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To the fool-king belongs the world

Frank Bruni is quickly becoming my favorite NYT columnist. He’s perfect for this blog’s brand of meta-commentary: not a complete idiot like Friedman, nor a really intelligent person like Krugman, with just enough insight to begin a correct argument, but never enough to see it through. A real triumph of the Middle Way!

In fact it’s proper that we begin by comparing intellects, since Bruni’s latest piece is about why we shouldn’t bother, at least in the realm of politics. Bruni argues that it’s not awfully proper to bash Rick Perry for his weak academic performance (although he helps himself to a couple jabs) because, after all, Obama did great at school, and still totally sucks at being president. Fair enough, although Bruni makes rather a big deal of the commonplace insight that being good at school is not the same as being good at anything else, which is obvious to any…schoolchild.

That said, and accepting even that there are different kinds or valences of intelligence, there is such a thing a being intelligent; or, perhaps more scrutably, there is such a thing as being a moron. And while it may not be important for our leaders to have academic credentials, we definitely don’t want them to be morons. Right?

So what is a moron; what are the characteristics of a moron? It’s not someone who can believe in wrong things–intelligent people can be wrong–but someone who can believe in anything. Lacking principles, or the ability to devise principles, the moron decides impressionistically, or with an eye to the main chance. The decision may be good or bad, but he has no way to tell, save by tallying up the most rudimentary stimuli. Hence morons are profoundly bad at abstract or speculative thought, the kind that is always required when taking action with long-term or historical implications.

A great problem of American politics today is not just that it doesn’t prevent morons from becomes leaders, but that it actually selects them. Let’s see, for example, what Bruni’s alternative to smartness is:

Instead of talking about how smart politicians are or aren’t, we should have an infinitely more useful, meaningful conversation about whether we share and respect their values and whether they have shown themselves to be effective. Someone who rates high on both counts is someone to rally unreservedly around.

So a politician is to be judged on whether “we” share his values. But who is this “we”? Nothing less that The American People, one supposes. OK, so what are “our” values? The American Values, naturally. And what are those? Oh, you know: Justice; Fairness; Hard Work; Pro-Activeness; All-Weather Durability; and so on.

In any society with internal antagonisms, any group representative of the society will by definition have antagonistic values. Thus people who try to have values maximally coinciding with the whole group will have more or less no values; or more precisely, no values that have anything to do with society’s problems. (Such people will act in the interests of the dominant class, of course–all the social stimuli will ensure that–but they won’t know that’s what they’re doing.) It’s equally absurd to discuss “effectiveness” from this perspective, since actions are effective only relative to some criteria, which ultimately reduce to the very values that cannot be meaningfully specified.

To put it another way, the American obsession with “pragmatism” and being “non-ideological” (which is seldom pragmatic and usually highly ideological) is ideal for the moron, especially in the realm of politics. Yet because the desire for principled politics is hard to suppress, for the articulation of principled positions is substituted a set of “value-tokens,” a series of ritualized “stances” comprising a pseudo-political gestalt from which the viewer can extract what he likes. That Brand Obama appeals to a different demographic than Brand Perry testifies only to the difficulty of being everything to everybody–not to the lack of trying.

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