By Robert Becker
“Circus” is too orderly a metaphor for today’s unhinged politics. “Entertainment” overstates, considering so many labor to hear Obama finish a speech or Romney a sentence – before gagging. “Mayhem” underplays the massive right-serving payola that informs both party’s texts and sub-texts. Deluged by witless untruths that affront even centrist Republicans, let’s pose this thought experiment: “When do we get ‘stand our intellectual ground’ shield laws against mental mugging?”
Is there no safety net from bubbling, partisan concoctions but termination by vote or retirement? If there’s no penalty for the outrageous fabrications, why stop? In the meantime, we need new phrases to capture this concatenation of claptrap, say, the “deceptive dances of dunces.” The vast, rightwing conspiracy against truth? Okay, southern-style confederacy of dunces? Go for it.
And herein pops up a paradox: in response to this mountain of mendacity, at least for the literate, there exist insatiable, even robust engines of transparency. Public stupidity is no orphan. True, a lie still travels “halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (M. Twain), but shoeless wrong-headedness wins headlines. Staying power varies, but which stirring gaffe and foul-up fails to garner publicity? Does not the mass media, bereft of courage or true ideas, glory in making dunces look bad?
Memory Takes Work
What now, the Romney Etch-a-Sketch meteor blazes across the sky, at least for a week. Such duration overcomes our severe cultural allergy to memory or the perspective necessary to unpack the latest gaucheries. Sure, there’s a delay, but soon enough news breaks: we learn which reactionaries fund A.L.E.C. (especially when they run for cover) or what fringe billionaires enrich Karl Rove’s PACs and cronies. Wail away about craven politics, but there is a rough-hewn transparency at play. Item yesterday, “Sheldon Adelson Gives $5 Million To Super PAC Backing House Republicans.”
Certainly, lies and propaganda explode on front pages, as by spontaneous combustion, while retractions, apologies, or concessions are blunted or buried in the classified. FOX dullards stay misinformed because they won’t change channels. Time, I say, to break America’s gridlock by enacting a National Stupidity Gauge, with electoral prizes going to the least culpable. Is it not remarkable that the thundering horde of deceptions, from W. and Cheney through unrivaled GOP primary nincompoops, has failed to make idiocy a disqualification for office? Alas, only well-versed sexual miscues, high crimes of lowdown bribery, or felony indictments doom candidates called by God.
As if we don’t have enough fresh-faced, heartless goons, Cheney is still thundering of late that Obama “has been an unmitigated disaster to the country.” And he knows “unmitigated” disasters. Ditto, the irony-free zone of Karl Rove’s hypocrisy, in the WSJ: the nefarious Obama seizes the “low road,” eager to “distort beyond recognition his opponent’s arguments. No honest differences are possible with Mr. Obama. He will impugn the motives of any who disagree with him.” Obviously, shock and awe still oozes from GOP tongues, forked as ever. If Obama the Bipartisan bent any farther over, he’d have to be a circus performer – or worse. Let that bide.
No Upside? Dig Deeper
Even rabid conspiracy mavens can’t unravel positives behind like-minded gaffes, like Mitt Romney’s unforced, incredibly frequent errors. Did he not max out when dramatizing his enormous wealth, gained from predatory business practices (love those mass firings)? Or forcing young mothers to work? Have not his non-stop reversals struck even witless wingnuts as too much? If unplanned, such gaffes speak to the tin ear of the century; if conscious, that spells big-time delusional. Perhaps Obama operatives infiltrated the enemy camp.
Nor after a week can pundits discern upside to Obama’s Supreme Court overwrought fictions, blithely declaring how unseemly, if not specious, were Supreme Court defiance of White House or Congressional mandates. I get the Obama Supreme Court challenge but not an ex-Constitutional Law instructor trying to join the category of a stupid person’s idea of a smart person.
Of course, there’s no remedy to lying without committing a crime, even then. Queasy, disheartening, remarkably crass political folly makes one pine for truthiness, let alone the calculated brilliance of long-departed political giants. It makes us understand why Mexico, not exactly an advanced democracy, just banned political “attack ads,” though an earthling will still have to draw this impossible line.
Power Need Not be Pretty
I do not assail deception per se, even maneuvering, but obvious, insulting lying that plays to willful blindness. If outlandish claims are quickly unmasked, someone failed; if caught in an outright lie, your bad staff hands the other guy devastating TV ads. In this light, check out David Frum’s enthusiastic review of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, depicting his success not from (Obama-like) “inspiring or exhorting” but Johnson’s ability to mobilize “political power, on a scale and with a ruthlessness that arguably surpassed all other presidents, before or since.” Getting things passed, as LBJ did for civil rights or the poor, need not be pretty or without crass payoffs.
Certainly, we endure an endless run of blatant con artists, fakes, shills and operatives dedicated to misinformation. I doubt “ignorance” was ever “bliss,” as if what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt you. Today, with all the rage against expertise, we’re performing a different and dangerous experiment: testing whether knowledge is still linked to power. In fact, as the GOP dominates political messaging, we’ve managed to link ignorance not just with complacent bliss but the power of high office. The Tea Party, even birtherism, perhaps fades, but not because a Renaissance of intelligence and judgment yet appears, in part because this White House lacks gumption or the ability to inform.
Transparency Will Out
As always, the enduring problem with ignorant people is that they don’t know enough and what vacuity they claim to know is dead-end wrong. And technology, even the revered Internet, has given voice to the ignorant, the racist, and the violent. A sufficiently stupid person, with reinforced blinders, remains a permanent blockhead, with only his demise lifting the world’s average I.Q. a smidge. Unless, of course, his children imitate his fecklessness.
Though still unclear, the mass ignorance that re-elected W. may have peaked, though you couldn’t tell that from this season’s GOP primary goons. Either that or Occupy will have infinite venues. Three times in our history – identified with the eras of Andrew Jackson, TR and FDR – common folks joined political uprisings that clipped the wings of the concentrated super-rich. Unlikely true, but not impossible.
Further, despite stupidity in full gear, evolution, relativity, immunization, and an earth billions of years old endure as our scientific bedrock. Thanks to media transparency, plus continual reports of unfair taxation and concentrated wealth, the smug rich are under siege, more so than since the Great Depression. It ain’t much, but it will do for starters.