By Elizabeth R. Albertson
March 8, 2000
"... W. is not a mere idiot,
though we like to cast him that way.
He is also mean, greedy, corrupt,
dishonest, and petulant.
He wears the stupidity,
and the offensive charm,
to hide these other traits."
I admit it: sometimes it pleases me to consider my adversaries stupid. It's easy enough, in some ways, because many conservatives gamely contribute evidence of their stupidity. One need only look at the hate mail that comes in to liberal websites, the ridiculous things Rush Limbaugh says, or the fact that the Resident, as Michael Douglas said in The American President, "couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight." Furthermore, there is the maxim that one should never ascribe to malice that which mere stupidity can explain.
That's the thing, though; stupidity cannot explain certain things. For example, if the mainstream media were merely stupid, they would bungle in an egalitarian way. They would relentlessly hound the donors to both parties. They would conflate marital fidelity with fitness to serve in cases aside from Bill Clinton, and report the marital infidelities of Republicans before Larry Flynt forced their hands. They would gleefully mock Republican and Democrat alike for perceived personality quirks, and hold members of both parties to the same standards of honesty, fairness, and responsibility. Therefore, the media, either by carelessness, corporate dictum, or personal bias, have gone beyond mere stupidity in their reporting blunders, and progressed, at the very least, to sheep-like following of the Republican agenda. Somehow, the GOP has snagged the bellwether media sheep (perhaps, I shudder to think it, FOX) and leads the rest of the flock around thus.
One of the most ironic excuses the media makes for its behavior has been intelligence itself. Gore was blasted for mistakenly saying he had traveled with a certain man from FEMA on a trip when he had really traveled with that man's assistant. This was a "lie" because Gore was "intelligent", and therefore was not allowed to make a single insubstantial error. Bush, on the other hand, is never held to a single thing he says, even when he does dip his toes into the waters of specificity, because everyone knows he's as dumb as a box of rocks. He inspires praise simply by trying, as do athletes at the Special Olympics. I hesitate to even make that comparison, because I have far more respect for them than I do G.W.; they've actually worked hard to overcome obstacles. As a person with a disability myself, it is not my intention to mock their efforts. But no one expects these athletes to compete in the Olympics; it would be cruelty to do so. It is similarly unfair to expect Bush to participate in government at such high levels, and if he hadn't brought it on himself, one could almost feel sorry for him.
It seems that it has become taboo to dare suggest that a chief executive officer of a country might require more brain cells than seem to survive in a previously-mediocre mind after a (we suspect) decades-long cocaine binge. In a fit of anti-intellectual pique, the media ignores or denies the possibility that an educated person might benefit the country by their intellect and knowledge. Meanwhile any attempt to question Bush's intelligence is brushed aside, with comments to the effect that the American people don't care about things like that, they care about policy.
Aye, but there's the rub. A president must be able comprehend policy, to project possible consequences, to understand the underlying philosophical, practical, and moral issues. Public servants need not be able to read Greek, solve differential equations, or even program a VCR. (Of which three I can do only the last, and it seems to be a youth-linked trait.) But it is a prerequisite of the job that public servants be able to follow what they and their colleagues are doing. As their influence expands to encompass a nation and its interests, this ability becomes more and more crucial. Bush has demonstrated his ignorance repeatedly, notably in seeming to misunderstand his own executive order restricting the free speech of family planning services that accept American money. In this, he fails the first test of a leader, which is whether he knows what he is doing, (which is different from him knowing what he's doing, if you catch the distinction). This basic failure to comprehend makes his unfamiliarity with and lack of interest in topics such as history, sociology, ethics, and economics, pale by comparison.
But I have had a chilling thought: stupidity is a highly effective mask.
It doesn't matter that Bush is actually stupid if he plays stupid. He, or those close to him, may have realized long before I did that playing dumb is a highly effective strategy. During the months I ranted about how he was a moron, dismissed him because he couldn't really get elected, (well, he didn't, but he shouldn't have even come close enough to steal it), they were playing the cards they had, to devastating effect. They realized, long before I did, the extent of the voters' gullibility and the pervasiveness of the anti-intellectual sentiment in this country. They realized that vague platitudes would soothe many people, that generalities are inclusive while specifics are divisive. If he gave no concrete details, how could one effectively assail (or even know to object to) his lofty-sounding ideals? And he could get away with it, because everyone knew it was really too much to ask him to know his own ideas off the top of his head. When W. spoke of the "soft bigotry of low expectations," who could have guessed that the low expectations of him would get him to the White House?
It seems I was not cynical enough. And that is saying something, because adults started telling me I was too cynical in grade school, when I spoke truths they were uncomfortable hearing from a child's mouth. It probably had something to do with waking up to the Iran-Contra scandal on NPR every morning.
Furthermore, W. is not a mere idiot, though we like to cast him that way. He is also mean, greedy, corrupt, dishonest, and petulant. He wears the stupidity, and the offensive charm, to hide these other traits. As a child, I couldn't understand why anyone believed in trickle-down economics. Why couldn't someone explain to them how flawed it was? Why didn't they listen if anyone tried? What I was not cynical enough to understand then was that the conservatives in power didn't believe in it. It was a sham, a useful front to disguise giving money to the rich. What I didn't want to think growing up in the Reagan years was that there were people so heartless that they truly didn't care about the good of the majority, or what was fair; people who were deprived, by birth or training, of their senses of compassion. And what pains me even now to realize is that there are enough racist, sexist, homophobic, or just deluded people, to keep the party of the selfish amoral rich white straight Christian men in power. They don't need to believe their rhetoric, they just use the rhetoric to sell the ignorant on policies that harm them.
It is comforting to think of W. as vapid, because the alternatives are more frightening. Last fall, in the weeks leading up to the election, I spent much of my free time surfing the web reading about George W. Bush. And then I'd call up family members and say, "He isn't just stupid, he's evil."
Stupid is easier for us to cope with and believe than evil. But the truth is, whether blame belongs to him or the powerful people behind him, we can't just chalk Dubya's policies and past actions up to mental deficiency. His modus operandi has been to benefit himself and his rich conservative friends, at any cost. When the cost is the loss of social programs that help the most disadvantaged and financial policies that make the rich richer; when our sacred franchise is eagerly sacrificed on the altar of technicalities to create a god-king; when health care providers around the world are gagged in a manner that our own First Amendment would disallow here; when profit is the only ethic; Dubya's policies pass beyond stupid into malicious.
Our opponents represent de facto evil. That probably sounds melodramatic. But if we enter this fight for our nation's soul considering it to be any less, or the outcome any less essential, we run the risk of being ambushed by the venality of the other side.
© 2001, Elizabeth R. Albertson