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The Rise of the Righteous

We look to "poets" - or the articulate in general - to give voice to something we've felt, or intuited, but lacked the wherewithal to express clearly.

Even speaking extemporaneously to Bill Mahrer, Hitchens finds rough and ready words for a certain self-important sort that ones meets ever more frequently these days:

I've been on the Jon Stewart show, I've been on your show, I've seen you make about five George-Bush-IQ jokes per night. There's no one I know who can't do it. You know what I think? - this is now the joke that stupid people laugh at. It's the joke that any dumb person can laugh at because they think that they ... can prove they're smarter than the president (like the people that make booing and mooing noises in your audience ... none of whom are smarter than the president). [The transcription is mine - see original video here - at approx. 1:50]

As I often say, I had a very dim opinion of GW Bush in the run-up to the 2000 election; the patent hyperbole and unjustness of his critics gave me pause, and then cause to reconsider my initial opinions of him. While no great admirer, I - to put the matter in negative terms - think of him neither as devil nor idiot. But I guess that if you're not with his fervent detractors, you're against them; this is an entailment of their demonology.

Though an atheist, I do believe in a congenital religious impulse or instinct which all-too-often - because its very existence is denied, driving it into the subterranean realms - seeks to apply its suction to whatever creed or cause promises a kind of "redemption." The secular-but-religious haters of GW Bush are a case in point.

October 7, 2006 | Permalink


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It's typical Hitchens, isn't it? Ad hominem abusive? A verbose way of saying, "You're stupid if you think that" or, perhaps, "No intelligent person would thing Bush stupid" - which really isn't much of an argument.

Posted by: Aaron at Oct 7, 2006 9:55:25 PM

Er... I mistyped 'think'? What could I have been thinging.... ;-)

Posted by: Aaron at Oct 8, 2006 6:34:50 AM


Thanks for the comment.

I disagree with your diagnosis.

An Ad Homimem obtains when the substance of a question is avoided by diverting attention to someone's character. But, here, the "question" is the character of those who, in snide fashion, pride themselves on being smarter than Bush, and joke incessantly about his cognitive shortcomings. Hitchens is the one who raised the matter for consideration; he wasn't asked something and then tossed this out as a distraction.

If anyone is committing an Ad Hominem, it's those who take Bush's postulated stupidity as the reason to dismiss out of hand every proposal, policy, action, and utterance of the man - without engaging any particular point argumentatively.

Further, I take Hitchens to be saying that there's something unseemly about this kind of smug Bush hatred, and I certainly agree. As material for a joke, it's not clever - that is to say, witty; anyone can do it. And it's unedifying to see people - particularly young people - assume with an easy self-assurance that they're more "intelligent" (in a comprehensive sense) than Bush. I have had occasion more than once to say that I had no reason to assume that Bush was any less "intelligent" than the person ridiculing him in my presence.

For me, the joke has ceased to be funny, because it bespeaks the depths of Bush Hatred, and how there really is a pathological variety. Clinton hatred was bad enough; antipathy to Bush has reached a new low for public "discourse," globally.

Finally: if the premises of the joke are true - it's no laughing matter.

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Oct 8, 2006 8:59:54 AM

Oh, I don't find the joke to be funny. It's very tired. The problem isn't really that the joke is made, though, its that enough people perceive an element of truth in it that it keeps being told. By way of comparison, you don't hear jokes about Clinton being stupid, but you can still find jokes being made about his, er, self-control. Nothing new there either. For that matter, I still occasionally see jokes about Jimmy Carter and the rabid rabbit, or about Gerald Ford's supposed clumsiness. For that matter, it's possible that more "stupid jokes" were made about Reagan than Bush, and let's not forget Dan Quayle.

Hitchens criticism of comedians who overuse this (or any other) joke may be a valid commentary on their laziness (or that of their writers). But I nonetheless don't see how Hitchens' attack on those who laugh at such jokes is anything more than a personal attack. He's attacked their character - the essence of a personal attack - without providing any substantive response. It's just another version of what he did... was it on that same episode... when he flipped the audience the bird. Lazy, vulgar, and anything but thoughtful.

Posted by: Aaron at Oct 8, 2006 1:50:25 PM

I remember an interview in which Charlie Rose asked Al Gore whether he thought President Bush was really as stupid as he is commonly portrayed, and Mr. Gore emphatically denied it. I think he said that President Bush is exceedingly shrewd, but not interested in the least in, and even disdainful of, theoretical discussions and hence had gained a reputation as an anti-intellectual and eventually, as a moron.

Posted by: Nameless Nobody at Oct 9, 2006 11:42:51 AM


I guess we're coming to rest at our natural place of disagreement ...

While we both agree that Hitchens is focusing on the "character" of those who think it worthwhile to ridicule regularly Bush's intellectual demerits, I think that focus is useful and eminently reasonable - and you seem to view it as a kind of cheap shot.


Thanks for that. World leaders who deal with Bush emphatically deny the caricatured view of him as a moron. One might say that, for example, in the case of Tony Blair, they're simply covering for an ally. But I remember clearly that Menzies Campbell, a prominent Liberal Democrat in the UK - and certainly a political adversary to Blair, and Bush - said that upon meeting with Bush he was struck by how utterly at-odds the real Bush is with the usual slander.

