Saturday, October 11, 2008

Whuh?

Two articles of interest:

David "The Stupidest Man Writing A Column for the New York Times" Brooks writes in "The Class War Before Palin" about the anti-intellectualism-as-faux-populism strain in the modern Republican campaign and wonders if it hasn't gone too far:

"[O]ver the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

* * *

This year could have changed things. The G.O.P. had three urbane presidential candidates. But the class-warfare clichés took control. Rudy Giuliani disdained cosmopolitans at the Republican convention. Mitt Romney gave a speech attacking “eastern elites.” (Mitt Romney!) John McCain picked Sarah Palin.

* * *

Once conservatives admired Churchill and Lincoln above all — men from wildly different backgrounds who prepared for leadership through constant reading, historical understanding and sophisticated thinking. Now those attributes bow down before the common touch.

And so, politically, the G.O.P. is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission — because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission — by telling members of that class to go away.


And in the New Yorker, James Wood writes "Verbage: The Republican war on words":

In recent elections, the Republican hate word has been “liberal,” or “Massachusetts,” or “Gore.” In this election, it has increasingly been “words.” Barack Obama has been denounced again and again as a privileged wordsmith, a man of mere words who has “authored” two books (to use Sarah Palin’s verb), and done little else. The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: “I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.” The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama “just a person of words,” adding, “Words are everything to him.” The once bipartisan campaign adviser Dick Morris and his wife and co-writer, Eileen McGann, argue that the McCain camp, in true Rovian fashion, is “using the Democrat’s articulateness against him” (along with his education, his popularity, his intelligence, his wife—pretty much everything but his height, though it may come to that). John McCain’s threatened cancellation of the first Presidential debate was the ultimate defiance, by action, of words; sure enough, afterward conservatives manfully disdained Barack Obama’s “book knowledge.” To have seen the mountains of Waziristan with one’s own eyes—that is everything.

Doesn’t this reflect a deep suspicion of language itself? It’s as if Republican practitioners saw words the way Captain Ahab saw “all visible objects”—as “pasteboard masks,” concealing acts and deeds and things—and, like Ahab, were bent on striking through those masks.

* * *

But we all need words, and both campaigns wrestle every day over them. Words are up for grabs: just follow the lipstick traces. For days, the McCain camp accused Obama of likening Governor Palin to a pig, because he likened a retooled political message to a pig with lipstick. Eventually, McCain (who had previously described Senator Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan as a pig with lipstick) was forced to fudge. No, he conceded, Senator Obama had not called Governor Palin a pig, “but I know he chooses his words carefully, and it was the wrong thing to say.” This was instructive, not least because it sounded like implicit praise: maybe I don’t choose my words very carefully, but he does, so he should have chosen them more carefully.


Meanwhile, the campaign that claims to loathe “just words” has proved expert at their manipulation, from reversals of policy to the outright lies of some of its attack ads (“comprehensive sex education”) and the subtle racial innuendo of a phrase like “how disrespectful” (used to accuse Obama of making uppity attacks on Palin). Karl Rove—along with predecessors like Lee Atwater and protégés like Steve Schmidt—long ago showed the Republicans that language is slippery, fluid, a river into which you can dump anything at all as long as your opponent is the one downstream. And, to be fair, those who affect to despise words have been more skillful than their opponents not just at amoral manipulation but at the creation of what Orwell called “a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.” Pit bulls and lipstick stuck for good reason.

* * *

If Obama is the letter (words, fancy diplomas, “authored” books), then the latest representative of the spirit is Sarah Palin. Literary theorists used to say that their most abstruse prose was “writing the difficulty”—that the sentences were tortuous because there was no briskly commonsensical way of representing a complex issue. Sarah Palin, alas, talks the difficulty. She may claim, as she did in last Thursday’s Vice-Presidential debate, that “Americans are cravin’ that straight talk,” but they are sure not going to get it from the Governor—not with her peculiar habit of speaking only half a sentence and then moving on to another for spoliation, that strange, ghostly drifting through the haziest phrases, as if she were cruelly condemned to search endlessly for her linguistic home.