Sounding Smart to Stupid People

Many years ago we had a friend on our high school debate team who adopted the odd habit of adding an extra syllable to words. When devising a plan he would “strategetize” rather “strategize,” for instance, and he was adamant that “conservativism” rather than “conservatism” is the political philosophy espoused by conservatives.
He did this on the belief that most people are impressed and intimated by multi-syllabic words, and that by adding an extra consonant to a three-syllable word he could make it one-third more impressive and intimidating. Judging by the awestruck looks that would cross some people’s faces whenever he unleashed one of his new and improved coinages, and they way they seemed willing to accept whatever nonsensical argument he was making, we were forced concede there might be something to his theory. We tried to persuade him that although his highfalutin and fundamentally incorrect verbiage made him sound smart to stupid people it also made him sound stupid to smart people, but he’d laugh off the criticism by noting that because there are far more stupid people than smart people he would ultimately be more widely regarded as smart by saying such stupid things. As much as his mispronunciations grated on our sensitive ears, we had to admit there was probably something to that theory as well.
Our friend has since become a highly successful businessman, of course, and we’re pleased to hear that he’s still a staunch conservative. Perhaps he’s calling himself a “conservativist” these days, and still insisting that all the lexicographers and the rest of the English-speaking world have it wrong, but at any rate he still seems to be plying his shrewdly cynical rhetorical skills on behalf of the right causes. This is good to know, because liberalism in general and President Barack Obama in particular are especially adept at sounding smart to stupid people even when it entails the modest political cost of sounding stupid to smart people. Although they haven’t yet mastered the art of the extra syllable, they have an undeniable knack for manufacturing slogans with poll-tested mass appeal that somehow strike a more informed audience as wrong.
Two examples shouted out during Obama’s address Monday on behalf of his beleaguered Obamacare. The speech mostly extolled the great successes of the program, with some conspicuously uninspiring examples standing as props behind the podium, which will seem suspicious enough to smart people, but the president did briefly acknowledge the widely-reported difficulties with the web site that is supposed to make it all run and promised that a “surge” of the “best and brightest” professionals from the public and private sectors would soon have it all worked out. Smart people will immediately note the uncharacteristically generous acknowledgement of professional expertise in the private sector, especially on behalf of a program that seems designed to drive the money-loving bastards out of the of the health care field, but those of a certain age and a still-sound memory will be struck by the use of “surge” and “best and brightest.”
One needn’t be too old to remember when the word “surge” became associated with President George W. Bush’s military strategy — or “strategery,” if you prefer — to deal with the insurgency in Iraq. Then-Sen. Obama ridiculed the idea, and voted against its funding, but it proved successful enough in the field that President Obama uses the word “surge” with certainty that it will reassure a wary public that a sufficient outpouring of manpower will solve any problem. Smart people will savor the irony, even as they worry that a mass influx of soldiers will solve a military problem more often than a massive influx of computer programmers can fix a fundamentally-flawed health care system.
More seasoned readers will also raise an eyebrow at that “best and brightest” reference. They’ll recall that the phrase was introduced into parlance by David Halberstam’s book of same title about the Kennedy and Johnson administration stars who urged on the war in Vietnam. “The Best and Brightest” was meant ironically, of course, and as it became a cliché it was always used with sarcastic quotation marks. Anyone familiar with the phrase’s early usage will not be reassured that the “best and brightest” have been unleashed on America’s health.
Other examples abound in Obama’s political career. He once promised “peace in our time,” apparently either unaware or unconcerned that the slogan was famously associated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous attempt at appeasing Adolf Hitler, and his apologists have created such formulations as “leading from behind.” “Hope and Change,” “Yes, We can,” “the failed policies of the Bush administration” and all the other vague slogans of his first presidential campaign had the same winning effect on the stupid and same calculated disregard for the smart, and all were delivered with a smug cocksureness and upraised chin that even our shrewd high school friend could not equal. It might not work with Obamacare, as even the stupidest among us can figure out when their health care costs are rising and grandma’s hip replacement is being put off, but most of the time it seems to work well enough. In order to counter this dangerous strategery, conservativists will have to learn to fight back.

— Bud Norman

The Hagel Show

Confirmation hearings may be dull fare for the average American, but to the dedicated current events enthusiast they often provide some of the best theater that politics has to offer. Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s appearance on Thursday before a Senate committee, for instance, was classic farce.
The former Senator from Nebraska gave such an inept performance that even the most sympathetic media panned it. Politico reluctantly conceded that he “stumbled,” The Hill described him as “shaky,” and The Washington Post went so far as to concede that he “faced withering criticism.” All of the sound bites that found their way into the radio reports gave the same impression, with Hagel stammering lame responses to the most predictable questions.
Because Hagel is a Republican, and with a fairly conservative record on domestic issues, the administration might have hoped that he would be spared a thorough interrogation by the members of his party. If so, the administration has overestimated the opposition’s party loyalty. Hagel is a throwback to the long-ago isolationist era of the Republican party, with a strange affinity for Iran’s brutal theocracy, a suspicious antipathy for Israel’s embattled democracy, a record of wobbliness on the Iraq war, and the “R” behind his name was not enough to shield him from questions about all of it.
Sen. Jim Inhofe asked about the fact that Iran’s government has explicitly endorsed Hagel nomination, and Hagel replied that “I have a difficult enough time with American politics, Senator. I have no idea, but thank you. I’ll be glad to respond further to the record.” In response to a question by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Hagel described Iran’s government as “elected and legitimate” before walking it back during friendlier questioning from a Democratic Senator. Sen. Ted Cruz quoted comments Hagel had made to the terror-friendly Al Jazeera network about America as “the world’s bully,” forcing Hagel to insist that his words did not mean what they clearly did mean, and Sen. Lindsey Graham asked about Hagel’s stated view that the “Israel lobby” “intimidates” the Senate, forcing Hagel to admit that he could not name one Senator who was intimidated by Israel nor one “dumb thing” the American government has done as a result of Israeli influence. Hagel’s distinguished record of service in the Vietnam War might have been expected to earn him some gentle treatment, but no one out-Vietnam vets Sen. John McCain, who grilled Hagel on his opposition to the surge strategy that allowed an American withdrawal from a relatively peaceful Iraq, and after saying that he would “defer to the judgment of history” Hagel seemed to sputter his insistence that he was still right about the surge being “the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.”
It was so embarrassing that the press had no choice but to admit it, but the reluctant criticism was all about how Hagel was simply unprepared, or out of practice after a few years of retirement from politics, and that he’s a Republican after all. This focus on Hagel spared the press from pondering the possibility that the real problem is his world view, clearly shared by the administration that seeks his appointment, which simply can bear such scrutiny no matter the apologist.

— Bud Norman