Monday, October 20, 2008

Thanks, Bill

I appreciate this piece in today's NYT. Noonan has been irritating the shit out of me since the RNC.

Here the People Rule
By WILLIAM KRISTOL
According to the silver-penned Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, “In the end the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics.”

Leave aside Noonan’s negative judgment on Sarah Palin’s candidacy, a judgment I don’t share. Are we really seeing “a new vulgarization in American politics”? As opposed to the good old non-vulgar days?

Politics in a democracy are always “vulgar” — since democracy is rule by the “vulgus,” the common people, the crowd. Many conservatives have never been entirely comfortable with this rather important characteristic of democracy. Conservatives’ hearts have always beaten a little faster when they read Horace’s famous line: “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo.” “I hate the ignorant crowd and I keep them at a distance.”

But is the ignorant crowd really our problem today? Are populism and anti-intellectualism rampant in the land? Does the common man too thoroughly dominate our national life? I don’t think so.

Last week, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released its latest national survey, taken from Oct. 9 to 12. Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country and of course concerned about the economy. But, as Pew summarized, “there is little indication that the nation’s financial crisis has triggered public panic or despair.”

In fact, “There is a broad public consensus regarding the causes of the current problems with financial institutions and markets: 79 percent say people taking on too much debt has contributed a lot to the crisis, while 72 percent say the same about banks making risky loans.”

This seems sensible. Indeed, as Sept. 11 did not result in a much-feared (by intellectuals) wave of popular Islamophobia or xenophobia, so the market crash has resulted in remarkably little popular hysteria or scapegoating.

And considering what has happened, the vulgar public on Main Street has been surprisingly forgiving of those well-educated types on Wall Street — the ones who devised and marketed the sophisticated financial instruments that have brought the financial system to the brink of collapse.

Most of the recent mistakes of American public policy, and most of the contemporary delusions of American public life, haven’t come from an ignorant and excitable public. They’ve been produced by highly educated and sophisticated elites.

Needless to say, the public’s not always right, and public opinion’s not always responsible. But as publics go, the American public has a pretty good track record.

In the 1930s, the American people didn’t fall — unlike so many of their supposed intellectual betters — for either fascism or Communism. Since World War II, the American people have resisted the temptations of isolationism and protectionism, and have turned their backs on a history of bigotry.

Now, the Pew poll I cited earlier also showed Barack Obama holding a 50 percent to 40 percent lead over John McCain in the race for the White House. You might think this data point poses a challenge to my encomium to the good sense of the American people.

It does. But it’s hard to blame the public for preferring Obama at this stage — given the understandable desire to kick the Republicans out of the White House, and given the failure of the McCain campaign to make its case effectively. And some number of the public may change their minds in the final two weeks of the campaign, and may decide McCain-Palin offers a better kind of change — perhaps enough to give McCain-Palin a victory.

The media elites really hate that idea. Not just because so many of them prefer Obama. But because they like telling us what’s going to happen. They’re always annoyed when the people cross them up. Pundits spent all spring telling Hillary Clinton to give up in her contest against Obama — and the public kept on ignoring them and keeping her hopes alive.

Why do elites like to proclaim premature closure — not just in elections, but also in wars and in social struggles? Because it makes them the imperial arbiters, or at least the perspicacious announcers, of what history is going to bring. This puts the elite prognosticators ahead of the curve, ahead of the simple-minded people who might entertain the delusion that they still have a choice.

But as Gerald Ford said after assuming the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, ”Here the people rule.”

One of those people is Joe Wurzelbacher, a k a Joe the Plumber. He’s the latest ordinary American to do a star turn in our vulgar democratic circus. He seems like a sensible man to me.

And to Peggy Noonan, who wrote that Joe “in an extended cable interview Thursday made a better case for the Republican ticket than the Republican ticket has made.” At least McCain and Palin have had the good sense to embrace him. I join them in taking my stand with Joe the Plumber — in defiance of Horace the Poet.

4 comments:

BillT said...

Interesting things, polls.

All the ones the MSM waves around show Obie in the lead, but the ones I've seen that *don't* make the headlines show McCain as a runaway favorite.

