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December 10, 2012

Joe Scarborough: God-Damn Those Political Talk Show Hosts Who Run Other People Down Just To Increase Their Influence, Buff Their Brand, and Juice Their Ratings

Scarborough says a few things that I almost agree with.

I'm a bit astonished at his lack of self-awareness, though. This guy's brand consists almost entirely of being a "bully" (as he terms it) for the northeastern moderate wing of the Republican Party, constantly insulting rivals and millions of voting citizens.

I don't begrudge the moderate wing its own bully, but his diagnosis here is so filthy with opportunism and self-interest it's offensive.

He got booted off the air because people weren't listening to his radio show and he was losing in the ratings to competitors. And he seems to be doing nothing but trying to get payback for that (for his own failure to connect with an audience) and buffing his own brand.

I do not believe all this crap about the Republican Party needing to be more controlled by/influenced by/led by intellectuals to succeed.

Let's think about this.

Here's what I do believe: I believe Republicans should be more intellectual, generally. Actually, I think all people should be more intellectual, generally.

I think conservatives especially should be more intellectual, or more... admittedly intellectual. Let me explain: I think most readers of this site are actually intellectuals to one degree or another. Anyone who's quoting Hayek? Congratulations, you're an intellectual.

If you're strongly interested in ideas and you read a fair amount, and you enjoy abstract thinking and arguing about concepts and principles, you're an intellectual.

Now, conservatives hate this designation and they run from it. I am generalizing from my own experience, here: I never wanted to think of myself as an intellectual. I think I tried to hide my intellectualism in the guise of anti-intellectualism, but that is still basically an intellectual position.

Conservatives don't hate intellectualism, per se. They hate faux intellectualism, which is certainly the dominant form of "intellectualism" that exists in the current age. (Let me just throw in a broad guess and say that's probably the dominant form of intellectualism in any age.) And this faux intellectualism, this faux sophistication, generally takes the guise of a faux thoughtfulness -- see Bob Costas -- or pettifogging sophistry.

So people run from the label and don't self-identify that way. Those who do identify as intellectuals, and adopt the Cultural Signifiers of the Intellectual Tribe, tend not to be terribly thoughtful and not actually, oh, what's the word I'm looking for? Not that smart. So the self-identifying intellectuals -- most of them, the... bitter clingers, if you will, to a false, contrived shallow signification of intellectualism, have damaged the brand.

But let's face it, who are we kidding? Empire of Jeff, for example, uses the same sort of Lowbrow guise as I do but, you know, he's smart. He's read a book. His idea of fun is to go online and read arguments and respond to arguments. So, you know, dick jokes and all that but I'll call him out as an intellectual.

Most of the people on this site are. Including the folks who didn't go to college, who are largely autodidacts to one degree or another.

I could also put in a brief argument here (generalizing from personal experience) that men, especially conservative men, tend to view self-improvement type things as fundamentally womanly (real men are what they are and don't need improving!), which is a not-very-helpful attitude on a purely personal level, and which ultimately contributes to this idea that identifying as someone who likes learning things is a bit soft and "liberal," but that's just a suspicion. Again, generalizing from my own previous attitudes (which I'm trying to wring out of my system). And this attitude stems from those who urge self-improvement type things generally being, what's the word, idiots.

Anyway, I think most people here are intellectuals to a fair extent and probably would not admit that even if I juiced them up with sodium pentathol. And that's fine. I get, as I did that for all my life. Those who claim to be in the club of intellectuals tend to make the club look fairly lame.

But is Scarborough right that anti-intellectualism, especially that espoused by other "talk radio hosts" dragging the party down?

Is Rush Limbaugh an intellectual, by the broad definition I've just suggested? Is Mark Levin? Is Glenn Beck?

Yes, of course. By the broad definition I've suggested, they are primarily idea-oriented and argument-oriented and therefore intellectuals.

