Jerry Kurelic* and Randall G. Shelden
Every so often something comes along that just smacks you in the face. It’s usually something you kind of know, but it hasn’t quite achieved full consciousness. One of those things for us was Ron Suskind’s October 17th piece for the New York Times entitled “Without a Doubt.”
The focus of Suskind’s, article was the emergence of Bush’s “faith-based presidency” in which he detailed at some length how “the president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers” and how “Bush's intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased (since 9-11), and few dare to question him now.” He described a presidency that features “a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism (and) a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.”
These and the comments from a former Republican official and advisor from both the Reagan and Bush I administrations, who was interviewed by Suskind, did not surprise us. “He (Bush, Jr.) dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis.”
We pretty much knew all of that. What we should by now have understood to our cores, but have apparently not, were the stunning words to Suskind in 2002 from a longtime senior media adviser to Bush.
“You think he's an idiot, don't you?" I said, no, I didn't. "No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!" In this instance, the final "you," of course, meant the entire reality-based (as opposed to the faith-based) community.
Translated: They like his cocksureness, they like his averageness, they like his faith and they don’t like intellectuals with their precious critical thinking. George Bernard Shaw’s admonition that "the ignorant are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt" notwithstanding, we, as a country, like cocksure. There is a committed mass in America who like and trust the absolute certainty of religion and dislike and distrust the tentativeness and the designed-in change of science. All so-called truths in science are tentative—accepted until something better comes along. This is the strength of science, but it is also what makes it unattractive to the insecure ape in us.
One can see this cocksureness thing all throughout the conservative spectrum. Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura and President Bush, to sample that spectrum, seem to have learned long ago that self-confidence, a known aphrodisiac, is an indispensable ingredient for success. It is more important to be confident than to be right, and as a result one must never back off even an inch; one must never waver even in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence. Consistent with this belief are the words of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson in a recent CNN interview as he described Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq as "the most self-assured man I've ever met in my life."
We do not understand this. Ignorance and cocksureness should be mutually exclusive. This is our worldview. The Germans have a word, Weltanschauung, for the overarching philosophy of life called worldview. Every language should have a word for it because it is that important. Once one’s worldview is formed it is nearly impenetrable. Your worldview simplifies your life, but it is also the greatest barrier to your understanding of that life. It acts as a living filter—things that are incompatible with one’s worldview simply never reach one’s consciousness. Facts don’t matter if they conflict with this worldview. All the evidence that undermines the reasons for the Iraq invasion and all the evidence telling us that the economic system is screwing the average American don’t matter.
Our worldview says that evidence is important. It says that critical thinking is just that, critical. It rejoices in the scientific method that is critical thinking’s alter ego. It says that unfounded faith in anything is both unacceptable and often dangerous. It respects intellectuals, the embodiment of critical thinking. It respects skepticism and intellectual doubt. However, there is another worldview out there that feels that evidence and critical thinking are overrated, and that nothing can beat good old “common sense,” which, of course, everyone believes he has. That, and faith, of course. It is a worldview that says that the universe had to start somehow and the simplest answer is that God created it. This worldview believes it has found the right god out there among the 2,500 different ones we’ve invented, and following the written word of that particular God trumps all else. It believes this because it is unacceptably horrible to not believe it, and it makes their lives work. It detests intellectuals as pointy-headed and devoid of common sense. These are people who had common sense before they were educated, but their education robbed them of it. They detest intellectuals because we have evolved to like ourselves and people who are just like us, and the majority of Americans are not intellectuals. The media and our education system have made certain of that.
Combine all this with what one writer phrased as the administration “belief that the president's conservative supporters will always be angrier and more energized than his opponents” and you have a recipe for the disaster that America will become with a second term.