AoL shows McC in the lead, as do two or three other online polls. The Army Times poll shows McC over Obie by 45-50 points among all demographics except *one*...

Stella said...

Is Kristol's quote of Horace’s famous line: “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo.” “I hate the ignorant crowd and I keep them at a distance” anti-intellectual? You can see Horace echoed in Swift's letter to Alexander Pope regarding his masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels:

I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communityes and all my love is towards individuals for instance I hate the tribe of Lawyers, but I love Councellor such a one, Judge such a one for so with Physicians (I will not Speak of my own Trade) Soldiers, English, Scotch, French; and the rest but pricipally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth. this is the system upon which I have governed my self many years (but do not tell) and so I shall go on till I have done with them I have Materials Towards a Treatis proving the falsity of that Definition animal rationale; and to show it should be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of Misanthropy... the whole building of my Travels is erected.

In other words, humans are not "rational animals," but animals "capable of rationality." Each of us must work hard to achieve reason and intellect.

The person who recognizes s/he knows nothing is usually far more intelligent than any "elite." I notice on Bill Moyers' interviews that he listens carefully and doesn't act like believe he knows everything: nor does Bill Lam. They leave their mind open to different viewpoints.

I am, needless to say, not a big fan of Kristol nor Dick Cheney. But now that we're down to the wire on the election, whichever candidate one chooses, I agree (for a change) with Cheney and think Bill makes this point, too: I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls. I stopped looking at polls back in 2000.

On the other hand, Kristol celebrates Joe the Plumber while parades his intellect in this article. There's a disconnect in his logic.
Certainly, Kristol is a brilliant man, but not an individual who I imagine would support a liberal "Joe the Plumber."

There are some stunningly brilliant conclusions in Kristol's op ed. Others are uninformed Why do elites like to proclaim premature closure—not just in elections, but also in wars and in social struggles? does not apply to "elites" alone (whoever they are), but is human nature: I believe most people have a desire prove one infallibly knowledgeable, an people whom Swift targeted at his satiric best.

I could make the same comment over extreme Christian fundamentalists who believe the world is coming to an end—soon. They, too, "proclaim premature closure" of the entire world. Is that not a kind of elitism?

Kristol states, But it’s hard to blame the public for preferring Obama at this stage—given the understandable desire to kick the Republicans out of the White House, and given the failure of the McCain campaign to make its case effectively. And some number of the public may change their minds in the final two weeks of the campaign, and may decide McCain-Palin offers a better kind of change—perhaps enough to give McCain-Palin a victory. Isn't Kristol covertly acting like the prognosticator he condemns? I'm not saying he's wrong, but he tends to cover his pronouncements with supposition, which is a rhetorical device.

There's something elitist in his argument, too. His comment about the "ignorant crowd" is unnerving. And I firmly believe we are in one of the most anti-intellectual periods in our country's history. When kids are taught the procedure, and not the concept behind a subject, they tend to forget more quickly. This is the danger of No Child Left behind, that relies on tests and memorization rather than concepts.

Maggie, the essay is a wonderful read. I couldn't agree more with Kristol that campaign politics are a vulgarity. But, must they? Campaigns are the basis on which the public chooses their government by getting to know candidates—anyway, that's how it should be, rather than a circus.

Overall, my impression of Kristol's article was simultaneously condescending and brilliantly written.

Hi to you and Bill. As always, I've blathered far too long. I may usually disagree with your political posts, Maggie, but you always make me think. And I appreciate you very much for that gift.

BostonMaggie said...

Overall, my impression of Kristol's article was simultaneously condescending and brilliantly written

Yeah, I know it can seem condescending but that's just perspective. When you meet him in person, he's not that way at all. It's one of those "how you take it" things. Really, he was terribly nice.

Stella said...

When you meet him in person, he's not that way at all. It's one of those "how you take it" things. Really, he was terribly nice. That's surprising, Maggie. He's certainly a highly intelligent individual and a gifted writer. I just don't agree with his politics (oh, like I needed to tell you that...)

In studying English, I strongly resonated reader response criticism because every person is unique. Given our different perspectives, you proved that point.