By Jeffrey Lord on 3.2.10 @ 6:08AM
The cult of cultural and intellectual superiority in American life.
“I felt I was entitled. I had worked hard. Money and fame
made me believe I was entitled. I was wrong and foolish. I don’t
get to live by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to
everyone apply to me.”
— Tiger Woods
“I’m the President.”
— Barack Obama
Three words. Volumes of information.
They are, of course, equals. Constitutional equals, as specifically provided by Article I (which creates the legislative branch) and Article II (which creates the executive branch) of the Constitution. The Article III crowd of constitutional equals, the federal judiciary, were correctly not at the table for the recent televised health care summit at the Blair House between the legislative and executive branches.
Yet unmistakably, there was one person at this event who clearly considered himself superior to the others. When Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell noted that Democrats had used twice the time of Republicans as the televised summit proceeded, Obama responded thusly: “There was an imbalance in the opening statements, because I’m the President. And I didn’t count my time in terms of dividing it evenly.”
Let’s do a Tiger Woods translation. Being President means the rules do not apply. Presidents are entitled. They get to live by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone else in this room do not apply to me. Why? Because “I’m the President.”
Here’s a Ronald Reagan story.
Several times during his presidency, Reagan found himself in the hospital for various ailments. A gunshot wound to the chest plus a couple surgeries. On one of these occasions he was discovered on his hands and knees in his hospital bathroom, wiping up some water. Aghast, the person who discovered the President of the United States so employed received this explanation from Reagan. He had knocked a glass of water on the floor. Quite aware that he was the president, he was concerned that someone — most probably a nurse — would get in trouble for allowing such a thing to occur to “the President.” Instead of summoning someone to clean up the mess he himself had made — and thus potentially getting that someone else in trouble — he had grabbed a towel and dropped to his hands and knees to mop up the water himself.
The difference between the Reagan story and the Obama reaction to Senator McConnell’s noting the use of time by Constitutional equals is illustrative of exactly the problem that drives Americans crazy.
In short, as with Tiger Woods and his woman problem, Barack Obama and his liberal allies have a superiority problem. Liberals/progressives really do see themselves as “entitled” to make decisions for everyone else. They really do believe, as did Tiger, that the rules do not apply to them. Why? Because they are addicted to the idea they are smarter than everyone else.
Yes, yes, yes, their very-smart predecessors gave the nation Vietnam, caused the Great Depression (Herbert Hoover was a “progressive Republican,” lest we forget) and then FDR’s liberal intellectuals prolonged it. And yes, back in 2007, even the Nation’s David Moberg had to admit of Community Organizer Obama’s work on Chicago’s South Side:
“Despite some meaningful victories, the work of Obama — and hundreds of other organizers — did not transform the South Side or restore lost industries.” But hey, who cares? Robert McNamara, Hoover, the FDR crowd and Obama were and are just so mind-blowingly smart! So what if the results are a lot crazy?
This crowd belongs…nay, is passionately devoted, to what could appropriately be called a cult of cultural and intellectual superiority. Who cares if Obama is running the Democrats and the country into the ground? He’s just so damn smart!
Years ago, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In 400-plus pages, Hofstadter wrote at length about what he termed “the national disrespect for mind.” Published in 1962, the historian attributed what he saw as an ominous trend to McCarthyism and the “political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s.” He saw an embodiment of the argument between what he called “intellect and philistinism” in the candidates of the 1952 presidential campaign, whom he described as follows:
On one side was Adlai Stevenson, a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history. On the other was Dwight D. Eisenhower, conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate, harnessed to the unpalatable Nixon, and waging a campaign whose tone seemed to be set less by the general himself than by his running mate and the McCarthyite wing of his party.
Which is to say, the man who planned and executed the D-Day invasion, one of the most complex, difficult, massive — and stunningly successful — military operations in American or global history, requiring an in depth knowledge of to name but a few subjects military and world history, geography, topography, strategy, tactics, and weapons — was, well, not a very bright guy. Yes, it was Eisenhower, not Stevenson, who had spent a career immersing himself in Clausewitz, studied Napoleon, Grant and the details of their military campaigns as well as those of countless others. And yes, it was Ike and not Adlai who had made it a point to know every last detail of military minutia from the operation of a rifle to the details of running a submarine. But somehow, to Hofstadter and like-minded liberals of the day, Ike met the dictionary definition of philistine: “contentedly commonplace.” Eisenhower was, as repeatedly suggested by liberals of the day, simply not very bright. And thus, not deserving of serious consideration in anything he had to say.
