James O'Keefe's NPR sting has to be one of the most beautifully orchestrated deceptions in the annals of journalism. I think the academy award for performance in a documentary should go to that bushy-bearded "Arab" who, on hearing NPR executive Richard Schiller say, "Let me take off my NPR hat" and launching into his Tea Party rant, intones in a marvelously phony North African accent, "I like it when you take off your NPR hat." That was the laugh line of the year.
So now everybody will be talking about how embarrassing it was and how NPR has put its neck in the noose and how they will soon be losing their federal funding -- which they say they don't need anyway. All that scurrilous badmouthing of the American public will be reverberating around the political arena for quite some time.
The question that hangs in my mind, though, is this: How could people who think of themselves as so intelligent be such suckers? How could they be taken in by an American black and a bushy-bearded "Muslim" talking in a grade-B Hollywood accent and really believe they were being offered $5 million? After all, these are people who define themselves as being intelligent. They're the "educated elite" of whom we supposedly don't have enough of in this country. And yet they were no more alert than a bunch of high school dropouts sitting around a shabby ACORN office in Baltimore. How do you explain that?
Well, I think it is possible to offer an explanation. Here's an attempt.
First, liberals can be suckered precisely because they think they are the only intelligent people in America. This smug confidence insulates them from having to pay attention to what anybody else is saying. The conventional wisdom among liberals is that people disagree with them only because they are stupid, uneducated, or have been bought off by the sinister forces of American capitalism. (The New York Times'current obsession with the Koch brothers is a case in point. Conservatives have the same mania over George Soros but they only resent Soros's funding of liberal projects; they do not dismiss any liberal intellectual working in one of his organizations as being "bought off" by his money.)
You cannot find a liberal intellectual anywhere who can give you an honest, objective accounting of conservative positions on major issues. All they know is that conservatives are "stupid," racist" and "scary" -- boilerplate terms but unfortunately the exact words employed by Schiller on the tape. Practically the only liberal around who has ever been able to give a recognizable presentation of a conservative position is Barack Obama, who was always very good at repeating everybody's argument before choosing the most liberal point of view. For that we elected him President.
By assuming they are smarter than everybody else, liberals leave themselves utterly vulnerable to anyone who plays on their sense of superiority. It's a classic Italian Renaissance comedy -- the wily servant who, with cajoling and flattery, outwits his master. It's been going on for centuries. Liberal intellectuals could write you an unintelligible paper on the subject for the Modern Language Association, but they can never see it happening to themselves!
Second, for liberal intellectuals, race is the key to everything (alright, the holy trinity of race, class and gender, I'm abbreviating). If you get on the right side of the fence on race, everything else falls into place. It was an absolute stroke of genius for O'Keefe to send in an American black to tell Schiller he could have $5 million if only he could be a little more balanced in his coverage of Hamas and Hezbollah. Could it have possibly crossed Schiller's mind, "I wonder if this guy is putting me on?" Never! His whole body would rise up in anguish to banish the thought. That would be racist! Besides, blacks are on our side! All American blacks are beholden to liberals because they support affirmative action and genuflect to Kwanzaa and therefore how could a good-hearted African American possibly be deceiving? Instead, one must only assume the proper patronizing tone, as Schiller did throughout.
Then there is the bushy-bearded fellow passing for a Muslim. I won't even go into that. All I can say is it reminds me of one of the Hardy Boys mysteries where a bushy-bearded pirate named Bluebeard appears on the scene shouting "I tattoo ye!" and then disappears again without explanation.
So how could the nation's "educated elite" possibly be played for such suckers? The answer is simple. They live in a bubble. Everybody says the same things and thinks the same things and anybody who is any different is to be marveled at as an exotic flower rather than engaged in serious conversation. Last Sunday's New York Times ran a long profile, for instance, on Wayne Barrett, the longtime Village Voice investigative reporter who after 37 years has been unceremoniously fired, apparently for budget reasons. During the decade of the 1980s, according to the Times, Barrett's greatest scoop was to reveal Cardinal John J. Conner, head of the New York Archdioceses, was…are you ready for this?… a Republican!
It's the same with all the riffraff out there. Tea Party people are easy to identify. They are the industrial parts salesman you meet on an airplane in the Midwest or the local real estate agent who'll give you the rundown on what people are buying these days. They know nothing about semiology and wouldn't be able to discuss the hockey stick graph but they are intelligent people nonetheless who understand business and know how the world works. I recall one outspoken realtor I covered years ago as a suburban reporter who had become the local "gadfly" for opposing a teachers' strike. Watching the teachers parade around with picket signs reading "Millions for basketball players, pennies for teachers," she commented, "They have to compare themselves to basketball players. They've already passed everyone else." Sure enough, I checked the numbers and found that public school teachers had just passed the median wage earner in the district. Tea Party people have always been around. They are just now finding their voice.
So where do NPR intellectuals get the idea they are the only smart people around? Only by ignoring the opposition. Tune in to Fox News any night and listen to Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Steve Hayes or Fred Barnes discussing complex issues. Could anybody say that they are not intelligent? Would it be correct to say that they understand the opposing liberal position but just don't happen to agree with it? Now, try this. Can you imagine Charles Krauthammer being taken in by a bunch of bushy-bearded strangers claiming to be Orthodox rabbis ready hand him $5 million for taking a more balanced view on their effort to move the Dome of the Rock off the Temple Mount?
As a fellow human being, I have to feel sorry for Ron Schiller. Only a few weeks ago he was sitting on top of the world, discussing seven-figure donations, ready to move on to a cushy job at the Aspen Institute. Now, because of one luncheon, he'll probably never make more than $80,000 the rest of his life. It's a cruel fate. Maybe he can take this opportunity to learn a little more about the world. "Be nice to everybody on your way up because you're gong to meet them on your way down," as they say in show business. It might make a nice memoir -- "The Education of Ron Schiller." For now, though, all I can think to say is, "Ron, try to be a little smarter next time."