Our candidates, ourselves | Bleader

Our candidates, ourselves

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  • J Skilling
Yesterday on Big Think, Dominic Basulto wondered what’s made the contestants in the Republican primary race so stupid. Specifically: is Google to blame? Basulto refers back to Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic story on the same question, though Carr was concerned with the population at large: when computers “mediate” our understanding of the world, he wondered, are our brains any good without them? Do we really need to retain anything when whatever information we need is an Internet search away, and will we grow accustomed to not retaining it? With regard to the presidential candidates, Basulto seems to be alone in pondering this particular question, which he answers a few paragraphs later in the negative—no, he writes, “Google is not making our candidates stupid.” Instead, it’s heightening our expectations of them. We can be, in our own way, omniscient. That the candidates are not themselves omniscient, at certain crucial moments, means that they can only disappoint.

Of course, that’s not a very satisfying answer. The problem with the Republicans in question isn’t their lack of instant-recall ability. Rick Perry’s what’s-the-third-thing gaffe aside, the problem is their disdain for learning much beyond what they already know. (This is nothing new: see exhibit George W. Bush.) Take Herman Cain’s “U-beki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” moment: he muddled the name to point out that he can’t be bothered to give a shit who Uzbekistan’s president is.

But the developing high/low intellectual divide in the Republican race is at least fun to watch. Newt Gingrich’s recent success is either due to the fact that other viable candidates’ campaigns have imploded in hilariously spectacular fashion, or it’s because Gingrich has found some purchase in presenting himself as the ideas guy—the professorial type who will not hesitate to vanquish an opponent with a belittling glare. (There’s even a slideshow!)

The panache with which Gingrich has embraced his identity as the race’s premier intellectual reminds me of Ann Coulter’s copious use of footnotes in her books. Both carry assumptions, quite overtly collegiate for a political crowd that prides itself on its anti-intellectual elitism, that an intellectual veneer necessarily means that there’s something valuable underneath it. It’s style over substance: Coulter’s footnotes don’t change the fact that she’s a lunatic, no more than Gingrich’s haughtiness is pretty irrelevant to what his actual policy positions are. Still, he's nothing if not vigorous about it: in a Slate article John Dickerson quotes him, calling the debt supercommittee “the single dumbest legislative idea" he’s heard and the delay in building a border fence “utterly stupid.”

Vis-à-vis the question of smarts, Gingrich is pretty low-hanging fruit, plucked in a delightfully bitchy 1995 essay by Joan Didion, in which the author evaluates some of Gingrich's intellectual influences:

This was not a mind that could be productively engaged on its own terms. There was the casual relationship to accuracy, the spellings and names and ideas seized, in the irresistible momentum of Mr. Gingrich’s outlining, in mid-flight. In Window of Opportunity and in the lectures, Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity became The Age of Discontinuities. Garry Wills’s Inventing America became “Gary Will’s Discovering America,” Gordon Wood became Gordon Woods. To Renew America shows evidence of professional copy editing, but it also defines what it calls “situational ethics” and “deconstructionism” as interchangeable terms for “the belief that there are no general rules of behavior.” Alexis de Tocqueville is seen as a kind of visiting booster, whose privilege it was to “inform the world that ‘Democracy in America’ worked,” and also, even more peculiarly, as an exemplar of American culture: “From the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims, through de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, up to the Norman Rockwell paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, there was a clear sense of what it meant to be an American.”

She tackles both his political writing and his speculative fiction, which she finds sort of weave into one another: in his political manifesto To Renew America, for instance, Gingrich envisions a utopian future in which one can wake in front of a wall-size TV image of Maui (“This is my favorite island—you can pick your own scene”), strap into a “diagnostic chair” for health checkups, and so forth:

We hear in this the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square: to know that large numbers of Americans are concerned about getting adequate medical care is one thing; to give them the willies by talking about their “health chairs” is altogether another. There is about these dismal reductions something disarming and poignant, a solitary neediness, a dogged determination to shine in public that leads Mr. Gingrich to reveal to us, again and again, what his own interests dictate that we should not see.

If anything, it seems Gingrich has become more garrulous as time's gone on. "[W]hat's the broad audience for a constant diet of stupid this and stupid that?" John Dickerson wonders in his recent article, in which he compares Mitt Romney ("weak broth") to Gingrich ("a boullion cube"). "Political analysts talk about the living room test: Do you want this candidate in your living room every night? Gingrich might be a little hard to take over the TV dinner for four to eight years." All the same, the glut of presidential debates may be fatiguing for the candidates, but it's nonstop entertainment for observers. Is it time for another yet?

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