A hack with a self-deprecating sense of humor—the piece I just quoted starts with a personal anecdote that’s amusing enough. But if that nonsense about feet to the fire is meant as a joke I can’t find the wink.

I’m stumped as to why Galen would make such an inane claim. I don’t actually believe that the explanation is that he’s stupid, though he may think that his readers are. His editorials also run on, and the general feeling in the comment thread there is that it’s not possible to overstate the perfidy and ignorance of the ACLU. Within that worldview, one commenter manages to turn Galen’s point into something that sounds vaguely rational:

“Feet to the fire” is obviously a figure of speech but its not an idle threat when it comes to the lengths the ACLU will be willing to go to get what they want.

Right after the election I listed a few of the wacky paranoid theories that were circulating in what what Michael Bérubé recently dubbed (“politely”) the “low-information conservative constituency.” Here’s one I hadn’t seen before, from Galen’s comment thread. Scotch Indian “would not be shocked to see [Obama] pass an amendment so he can run for more than two terms.” Not so fast, replies wbheff—“he might not even bother to ‘pass an amendment’.”

Barack Hussein Obama, President for Life. Those folks have really got his number. Once he’s sworn in on Lincoln’s Koran, just hours from now, all bets are off.

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Some of my favorite bloggers have found a new font of conservative self-parody—Big Hollywood. I might as well bandwagon along for a minute. There’s a choice post over there written by Evan Sayet, “simply the best political comedian working in America today,” according to FrontPage entertainment critic David Horowitz. Sayet doesn’t waste any humor on his “unified field theory” of a comic-book menace called “Modern Liberalism,” though. He’s not just a stand-up guy, he’s a Thinker, and he starts his think-piece on Bruce Springsteen with some intellectual heavy hitters.

The “culture war” that we hear so much about is, to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase, a “conflict of visions.” Visions, Sowell explains, go deeper than mere policy—in fact they are the font of where we stand on the issues—and they are founded on some of the most basic and fundamental beliefs the individual holds about the nature of man and, in turn, the role and purpose of government, family, religion and all other influential forces that society has evolved. Sowell called the conflicting visions the “Constrained” and the “Unconstrained” and offered Jean Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith as primary examples of the visions in conflict. More contemporary examples are John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen, the former holding the “unconstrained” vision (which I call here the Neo-Liberal view), the latter the “constrained,” or, in my term, Conservative take. Just to be clear, yes, I’m saying that, while Springsteen the multimillionaire, rock star with the mansion in Beverly Hills may be a Liberal, Bruce Springsteen the poet is one-hundred percent Republican.

Sowell recognizes that, at its most basic level, this conflict of visions revolves around what one believes to be man’s innate nature. Is it, as the Neo-Liberal believes, that man is born good and then corrupted by the institutions of society or, do the Conservatives have it right and man is born with a dual and conflicting nature—capable of good and evil and everything in between—requiring cultural forces to help him tamp down the darker side and cultivate the good within?

I think it’s safe to say that Sayet is a Springsteen fan, though he never says so outright. He admires Springsteen’s lyrics for what looks to him like a conservative vision of humanity, but that vision seems to be at odds with Springsteen’s “Neo-Liberal” politics. So far so good—some very fine criticism has started with that sort of realization. But the disconnect could be Springsteen’s doing, or it could be a sign that Sayet hasn’t got the “Modern Liberal” thing as totally figured out as he thinks. Is his one-dimensional test really such a foolproof way to sort the “Conservatives” from the “Neo-Liberals”? Is Springsteen’s all-American working-class liberal mindset really captured by a second-hand cliché from 18th-century France? Those are two obvious questions he might have asked, and I’d say the answers are no and no. But if Sayet knows anything, he knows right from wrong. The only way to solve the puzzle is to split Springsteen down the middle. His right half—the one with all the poetic vision—is one-hundred percent Republican. His left side—the Beverly Hills liberal poser—is clueless about what the other half is doing. That’s not the same as a half-and-half blend of “Conservative” and “Neo-Liberal.” That would be like a cross between an elephant and a donkey, and what could come out of such an encounter but a bloody mess?

