Thursday, May 25, 2017

Outsmarted

Way back in 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald figured out something very shrewd about right-wingers. He discovered, and described, an emerging social type: the reactionary pedant.

It comes in Chapter One of The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald introduces his dramatis personae. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, is chatting away aimlessly with his sophisticated cousin Daisy Buchanan and her equally sophisticated friend, Jordan Baker. Embarked upon his second glass of a “corky but rather impressive claret,” Nick remarks that the conversation has grown a bit too recherch√© for his taste: “You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy. Can’t you talk about crops or something?” He “meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way”—by Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, whom Nick had known when both attended Yale.
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently.

“This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

“You ought to live in California—” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.

“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “—And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.
In a novel that precisely deploys status markers, every detail here matters. Nick, blithe, ironic, and self-possessed, is perfectly comfortable making light of his preference for intellectually uncluttered chitchat. Tom Buchanan, not so self-possessed, has to rush in to demonstrate that he is smart too—though 1925 readers would immediately understand he is actually stupid, because he’s biffed the names of two real-life thinkers: Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), and the eugenicist Madison Grant, inventor of “Nordic theory” and author of the equally alarmist The Passing of the Great Race (1916).

However, contemporary readers don’t have to boast familiarity with the contents of 1920s bookstores to grasp that this guy is a clown—or to recognize the type. Think Spiro Agnew, braying about the downfall of America at the hands of “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” in speeches scripted for him by William Safire. (Safire dropped out of college to take a job with a gossip columnist. He later got a job as the resident conservative op-ed sage at the New York Times, and also published an “On Language” column in the Times magazine. In both capacities, he never let the world forget he knew a lot of six-syllable words.) Or William F. Buckley, whose rebarbative vocabulary conned a generation of liberals into believing conservatism was a “movement of ideas.”

Liberals want to make you feel stupid, but—na na na!—it’s actually liberals who are stupid: this trope is a commonplace of conservative rhetoric. If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans: that’s the title of a 2007 book by Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh boasts that he performs his program “flawlessly with zero mistakes” with “half my brain tied behind my back.” “We outnumber the stupid people” was one of the slogans of Herman Cain, the pizza magnate who ran for the Republican presidential nomination on a “9-9-9 plan” that sought to replace all federal taxes with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. Then there is Donald J. Trump, whose favorite word, besides “sad,” is “smart,” and who explains he doesn’t need to attend to intelligence briefings because, “You know, I’m, like, a smart person.” (...)

The Great Gatsby finds that sort of cognitive narcissism risible too. In that dialogue in which Tom Buchanan dresses up his racism in scientific raiment, all of us, because we know ourselves to be sophisticated and smart, identify with Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald had also figured out something shrewed about such—but how shall we put it—cultural sophisticates? Effete snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals? Elite liberals?

Grant me this liberty. I can’t guess whether, in the 1924 presidential election, Daisy Buchanan would have voted for the Democrat John W. Davis, the Republican Calvin Coolidge, or the Progressive Party’s Robert M. La Follette. But I can recognize the kind of person who mockingly agrees with someone who issues a racist rant by not just winking, but winking “ferociously”—ferociously enough, that is, so that everyone around them could not possibly miss that they know who is and who is not an intellectually vacant ass. No less than in the case of the reactionary pedant, her greatest fear is that others will see her as dumb.

These days, the person who does that sort of thing would almost certainly be a liberal—the kind of person, say, who the weekend before the 2010 congressional elections attended Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart’s massive rally in Washington, D.C., dedicated to pointing and laughing at conservatives while winking ferociously. The signs they carried were along the lines of “ANYONE FOR SCRABBLE LATER?” and “USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE” and “I SEE SMART PEOPLE.” (I’m referring here to a collection from the website Funny or Die called “The 53 Funniest Signs from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” which received nineteen thousand “likes” on Facebook.)

That was the very weekend when the Tea Partying objects of their scorn were out knocking on doors to get out the vote for the following Tuesday’s election. Thereupon, the Democratic Party lost control of Congress. I see stupid people.

What does it mean to be “smart,” and why does it matter to us so much?(...)

“Smart” is an identity. “Smart” has a politics. “Smart” can be a road to authenticity, or “smart” can be a con. (Think of Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the biotech startup Theranos after studying Mandarin as a child, launching a company during college at Stanford, and then dropping out; she gulled George Shultz and Henry Kissinger into serving on her new company’s board of directors, becoming “America’s youngest self-made female billionaire in the world,” according to Forbes, even though the technology she was selling apparently didn’t even work.) “Smart” carries within it its own logic of domination, resistance, resentment—the logic that produces both reactionary pedants and ferociously winking liberal elites.

I’ve been quietly obsessing over all of this ever since my intellectually melodramatic childhood, never quite able to figure it out or put much of it into words. One important conclusion I’ve been able to reach, however, is exactly Nick Carraway’s: whatever “smart” actually is, it bears no necessary relation to fundamental decency. But that’s a psychological, or even spiritual, lesson, not an intellectual one. (There’s a distinction it took me an awfully long time to be able to make—one of the things that landed me in therapy.) The intellectual lesson is something I’m still groping toward. It has something to do with understanding how, more and more with each passing year, in American culture and politics, “smart” has become a dangerous stand-in for judgments concerning self-evident moral worth.

by Rick Perlstein, The Baffler | Read more:
Image: Zipeng Zhu