Now they're not full-on intellectuals, at least not in their day jobs. They're pop intellectuals -- people who popularize intellectual ideas. Which is, ultimately, how the great majority of the public gets their exposure to intellectual ideas. The public does not read Steven Hawking's actual papers. They would not understand them. (As I wouldn't.) To the extent the public knows about Steven Hawking's ideas they know them from his pop science book and the occasional news story about him written in a pop science fashion, which means no math, no definitions, no rigor, but a lot of hyped up metaphors.

"Think of chaos theory as a ball of yarn twisted into knots by a billion subatomic epileptic kittens," or whatever. Not really "science." It's a meaningless sentence. Tells you nothing. You're actually dumber for having read it.

Anyway, point is, the conservative movement has a fair number of pop intellectuals, and those are generally the sort of intellectuals that engage the general public. And ultimately, it's not that Rush Limbaugh is "anti-intellectual" and Joe Scarborough is "intellectual;" it's that they're both pop intellectuals, and they just happen to disagree. Joe Scarborough just happens to be more.... yes, liberal. By inclination and also by requirement for continued employment.

Now as a personal matter I've now quit the anti-intellectual habit and like anyone who's quit recently, I'm a bit of an annoying evangelist for it. Just like an ex-smoker is very annoying about quitting smoking.

And so, as a personal matter, I'm currently big on advising people to become smarter, as I'm trying to do that myself. I would advise dumb people to become smarter, and smart people to become smarter, and genius level people to become smarter.

But while I'd say this is good personal advice, as "quit smoking" and "try Adkins" are good bits of personal advice, do this advice really have anything to do with winning elections?

Adelei Stephenson was, I understand, a self-identifying tribal-signifying intellectual. He got demolished. I know little of Barry Goldwater, but I get the sense he was something of an intellectual (certainly he inspired later intellectuals in the conservative movement). He got demolished, too.

Romney, as I often said with some worry, was strongly self-identifying as a rationalist and as a thinker, and he doubled-down on intellectualism/rationalism with his VP pick of another strong rationalist/intellectual. They lost.

Note Obama -- obviously a self-styled intellectual -- picked for his VP a dummy.

Let's not mince words here. We're among friends. You're all pretty smart.

Most people are not that smart.

As a definitional matter, they cannot be that smart. We define "smart" as "more clever than the average person" so by definition most people will have only an average bit of cleverness, and a fair number of people will have less than that, and about an equal number will have more than that.

So, a majority of people are either of average intelligence or lower. They're not particularly intellectual. And the ones who are kind of dumb but fancy themselves intellectuals are almost all in the Democratic Party. And they're welcome to them.

So two closely related points about Scarborough's claim:

1, it's bullshit. He's no more an intellectual than Limbaugh is, but is trying to claim People Should Listen To Me Because I'm Smart and an Intellectual. Well, so is Limbaugh. The difference between them is not status (intellectual vs. non-intellectual) but simply preference in policy.

Claiming a policy should be selected due to the status of the person advancing it is a phony argument and an anti-intellectual move in and of itself. Ideas rise or fall by their own worthiness. The status of the person offering the idea is, logically speaking, irrelevant.

This is the nasty, self-serving thing Scaroborough does that I really find offensive, and, in fact, is the chief reason that self-identification as Intellectual has fallen out of favor among many conservatives -- because every time we see the Intellectual Card played, it's in service of knocking a conservative as "dumb."

Maybe it would be a good idea to reclaim intellectualism for the actual intellectuals. I guess maybe that's why I'm writing this.

2, as a personal matter, sure, more people should just admit they enjoy the life of the mind (and those who haven't given that a shot should try it and see if it doesn't suit them). But as far as winning politics, intellectualism has never, ever been a strong bet.

And this doesn't just apply to candidates; many people venerate Irving Kristol but few people actually read him. Far more people read or listen to the pop intellectuals, like Limbaugh, which is the way it always has been and always will be.