Maybe Sayet meticulously questioned all his assumptions before he settled on his Dr-Jekyll-and-Mr-Hyde theory of the Boss. I doubt it, though. There are no signs in the article of a reflective, self-critical mind at work. He spends most of the piece cherry-picking the conservative message from songs like “Thunder Road” and “Long Walk Home.” The lyrics never stood a chance. Sayet’s interpretive efforts got the full treatment from performance critic Scott Eric Kaufman. As usual, the show is entertaining and educational.

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Speaking of Thomas Sowell and cherry picking, I noticed when I was on that, like Galen, Sowell is a regular columnist there. Now I can see why he appeals to Evan Sayet. The piece of Sowell’s that caught my eye is titled “‘Intellectuals’”. As you can probably guess from the scare quotes, the word is used scornfully throughout. You might think that’s an odd thing for Sowell to do—with a PhD in Economics from Chicago, a raft of books authored, and a high-profile position at a major think tank, what is Sowell if not an intellectual? But in this little piece of mindless pandering he earns his share of the scorn that he pours indiscriminately on his class. I guess that counts as practicing what he preaches.

“‘Intellectuals’” is a reaction to a New York Times column—Nicholas Kristoff wondering if Obama’s success is a “step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life.” Sowell found it “hard to know whether to laugh or cry” about what he seems to have read as a rose-colored paean to intellectuals and intellectualism in politics (that’s not what it is, but never mind). To put Kristoff in his place, Sowell leans unimaginatively on the old trope about how superior common sense is to book learnin’. I think what he has in mind, really, is left-wing book learnin’. He jumps from a few specific cases of leftist intellectuals getting things hopelessly wrong—they’re not hard to find—to this gross generalization:

It would be no feat to fill a big book with all the things on which intellectuals were grossly mistaken, just in the 20th century—far more so than ordinary people.

RIght after that passage he paraphrases William F. Buckley’s far more incisive way of making more or less the same point—Buckley famously said that he’d rather be governed by some regular folks from the Boston phone book (“the first two thousand names,” according to Wikiquote) than by the Harvard faculty. I wouldn’t want to be governed by the Harvard faculty either, so I guess Buckley had a point. Whether those “regular” folks who have gone through life getting called first for everything would be better, I’m not sure. The choice that Buckley offers doesn’t bear close examination, but the message is clear and memorable, and that counts for a lot. On the other hand, Sowell’s book (The Complete Idiot’s Feel-Good Guide to Dangerously Misguided Intellectuals and the Ordinary People Who Could Have Set Them Straight) could be written and written and written again. Playing a game of mix-and-match with “intellectuals,” “ordinary people” (whoever they are), and “things,” you could tell just about any story you wanted to. (Back in September, Roger Kimball explained Buckley’s zinger in multisyllabic and historic detail and then patted himself on the back for his slavish devotion to the caricature and his Buckleyesque enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, the “cruise missile aimed from Middle America” at the intelligentsia. Roger Kimball, there’s Buckley’s true heir. Screw the low-life son.)

Just for fun, let’s look at how intellectuals and ordinary people have scored on some recent controversial things. I’ll starting with Barack Obama. We don’t actually know how things will turn out with him, so I can’t score anyone. What I can say is that it will be hard to score. Some ordinary people seem to think he can walk on water. Others figure he’ll trample the constitution and make it impossible to buy an American flag. I checked in with some of that latter group earlier in this post, by way of a comment thread. They are much more likely Sowell readers than the Obama enthusiasts, and in “‘Intellectuals’,” Sowell effectively blesses their petty anti-intellectual prejudice. It’s not the most contemptible performance like that I’ve seen, but it’s nothing to brag about.