Anti-intellectualism in America is nothing new. In our lifetimes it has surfaced again and again. Many believe that Adlai Stevenson lost the presidential elections in 1952 and 1956 because he was too much of an “egghead.” It was Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of anti-intellectualism, who famously said during his tenure as California governor that "The state of California has no business subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” And we loved him for his down-home plainness. It took Richard Hofstadter to officially memorialize it with his 1963 Pulitzer Prize winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And if Reagan was its patron saint, Bush can only be described as his second coming.
A microcosm of this anti-intellectualism is Bush’s speech patterns. A seeming trivial digression into an analysis of Bush’s pronunciation of the word “nuclear” might help underscore our point. We see four possibilities for Bush’s continued “nukular” mispronunciation:
Number one is unlikely even with the administration’s atmosphere of intolerance to criticism. We are not qualified to speculate on number four, which might include the physical effects of long-time drug and alcohol abuse, early onset of Alzheimers or maybe even some long-delayed or latent learning disability. So we’ll concentrate on numbers two and three.
As far as admitting mistakes, we know how difficult this is for Bush. He has been asked publicly at least twice to list any mistakes he has made as president. In neither case has he been able to come up with a single example. It is a hallmark of the deeply religious or the Machiavellian to be unable to admit to error. Easy examples are the “infallibility” of the Pope and the inerrancy of the Bible.
Author and linguist George Lakoff believes it is a conscious effort on Bush’s part not only with his mispronunciations, but his other gaffes. As James Fallows wrote in Atlantic “George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change (from articulation in his early career to bumbler today) is intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne.” One e-mailer we came across the other day summed it up succinctly. “Bush ain’t got no time for book learnin’ like you pinko commies! You probably learned pronouncin’ at some fancy leftist university.” There is a lesson to be learned here. It is more important to be liked than to be right or smart, and the best way to be liked is to be as close to a mirror image of the person you’re trying to influence as you can.
Michael Moore has learned the lesson of appealing to the masses with his dress and his reminders that he has but a high school diploma. Either Kerry is learning that lesson or he had an irresistible urge to go hunting in Ohio last week. Showing others as many times as we possibly can how stupid Bush is does not sway worldviews because we are telling them that they are stupid. One of us recently sent an e-mail response to a Bush supporter, calling him, among other things, the dumbest president in our lifetime, plus a couple of recent articles critical of Bush. The response from the Bush supporter was, “F – U.”
Our particular worldview says that Bush’s “malaprops,” gaffes and horrendous miscalculations will hurt him. Our worldview celebrated Kerry’s performance in the debates. Our worldview says that it is illogical to believe the man who got us into Iraq with numerous deceptions and miscalculations, and has now made a total mess of it after we got in, is the man less suited to protect us. But it is not the worldview of the Bush supporters, and their worldview cannot be changed. “Even if he stumbles and messes up -- and he's had his share of stumbles and gaffes -- I just think God's blessing is on him," chirped Pat Robertson.
All those who can be convinced have been convinced.
We were encouraged when we heard recently that there was an unprecedented registration movement going on all around the country. That had to be good news for Kerry, we reasoned. People don’t become first-time voters to re-elect an incumbent. Our euphoria was short-lived, however, when we learned that there were four million evangelicals who did not vote in 2000, and there has been a vigorous campaign to get them to register and vote.
At this late date there are only a few things we can do. One is not to try to convince the inconvincible, to penetrate the impenetrable. For the next few days we must be “angrier and more energized than (our) opponents.” We can make sure we vote and get every other critical thinker we know to vote, and we must convince supporters of Nader that even though he is more correct than Kerry, that among other things
1. The Supreme Court nominations (the likelihood that the next four years will witness one to three vacancies on the Court—Chief JusticeRehnquist is 80, Justice Stevens is 84, Justice O’Connor is 74 and Justice Ginsburg is 71),
2. Stem cell research (which the Catholic Church opposes, and along with abortion, has many bishops telling their flocks to vote for Bush) and,
3. Our reentering the world community
are too critical for them to help get Bush elected as they did in 2000.
* Jerry Kurelic is a free-lance writer living in Las Vegas. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.