Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2004 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
You take nuclear, I'll take nucular
As superficial people everywhere likely noted this campaign season, both nuclear weapons and nucular weapons were discussed. Even though the latter pronunciation (not exclusive to George W. Bush) is often dialectical, the public likes to lump the president's articulation of this word in with his occasional pronunciation gaffes, which are taken as a sign of diminutive intelligence.
I am finding it difficult to become used to speaking in public. I grope for my words and I pay too much attention to my ideas. All about me I see people who reason badly and who speak well.
Alexis De Tocqueville, "Democracy in America"
Lending her voice to this chorus, Senator Hillary Clinton recently described George W. Bush as not being "intellectually curious." Not long before that, another parrot, author Jonathan Safran Foer, opened an evening of literary readings in New York, called "Where's My Democracy?" with the following: "It's a universally accepted fact that Democrats are smarter than Republicans," according to Publishers Weekly Daily for Booksellers.
To resounding applause by 1,000 attendees who came to help raise money for Downtown for Democracy, the 26 year-old author of the convoluted bestselling novel Everything Is Illuminated went on to assert that "Democrats consistently score higher on standardized tests and almost never mispronounce the word nuclear." Foer eventually called on the crowd to work against the potential re-election of George W. Bush.
To be sure, Foer's assessment isn't entirely wrong. An Edison Media Research exit poll on California's recent recall election showed that people with advanced degrees do tend to vote Democratic just as high school dropouts do. This is why we have the term "overeducated." Brilliance and stupidity have a converging point. It's the Law of Diminishing Returns.
Many say that what's important to them in a president is a person who expresses himself smoothly and always has an answer. Amazingly, they even readily admit they believe that how he says something is more important than what he says, even when he's not saying anything at all. Those with little understanding of the issues come up with "Bushisms" in order to elevate their self-esteem, finding what they can to laugh at in those who do understand. The thinking goes: "He mispronounced a word. I can pronounce that word. I must be smarter. I should be president."
It was fascinating to observe, not long after 9/11, how the intellectuals groped for a way to explain what seemed even to them to be Bush's effective leadership skills. Desperate attempts like Slate's Jacob Weisberg's "Simple Gifts: How Bush's Shallowness Makes Him a Good War President" graced the print and electronic presses:
"Bush continues to exhibit the same lack of curiosity, thoughtfulness, and engagement with ideas that made him a C student. Nuance, complexity, subtlety, and contradiction are not part of the mental universe he inhabits….In wartime, certain qualities sometimes associated with high intelligence fascination with detail, a tendency to self-reliance, an awareness of ambiguity become greater obstacles to effective leadership. And the contrary qualities often associated with mediocre intelligence oversimplification, an eagerness to delegate authority, moral certainty can be pronounced advantages."
Men probably shouldn't use words like fascination with detail, mental universe, awareness of ambiguity, engagement with ideas, nuance and subtlety. Besides, just because men like Bush, Reagan and Eisenhower don't or didn't express themselves like the girlie-men of the literary world doesn't mean they're less intelligent. But apparently, analytical ability and strategy don't figure into the intelligence equation and simplification means oversimplification.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "intelligent" as "the ability to cope with new problems and to use the power of reasoning and inference effectively." The source describes "intellectual" as having the "capacity to grasp difficult or abstract concepts." Proving that one can be intellectual without being intelligent.
When an intellectual leader (or intellectual-wannabe leader in Bill Clinton's case) utilizes moral complexity, it leaves Osama bin Laden alive throughout all windows of opportunity to finish him. In contrast, "simpler" leaders are able to apply moral complexity when it's needed. Lest we forget mid-2001, when George W. Bush devoted a full week almost exclusively to finding the right answer to the heated stem cell controversy. Whereas a Democratic leader like John Kerry would give a simple answer by day's end (and the politically more expedient answer at that) and a different kind of conservative president just as simply might offer an opposite resolution Bush delved into this complicated science-versus-morality issue more deeply than most people would have the intellectual stamina to go, exhausting all the configurations to find the right compromise. He exhibited patience, attention to detail, as well as awareness of ambiguity, nuance, complexity, subtlety and contradiction.
Critics of Bush's handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict accuse the administration of not having "a very deep understanding of the region," and accuse it of disengaging (code for not being pro-Palestinian), while praising the efforts there of the previous administration, which understood the conflict straight into Intifada 2 and World War IV.
A populace is better served by leaders whose vision is not clouded by brilliance, or else one gets "intelligent" leaders like Jimmy Carter, Jean Cretien and Bill Clinton, the last of whom has been credited with having a "complexity" that allows him to explain an issue from 12 different sides. But isn't it more useful to simply understand an issue thereby enabling oneself to pick the best of those 12 sides? In a long-running TV commercial for home delivery of the New York Times, the father of the house explains why he likes the paper: "It's the way they surround a story, giving you so many different ways to understand it." In other words, making sure that ultimately you understand nothing. That's why New York Times readers are more confused than New York Post readers, though they're probably more educated.
The non-intelligentsia intelligent understand that the world isn't as complicated as it is simple. And one must be intelligent to be able to simplify a complicated world when necessary. That's why "simple" Republicans are able to function in the real world while brilliant Democrats do better in the literary world or institutionalized in academia.
When action is called for, simplification trumps intellectualization. The latter has its place, and it's not in the White House. After all, those who would see America humbled have far less fear of eloquent Democrats than they do of stammering Republicans.
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JWR contributor Julia Gorin tours with Right Stuff Comedy and performs in the monthly New York-based show Republican Riot. Send your comments by clicking here.
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