Sunday, October 22, 2006

... But How Unfair Is It?

Listening to George Bush recently, it's interesting to hear how six years of experience have made him a much better public speaker. I'm still not buying the sales pitch, reminiscent of a famous SNL skit about Reagan, that he's somehow astonishingly brilliant and articulate in person but somehow loses his magic whenever he's in the presence of an electronic recording device. But there may be reasons why that might appear to be the case.

Over at Fragmenta Philosphica, Paul Craddick recently related an insult issued by Christopher Hitchens to Bill Maher's "Real Time" audience for laughing at jokes about Bush's intelligence. The insult, more or less, was "If you laugh at jokes about Bush being stupid, you're stupid." As I've noted in the past, and this hasn't changed, I'm still waiting to be impressed by Hitchens. Unless I'm supposed to find it sufficient that he comes up with witty insults and uses them to avoid substantive debate - he's good at that.
You know what I think? - this is now the joke that stupid people laugh at. It's the joke that any dumb person can laugh at because they think that they ... can prove they're smarter than the president (like the people that make booing and mooing noises in your audience ... none of whom are smarter than the president).
But how fair is his comment? I think jokes over Bush's intelligence are tired and overdone, but what about jokes about what Bush is saying? Jon Stewart's jokes on the Daily Show tend not to be "Bush is stupid" as such, but tend to be a reductio ad absurdem where he plays a Bush quote and adds a few extra lines to highlight the problems with a position Bush has taken. Sure, the jokes depict Bush as stupid, but primarily as a consequence of his making public pronouncements that are absurd and very much deserving of ridicule.

Here's a slightly different spin on it - Bush talks down to the American public, spinning carefully scripted and packaged positions which are designed to advance his agenda while satisfying the largest possible number of likely Republican voters. If you accept that he believes what he is saying, some of those positions can make him seem stupid. This can even help explain some of the "he's wonderfully articulate in private" contradictions. In a private, off-the-record moment he is freed from his script and can actually address the facts and issues as opposed to hiding behind insipid sound bites. (Surely he does have a better plan for Iraq than "adapt to win", even if that's all he seems to say when asked about the situation in public.)

When you choose a "man of the people, blue collar, weekend cowboy, guy you want to have a beer with after work" image, you're fashioning a persona that will come across as less erudite than that of, well, the sort of guy who might make a documentary about global warming. And if you choose to take public positions on issues which are at significant odds with the facts and with science, even if you're smart enough to know better than to believe yourself, you bear significant responsibility for how that makes you look in the eyes of others. As politically brilliant as it may have been for him to adopt a public persona that can appear credible to a majority of Americans even as he openly rejects logic, fact and science, those positions make him an appropriate target for criticism - and for jokes.

If it's just play-acting then yes, it's not proof of itself that the people who think they are smarter than Bush are in fact smarter, and I would venture that Hitchens is correct that many are not (although "all" is an overstatement). It's a bit like thinking you're smarter than Michael Richards because your knowledge of him is limited to his Seinfeld character, Kramer. Perhaps Hitchens should try a different tack - rather than once again insulting people who disagree with him, perhaps he should instead attempt to convince Bush to break from from character. (The problem with that? Once the public knows you're intelligent, you can't go back.)

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