There's nothing wrong with pop intellectuals. They're quite necessary. Although I goofed on the way dumb reporters describe chaos theory, with epileptic subatomic kittens and yarn made of spacetime or whatever, let's face it, that's about my own level of understanding of chaos theory. Without the kittens, I've got nothing. Honestly, my knowledge of Chaos Theory comes almost exclusively from Jeff Goldblum in Juraissic Park.

But ultimately politics is about reaching the common man, and from what I've seen, while the common man certainly doesn't want a dummy in high office, the common man tends to get suspicious of anyone who is too obviously intelligent, or, perhaps, just finds that someone who tribally signifies as Intellectual is not part of his own tribe and ergo does not "share my values."

I think every political movement needs an intellectual wing. But what I think it needs even more of is a populist wing.

Scarborough is a dummy if he thinks that people of middling to low intelligence -- and a low interest in political ideas, especially -- are suddenly going to go kookoo for the Republican Party if we all just start acting very intellectual and make it clear that the intellectuals are in charge.

The Democrats won seats in the Senate in 2012. Is Harry Reid an intellectual? Does he present himself that way? Does he come off as if he has an IQ north of 94?

No, he doesn't.

I don't have a simple prognosis here because it's not a simple situation -- certainly not as simplistic as the supposed intellectual Scarborough suggests. Yes, a Movement Based on Ideas needs some ideas and it needs some intellectuals to work those ideas. And it also needs some popularizes of those ideas, who can move easily between higher- and lower-level pitches. And it needs, frankly, some pure populists. Joe Biden types.

There was a Republican judicial nominee whose intelligence was questioned (as they always are, unless they're obviously highly intelligent, in which case they are portrayed as Scheming Intellectual Devil-Men). Someone attempted to defend his nomination with the inelegant argument that less intelligent people need some representation too.

Well, they do. And sometimes less intelligent people grow suspicious of more intelligent people (and vice versa-- a favorite intellectual passtime is to fret that the supposedly-dumb average conservative citizen is going to mass-murder some folks because his favorite NASCAR driver lost a race to a girl).

Sorry, but all I see here is Scarborough playing the Intellectual Card in the exact manner that has poisoned conservatives against the notion of intellectualism -- once again arguing that intellectualism is inherently liberal.

It's not. In fact, I think I could make a pretty strong case that liberalism generally succeeds because it requires less thought, less abstract thought I mean, than conservatism. Conservatism tends to win only when liberal thought has produced such horrific results that it becomes, temporarily, an option requiring just as little thought as the liberal option.

Like when crime is increasing dramatically and liberals keep arguing that we need to be softer on criminals. In such situations, the conservative response doesn't really take a great deal of higher-level abstract thought -- the average guy who doesn't think much about politics can decide "That's total bullshit" without needing to read conservative theorists.

Well, I have rambled on. But this is a major pet peeve of mine: Those, like Costas and Scarborough, who pose as thoughtful while offering thoughtless bromides.

I keep saying this: If you want to be considered an intellectual, start doing some intellectualizing. Start thinking. Start questioning that gut-level, often self-interested reflexive notion that first pops into your head. The automatic burbling that just happens to be in your own political or personal interest. ("If only more people watched my show (and coincidentally gave me higher ratings and higher status) we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place...")

Instinct and gut are frequently right, but I wouldn't trust them. And anything that's self-serving and advances your own cache over your rivals? I definitely would scrutinize the heck out of that before offering it up as an Unshakable Piece of Conservative Thinking. There's a chance it's right, but more likely, it's just people doing what they do, offering up ill-considered self-serving pablum.

I don't mind Scarborough arguing for a more moderate, liberal Republican Party. I would agree with him very strongly that the party is reducing its appeal by too many purity tests. And the average political actor in the party is coming off -- as odd as this sounds -- as "too political." (I know, that makes no sense, but I think it's true.)

But let's have less of this self-conceit, eh? If you were as intellectual as you imagine, you wouldn't have sounded like such an idiot.

Let's kind of try addressing each other as equals in intellect and see how that discussion might go.

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posted by Ace at 02:08 PM

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