I think your citation of Gore points to one reason why Bush is viewed as a dimwit: he eschews "theory" and is very action-oriented. That along with his woefully malapropic speech - he's a very poor orator, whether delivering a prepared address or (especially) speaking extemporaneously - makes it easy for ill-wishers to write him off as a dolt.

I think that a further operative factor is that, as with so many terms, "stupid" is equivocal and can bundle many ill-distinguished shades of meaning into one package. So, if you violently opposed the invasion of Iraq, you might think it was a "stupid" (= markedly imprudent) thing to do - and only someone "stupid" would undertake that course of action. So, Bush is stupid because of his policies, which (it is supposed) flow out of his weak intellect. Thus can be observed a negative feedback loop at work, for those who think in these terms - in other words, a kind of closed system.

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Oct 9, 2006 12:27:32 PM

It may also be the case that his stupidity works in his favor - his constituency doesn't particularly want someone polished and theoretical, as was the case with President Clinton, just someone who is perceived to do the right thing. His maladroiteness gives the impression to some that he is incapable of deception, again in distinction to President Clinton. I think President Bush finds it useful. His opponents misunderestimate him.

Posted by: Nameless Nobody at Oct 9, 2006 1:00:20 PM


Posted by: Paul Craddick at Oct 9, 2006 1:22:33 PM

Paul, you of all people, a Chesterton fan, should recognize the validity of the Punch and Judy element in politics. Bush's stupidity, Clinton's horniness, etc. -- surely the fairy tale element tells us not whether Clinton is extraordinarily horny or Bush dim, but gives us dramatic cues. Was Richard iii a hunchbacked villain? Was cleopatra really a ravishing slut?

I must quote GKC at length, because he saw where the essential drama was:

Upon this helpless populace, gazing at these prodigies
and fates, comes round about every five years a thing called
a General Election. It is believed by antiquarians to be the remains
of some system of self-government; but it consists solely in asking
the citizen questions about everything except what he understands.
The examination paper of the Election generally consists of
some such queries as these: "I. Are the green biscuits eaten
by the peasants of Eastern Lithuania in your opinion fit for
human food? II. Are the religious professions of the President
of the Orange Free State hypocritical or sincere? III. Do you
think that the savages in Prusso-Portuguese East Bunyipland
are as happy and hygienic as the fortunate savages in
Franco-British West Bunyipland? IV. Did the lost Latin Charter
said to have been exacted from Henry III reserve the right of
the Crown to create peers? V. What do you think of what America
thinks of what Mr. Roosevelt thinks of what Sir Eldon Gorst
thinks of the state of the Nile? VI. Detect some difference
between the two persons in frock-coats placed before you
at this election."

Now, it never was supposed in any natural theory of self-government
that the ordinary man in my neighbourhood need answer fantastic questions
like these. He is a citizen of South Bucks, not an editor of 'Notes
and Queries'. He would be, I seriously believe, the best judge of whether
farmsteads or factory chimneys should adorn his own sky-line, of whether
stupid squires or clever usurers should govern his own village.
But these are precisely the things which the oligarchs will not allow him
to touch with his finger. Instead, they allow him an Imperial destiny
and divine mission to alter, under their guidance, all the things that
he knows nothing about. The name of self-government is noisy everywhere:
the Thing is throttled."

Indeed, I think Bush is a smart enough individual representing the stupid squire party, which has, alas, merged with the clever usurer party. His "dumbness" is merely a symbol and a drama, pointing to a deeper and systematic dumbness. What I object to in our president is not his mental capacity -- it is his overwhelming vanity.

Posted by: roger at Oct 9, 2006 7:08:24 PM

Can we seek a middle ground - perhaps "a reasonable cheap shot"?

If the point is that Bush isn't stupid, I would hope that Hitchens is capable of presenting a better case than that. You did, after all, and without resorting to ad hominem. If his goal is to persuade, he wins zero converts with that type of display.

Sometimes I wonder if his cheap shots aren't part of the way he markets himself - many of his biggest fans seem to get a big chuckle out of his insults, but rarely seem to cite to any of his substantive contributions to any given debate. (That's the way things seemed to be on Harry's Place, when last I went there.)

Posted by: Aaron at Oct 9, 2006 7:30:45 PM


Great comment! Now that is the kind of Bush antipathy I can respect (even if we differ as to the wider significance of the current political phainomena).


May we shorten "reasonable cheap shot" to just "reasonable"?! ;)

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Oct 10, 2006 11:49:33 AM

Paul, when, oh when, are you going to do the series of posts on the great Chesterton? I'm a piker in Chestertoniana - but I would really like to see your take on one of his more significant texts, say Orthodoxy.

Posted by: roger at Oct 10, 2006 11:54:35 AM


Another excellent idea - alas, I doubt I have the time, or the discipline, to heed the suggestion.

Orthodoxy is a work that's close to my heart, and, for my money, blows Mere Christianity away, as a work of apologetics. Perhaps more another time on this!

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Oct 12, 2006 10:59:18 PM

So Paul, is the 'congenital religious impulse' vain? Is your atheism a rejection of the God of our day, or is it a rejection of theists and their lives? Just curious.

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