And then there was that “unpalatable Nixon.” This is a particularly if unintentionally revealing look at liberal race consciousness. Nixon, of course, was your standard Republican civil rights supporter of the day. The “uncommon mind” that was Adlai Stevenson proposed to make his running mate, Alabama Senator John Sparkman, vice president instead. Sparkman, a segregationist, would later be a signer of the racist “Southern Manifesto” supporting segregation, and condemning Brown v. Board of Education, while Nixon was busy supporting the Civil Rights bill of 1957. It took an “uncommon mind” indeed to put someone of Sparkman’s ilk on a national ticket. Nixon’s real sin, what made him so “unpalatable” in 1952, was that he had proved liberal hero Alger Hiss to have been, in fact, a communist spy in the U.S. government. A decided no-no when Hiss was an Eastern Establishment darling, the right schools and all that, don’t you know old boy? Nixon went to Whittier College, Hiss to Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law. Enough said.
In the almost five decades since Hofstadter’s book was published, this belief in the cultural and intellectual superiority of liberalism (or progressivism or left-wingism) easily meets another dictionary definition: cult. Which is to say, a “particular system of religious worship.” The religion in question here being the worship of the intellect.
And who, exactly, does not possess intellect? Just who are these not very bright people who are outside the faith?
That would be anybody who does not agree with liberalism/progressivism. By definition, these people are dumb. Plain stupid. They are philistines. They may be Senators and Congressmen at the table in Blair House. They may be Tea Party types. Talk radio hosts. Sarah Palin. (Hofstadter even dismissed William F. Buckley, Jr. as “an enemy of professors.” Horrors!) Most probably, these not very bright people also include, well — you.
Here’s the Hofstadter view of the world as presented in modern times.
• Bill Maher, of HBO fame:: “They’re (Americans) not bright enough to really understand the issues. But like an animal, they can sort of sense strength or weakness. They can smell it on you.”
• Joe Klein, of Time magazine: “It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.”
• Jonathan Chait from the New Republic: “President Obama is so much smarter and a better communicator than members of Congress in either party….” (Hat tip to James Taranto and John Podhoretz).
In other words, whether you are Barack Obama or Bill Maher or Joe Klein — or fill in the blank with names like Al Gore, John Kerry or just about anyone at the New York Times and the mainstream media like Chait or Klein or Maher — you believe as Tiger Woods did. Contrary to the headlines, Tiger’s real addiction was not to sex or women, it was to the cocaine of superiority, which in turn induces a sense of entitlement. To women, in Tiger’s case, to political or media power in the case of the rest.
This “anti-Main Streetism,” to append a name to it, has effectively become the anti-Semitism of the self-designated intellectual.
What is particularly telling in all of this is the background of many of those who are the most vociferous of the cultural and intellectual superiority crowd. The dirty little secret that no one wants to raise is that almost all of these people come from some version of the American middle or “working” class. Which is to say that the disdain they exhibit for Main Street or the Tea Partiers or conservatives or Republicans or Eisenhower/Nixon/Goldwater/Reagan/Bush/Palin (etc., etc., etc., fill in the blank ad nauseam) effectively gives the appearance of some desperate form of self-loathing. Not of themselves, but of their origins. They have, three cheers, worked hard in their lives. They are certainly intelligent. But in part what drove them seems to have been the desire to escape a background of which, to all appearances, they are deeply ashamed. Their version of Main Street. Their deeply Palinesque lives as kids. Otherwise, the constant “we’re so smart” routine is nothing more than the preening, fatuous — and intellectually empty — egotism of narcissists.
Here’s a “background check” of some of those who play this game, according to various websites.
• Barack Obama — the president is famously the child of a middle-class mother who worked in academia and was raised by middle-class grandparents, his grandfather a furniture salesman.
• Bill Maher — the HBO entertainer is the son of a nurse and a news editor/radio announcer
• Maureen Dowd — the New York Times columnist is the daughter of a policeman
• Keith Olbermann — the MSNBC host is the son of a teacher and architect
• Chris Matthews — the MSNBC host is the son of a court reporter.
• Frank Rich — a New York Times columnist, Rich is the son of a shoe store owner
• Jonathan Chait of the New Republic is a doctor’s son.
• James Wolcott of Vanity Fair — the haughty critic who preens from the pages of Vanity Fair was a Baltimore kid who claims a couple years at Maryland’s Frostburg State.
• Nancy Pelosi — the Speaker is the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. Before becoming a congressman and mayor of Baltimore, Mr. D’Alesandro sold insurance.
• Harry Reid — The Senator is the son of a miner
And so on. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who cuttingly dismissed Sarah Palin as “a joke,” grew up in the middle-class housing project of New York City’s Stuyvesant Town. David Frum, who wrote an entire Newsweek story condescendingly disdaining Rush Limbaugh, is the son of a dentist/real estate developer and a journalist.