How about the global financial meltdown? I think that’s still pretty fresh in everyone’s memory. It seems to have caught most of the experts with their pants down. Are experts the same as intellectuals? Some of them must be, and almost all “experts” are “intellectuals.” As to ordinary people, thank goodness they knew enough to avoid dodgy mortgages they couldn’t afford or a whole lot of them would be up shit creek now without paddles (but with lots of intellectuals, and in a pinch, you know… it just might work). And not so long ago, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was another thing. Some of the neocons around Rumsfeld, guys like Wolfowitz, had intellectual pretensions and advanced degrees, and true to form, they had it figured woefully, criminally wrong. Now the liberal intelligentsia kept saying “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”, but like they say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. As for ordinary people…
Clash of Ideas
(photo: Shawn Duffy)

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It so happens that Tenured Radical just put up something about Obama and “The Return of Educated People.” so there’s another favorite blogger to add to the mix. She even included a YouTube clip of Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land.” Unfortunately “the video has been removed by the user.” I found another clip of the same performances.

You know that it’s only a matter of time before we’re all singing “Kum bah yah” like pod people. Maybe the least we can do for the other side is to chip in for liquor and anti-depressants.


{ 2 } Comments

  1. wayne fontes | January 21, 2009 at 22:46 | Permalink

    Right after the election I listed a few of the wacky paranoid theories that were circulating in what what Michael Berube recently dubbed (“politely”) the “low-information conservative constituency.” Here’s one I hadn’t seen before, from Galen’s comment thread. Scotch Indian “would not be shocked to see [Obama] pass an amendment so he can run for more than two terms.” Not so fast, replies wbheff—“he might not even bother to ‘pass an amendment’.”

    Barack Hussein Obama, President for Life. Those folks have really got his number. Once he’s sworn in on Lincoln’s Koran, just hours from now, all bets are off.

    Robert, the Bush is going to declare martial law conspiracy theory has been in circulation on liberal sites for over a year. Pandagon, where Berube used to post to high information liberal voters indulged in more than a bit of it.

    (Back in September, Roger Kimball explained Buckley’s zinger in multisyllabic and historic detail and then patted himself on the back for his slavish devotion to the caricature and his Buckleyesque enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, that “cruise missile aimed from Middle America” at the intelligentsia. There’s your true heir—screw the low-life son.)

    Do you really think Buckley would have embraced Palin? I think he would have been horrified by her. I’m wondering what segment of the population you’ve identified that thinks Palin is the heir to Buckley? Post a link, I need to read that stuff.

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    No, this is just a case of me really needing an editor. I meant that Roger Kimball is the heir, not Palin. I think that you (and Christopher Buckley) are right—William F. would have been horrified. Kimball, on the other hand, “like[s] to think that Boston phone book—or maybe it’s the Juneau phone book—is finally getting some of its own back. Bill Buckley would be pleased.” Coming from the supercilious dude in the bow tie, that’s pretty funny.

    And yes, I know that there are wingnuts on the left as well as on the right.

    (The link on “going to declare martial law” didn’t point to anything, by the way. I imagine the one for Pandagon covers it well enough. Bérubé’s most recent post alludes to this rumor and includes this link to RedState.)

  2. RDuBose | January 24, 2009 at 15:29 | Permalink

    For a long time I have been comfortable with the idea that 97% of commentary from the left or right is complete and utter bs. It is just the way the world is. If your goal with this blog is to take pot shots at public stupidity you will never run out of plump, slow moving targets, imho.

    Can you grasp why this state of affairs might lead one to be somewhat “conservative” in ones worldview? I mean if most peoples ideas are stupid and wrong this suggests that most “new” ideas are stupid and wrong as well regardless of the pedigree of their source. If one starts with the assumption that real reality is slippery and evasive and often hidden deliberately behind thick layers of manufactured nonsense one would try hard to study a lot history to get a surer sense of what seems to have worked in the past and what human nature has revealed about itself by its actions rather that its recent narratives. And I do get how hard it can be to separate one from the other.

    Of course this is not easy. I am not personally sure of many answers right now. But I am, absolutely sure that to make this a better world we must keep at the struggle to see the truth underlying the bs and never coast along with “facts” like “DNA exoneration does not matter if you are the wrong race” approach which was perfectly acted out by so many at Duke/Durham NC.