September 22, 2008

PRESUMPTUOUS NOMINEE: “Presumption,” Intelligence and Policy

The press, and many other largely illiterate Americans, refer to a candidate who is not yet nominated, but presumably will be, as a Presumptive Nominee. This is one of those conventionally received usages of a term that is a commonplace. Maybe it sounds smart, but it is finally ignorant because it is unexamined. To my ear, the ordinarily intelligent sound stupid when they parrot this term.

What we think is meant is the candidate in question is the presumed nominee. Unless what is meant is the Presumptuous Nominee.

If what is meant is the Presumptuous Nominee, then we might excavate a little deeper and recover some further meaning.

It is possible that what underlies accusing Senator Obama of being presumptuous is that he sounds superior.

Does raising the question of whether he seems presumptuous allow us to ask ourselves whether he acts superior, or acts as though he feels superior, without actually acknowledging this? Without being intellectually and personally honest about what we are suggesting?

Goodness knows, True Americans don’t want their candidates or their representatives to sound superior or, god help us, to feel superior.

“…Bush did not have to work at sounding like a regular guy with a less than elite education; despite summers in Kennebunkport and stints at Ivy League institutions, the words “nuclear” and “government,’ which presidents must use with considerable frequency, will always roll trippingly off his tongue as “nucular” and guv’mint.” Bush’s presidential demeanor has been characterized by a sneering, aggressive provincialism, which he displays not just at home but abroad, for the edification of foreign leaders.”

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason. Random House, New York: 2008. pp. 285

Electoral politics here has a long and august history of resentment and rejection of those who sound superior, or intellectual, or informed, or literate. We are thinking of Willie Lomax.

“During the last four decades America’ endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a news species of semi-conscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds with not only the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.”

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason. Random House, New York: 2008. pp. xi-xii

Certainly, we understand those who fear the (unspoken) ridicule of those who are educated and erudite. Hell, they can’t talk without making you feel stupid.


Insecure, fearful and resentful Americans truly resent the hell out of people who sound superior. That might mean erudite, or educated, or literate.

Unfortunately it often extends to informed, or sound of mind, or sound in judgment, or honest.

What a pickle! Without even examining the cruel logic we have created, we have ensured that we will never even allow someone who might be perceived as sounding as though they might feel superior, or even be superior, or be better, or even be good, to become a Presumptive Nominee!

And since we are such a doggedly populist, inclusive and fair group, some among us never relent in their digging up the yet more uneducated, stupid and inferior against which we must weigh, and discard, our representatives.

Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George Wanker Bush have all been unable to speak in grammatically correct and complete sentences, even simple ones. McCain doesn’t either. And think about the literate and the articulate: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore.

This is a truly telling cultural divide. In Governor Palin, we have for the first time in my adulthood embraced a candidate who is determinedly and resolutely presented as being truly low-brow. We have met Joe Six-Pack and She is Us. We can hope for fireside chats about tips and tricks for home-reloading your own ammo. What caliber do you recommend? And she is the Governor of fucking Alaska, for god’s sake.

When the Right would like to trot out their disingenuous Populist disguise, they actually cannot, and won’t, speak correctly or in complete sentences. Think of it.

To appeal to this electoral demographic, one must be, or persuasively appear to be, stupid. The aggrandizement of this group, the continual pandering of Right extremists to the self-image and underlying sense of inferiority of this group, now perpetuates their righteousness and pride in self-identifying and perpetuating themselves as the Great Stupid. Nixon’s “silent” (inarticulate, angry, mumbling, white) majority. Fortunately, they have people who are at least literate, like Karl Rove, to help them sort out who’s who.

At least for this group, we have available a simple and precise mechanism (foul line) for ruling out candidates. The smart are excluded. Even the dishonest, clever smart among them are almost sure to exposed and “outed” for the smart that they are.

It is, after all, very difficult to appear to be smart, or even articulate, while espousing and defending positions and beliefs that are at best wrong, ridiculous, unsupportable or stupid, and at worst vilely and transparently hypocritical. It is pretty easy to spot the true believers- those who are hypocritical in a loud, clear voice of unquestioning conviction. No mumbling, so dissembling or prevarication, just… wrong. Simplicity! Clarity! Joy!

We are quick and automatic to dismiss anyone from qualification to speak for us, who can speak. We reject anyone who is functioning ordinarily, as “superior.” We revile the articulate as presumptuous. Or presumptive…?

Let’s examine the term superior for a minute though. Senator Obama will serve as an excellent example for our little analysis. Senator Obama is educated, charismatic, informed, knowledgeable and erudite. There is a lot of presumption here. We presume that we share a common basis for understanding what constitutes a good education in the canons of Western civilization. That charisma is, at least, a not-undesirable characteristic in a leader. That there is a community of knowledge about which we might agree. An accepted body about which it would be unreasonable (damn stupid) to disagree.

Schoolyard Diplomacy: Erudition is somehow competitive. Superior erudition is somehow a victory. Until you beat them up.

Then comes the presumption. That those among us who are educated, knowledgeable, charismatic, reasoned, persuasive, are somehow intentionally, deliberatively, ridiculing us and deriding us with their tone, their high-brow dance of mocking words.

Then we lose. When such things become games,  there are winners and losers, and the un-intellectual are the losers. Certainly, those who are suspicious of erudition and charisma are losers. By the very definition of the terms of the game, they lose.

So the problem is superiority. The smarter, more informed, more educated, more reasoning, more qualified and intelligent among us sound superior. There is the problem.

We will make a Judgment Here. In public discourse, leadership and government, policy-making and the determination of public policy, erudite is good. Charismatic is good. Literate, educated, informed and knowledgeable are certainly very good. A Presumptive Candidate with these features would be good. Better than one without. Superior even.

And we think, and you may agree, that within a certain realm of human endeavor- the public, thinking, reasoning, choosing, acting, consequential, intellectual one- these attributes and capacities are good. Better even. Superior. But that would be only among us intellectuals we bet.

Take a moment and consider the idea that maybe we ought to encourage, welcome and elect the intelligent among us. That we should directly ask ourselves if they are superior, in the characteristics that might matter to policy. And willfully, gratefully, elect them.

Or maybe it would be easier to just see if they are convincingly (if inarticulately) hypocritical about logically unsupportable and inarticulate “issues” like guns, abortions, gays, environmental degradation and violence abroad. And elect them.

Let’s ask ourselves if our prospective, presumptive representatives are superior, and have the courage, honesty and integrity to embrace, elect and fully support them.

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editor @ 10:01 pm

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