The list of people who play this “we’re so smart” game is as endless as are their backgrounds as the children of the deeply middle-class or even further down the socio-economic ladder. The core of the approach always is to dismiss the opponent, in the haughtiest tone that can be summoned, as some version of what Hofstadter portrayed. A “philistine” (Hofstadter), “not very bright” (Maher), “dodo” (Klein), “a joke” (Brooks).
Or, once elected to public office — say again that first word public — to simply assert your superiority at a conference table of constitutional equals by saying, in the style Tiger Woods employed with a Chinese menu of bimbos, porn stars and waitresses, “I’m the President.”
To which the appropriate answer, as Tiger Woods, at least, has learned the hard way is: so what? If in fact Obama were as smart as Chait insists, then the South Side of Chicago would be, if not Silicon Valley, at least not the same troubled neighborhood Obama found it on arrival. Instead, as the Nation tells us ( no rightwing scribblers they) Chicago’s South Side post-Obama’s smarts as a community organizer was the same as it was before the young smarty stepped a foot into the neighborhood. So how smart is that? And shouldn’t this be, as if lots of Americans weren’t already learning, a sign that the President has in fact no idea what he’s talking about outside a few plays from Saul Alinsky?
This “Obama is so smart and his critics so not bright” routine is nothing more than so much tiresome and quite boorish social and political wannabeism. Approval seeking from others (mostly liberal others) whom the individual in question wishes to cultivate.
Listen to Chris Matthews on Sarah Palin:
Sarah Palin — now, don’t laugh — is writing a book. Not just reading a book, writing a book. Actually, in the words of the publisher, she’s collaborating on a book. I love the way that sounds. Does that mean that she answers questions of the writer, and then the writer writes the book?
Now, let’s get real here. Matthews’ old boss, the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, didn’t write his book — his collaborator being writer William Novak. Matthews frequent Hardball guest and fellow Pennsylvanian, ex-Homeland Security Secretary and Governor Tom Ridge, perhaps not coincidentally in this case a moderate Republican, just had a book out — listing a writer named Larry Bloom as his collaborator. And, of course, let’s not forget Hillary Clinton and Lissa Muscatine, whom the New York Times identifies as the Clinton book collaborator.
Matthews actually has a generally good point here. Once upon a time politicians like Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt were in fact prolific and excellent writers. But that species of politician has mostly vanished. To single Palin out in such a condescending fashion when there’s not a chance on God’s green earth Matthews would have similarly mocked his ex-boss O’Neill or Ridge or Hillary for doing precisely the same thing Palin has done simply makes the working class Irish kid from Philly look like nothing more than a goofy cultural social climber begging to have his face on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. (Oh right, Chris has been there. Never mind. Were he not to act the way he did with Palin, do you think he would be there? Not under favorable terms.). It casts Matthews not as a mature adult confident in himself or his ideas but as just some kid from Philly so insecure about his background he targets Palin in this typically snarky and liberal condescending fashion. With the idea it gains him approval from those who didn’t go to Holy Cross or begin their career as a Capitol cop, which Matthews did.
Matthews is in fact a smart guy, and the whole exercise is silly. But his Palin remark is an example of the pretty standard condescension from a lot of people in this crowd who, like Matthews — or Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Brooks, Dowd, Rich, Olbermann, Chait, Klein and Maher come from socio-economic backgrounds similar to Palin’s or further down the scale.
But unlike Palin — or Reagan — they give the impression of running away from that background by braying incessantly that the population from whence they sprang is filled with idiots. Perhaps they are unaware that very population thinks it long ago spotted the real idiots — and breathes a silent sigh of relief those idiots left town.
None of this would have any particular political relevance except for one not so small political problem. It is precisely people with this Tiger Woods mentality, beginning with the President and his White House crew and moving on through the Democratic congressional food chain and, as the very smart but unpretentious Bernard Goldberg would say, “the lame stream media” — who are insisting on ramming a highly unpopular health care bill through the Congress, the public be damned.
The collective results are as obvious as Elin Woods chasing her husband with a golf club in her hand.
The American people, Maher, Klein and the other anti-Main Streeters in this cozy culture of superiority notwithstanding, are long onto the game. They are not going to be sold a bill of goods on their health care anymore then Elin was buying the idea that Tiger wasn’t playing around. They are well on to the pretentious airs of the sons and daughters of shoe sellers and cops, court reporters and dentists, the denizens of Stuyvesant Town and Frostburg State.
More to the point, they are on to the Tiger Woods in the White House. His alleged intellectual superiority produced zero on the South Side of Chicago and, from stimulus to health care to the deficit is doing nothing to improve America either — and in fact is well on its way to wreaking untold political chaos for his own party.
Just as Tiger was packed off to a sex addiction clinic, every poll out there suggests the American people are prepared to send the Tiger Woods of the White House to the “I’m So Smart” addiction clinic.
Otherwise known as an election.
Very smart indeed.
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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