January 9, 2005


Cutting Moral Corners (James Bowman, December 31, 2004, The New Criterion)

[I]t wasn’t being smart that made people vote for Kerry; it was voting for Kerry that made people smart. It’s simple, really. The Democrats are by now well-established as the political home of clever and sophisticated people. Not only famous geniuses like Philip Roth and Simon Schama and Madonna but most non-famous college professors and scientists, writers and artists, actors and musicians, journalists and gay people. Under those circumstances, what better way for someone to demonstrate his own intelligence and sophistication, especially if he is the tiniest bit insecure about them, than by associating himself with all those social and intellectual luminaries — among which, as the Mirror reminded us, we have to include a large majority of the frightfully clever British — by voting for their political party? [...]

"Every liberal," says Paul Begala, late of the Clinton administration and now of CNN’s "Crossfire," imagines that he is "intellectually superior to conservatives." And by the same token, "Every conservative I know wants to think of himself as morally superior." This is absolutely spot-on except for the bit about conservatives, certainly if it is meant to imply a contrast with Kerry voters. It wasn’t a conservative who wrote, as Peter Beinart did in The New Republic, that "honest conservatives, even those who admire Bush, know he didn't earn a second term." As the editor of a magazine which has been monotonously proclaiming the president’s dishonesty since well before 9/11, he must have come by degrees to think it no great leap from that assumption to assuming all the president’s supporters were as mendacious as he. How can 59,054,087 people be so dishonest? Later Beinart apologized but, like Kerry apologizing for accusations of war crimes against his once and future "band of brothers," he made it sound as if he had only been guilty of a poor choice of words. And Beinart’s insult was one of the milder remarks from bitter Kerry partisans who were given access to the public prints in the weeks after the election. The novelist Jane Smiley, writing in Slate, insisted that Bush and Cheney, if not every one of their supporters (who are merely ignorant) "know no boundaries or rules. They are predatory and resentful, amoral, avaricious and arrogant." Garry Wills in the New York Times proclaimed the end of the Enlightenment, no less, and found little or nothing to choose between al Qaeda’s jihad and George Bush’s.

No self-conceit of moral superiority there then! But the idea of conservatives as being more than commonly self-righteous, just like the idea of liberals as being more than commonly intelligent, has now become an article of faith for the media consensus and the reason for all those sober electoral post-mortems announcing the importance of "moral values" in explaining the results. I myself thought this analysis mistaken. "Moral values" as cited by people in exit poll interviews amounted to a "Don’t Know" response for anyone who had a vague feeling that one side was preferable to the other but couldn’t tell you why exactly, and it’s not surprising to me that Bush should have more of these voters, given the rhetorical differences between the two campaigns. Kerry, in other words, always had a great many reasons to offer why people should vote for him, while Bush had only one or two on the other side. If you cared more about "leadership" or resolution than you did about taxes and health care and all the rest of the usual campaign "issues" what other box would you check than the one marked "Moral values"? The idea of such values as a new and potent force was also counterintuitive. The electoral map in 2004 looked almost exactly like the one in 2000, except that the red tide lapped just a little higher on the blue beach, taking in New Mexico and Iowa which it just missed last time and only losing New Hampshire, which it just won last time.

"Moral values" may not have decided the election, but they did create the passion with which it was fought and the bitterness of the aftermath. Anyone attending to the electoral dialogue in the weeks and months running up to the election could not have been unaware that all, or nearly all, the moral fervor was on the Kerry side, which numbered among its more fervent adherents the thoughtful graffitist who inscribed on a public refuse bin near my office the elegant equation: "Bush = Hitler" This was not, by the way, the first time I had been involuntarily made aware of this sentiment’s being abroad, but I don’t remember a single conservative writing Kerry = Hitler. Or even Kerry = Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, take your choice. Even among the more rhetorically restrained Democratic faction, charges of "bigotry" against Bush/Cheney were almost routine. Those who liked Bush did not, for the most part hate Kerry or consider him a wicked or immoral man, whereas large numbers of those who liked Kerry did have just such thoughts and feelings about the President. I suppose it would have been too much to expect that those who were the victims of it should have been able to spot the irony that the party of "nuance," of insisting that all was not black and white, professed to find it all black and white when it came to the Bush administration. At least Bush’s with-us-or-against-us moment was vis á vis an evil dictator; theirs was against their own government.

So if the side for which moral values mattered most actually lost, then wasn’t it the case that the vox populi had come down against a greater moralization of politics?

The near psychotic passions of the Left were obvious enough, but an interesting phenomenon is that these days they're so ignorant about religion that thedy think christians imagine themselves to be without sin. So you'd get these outraged protests that George W. Bush can't be a good Christian because he killed a cat when he was a teenager, or whatever. Or, like Mr. Begala, you find them saying that the Right thinks itself morally superior, rather than the truth, which is that it thinks morally-based public policy superior to the Left's political amorality. Indeed, you can easily correct his formula so that it is entirely accurate: liberals think their own intellect superior to inherited morality and conservatives think the opposite.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2005 12:47 PM

Conservatives understand human frailities, limitations. Liberals don't. Practical wisdom has never been a characteristic of the left. Scientific pretense has been the curse of humanity
since all who like to think of themselves as sophisticated intellectuals are the most easily fooled. As the wise man once asked, "How many journalists or college professors have ever met a payroll?"

. Sophisticated? Maybe. Smart? Obviously not.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at January 9, 2005 2:21 PM

From the article— "Doubtless there are majorities of bright people at places like the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington ..."

Having worked in the place, at best, one can say that expertise there with writing software is above average compared to the rest of the nation. Otherwise, you get the same sort of mix (and statistical distribution) you get anywhere else. But even there, a lot of people on that campus are doing jobs like marketing and personel management and keeping the place running, jobs that have little to do with software. The mistake people make about places like the Evil Software Empire or Ivy League University is to assume that a small group of people with above average expertise in a narrow field correlates to general intellegence and wisdom for the entire area. If anything, that expertise is gained at the expense of more general knowledge, and those people drag the place down.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 9, 2005 2:21 PM

We all understand that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Now let's talk about shooting cats.

Back in my college days, I mostly hung out with two cliques who thought very much alike, but who, except for Y.O.S., did not overlap: the campus Conservative Club, and the rifle team. The second group had a lot of military types and a fair number of rural chaps, with whom I wound up going hunting and camping on a pretty regular basis.

Now about the cats. Feral cats are a real nuisance, as they are after all, exotic predators, and don't belong to anyone. These guys would be driving down some back, dirt road, someone would shout, "Cat! 2 o'clock!" The car would come to a screeching, braying stop, the doors would fly open, and. . ..

I never partook of this practice, not out of consideration for the cats, but because it was very, very illegal. I never heard that any of them ever got caught at it, but it would have been a big fine for roadhunting, and probably forfeiture of the gun used. That was in the 1960's; shooting cats would probably get you a "cruelty to animals" beef these days.

Different cultures, different customs: liberals are supposed to be understanding of things like these.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 9, 2005 9:53 PM

Paragraph #2 states that Kerry apologized for his 1971 "war crimes" testimony. That's quite simply not true. I saw the 60 Minutes where Kerry supposedly "apologized". Smirking, he said something to the effect that his comments were over the top and that they caused much controversy. I distinctly did not hear an apology. I have to give the 60 Minutes reporter credit for actually pressing Kerry to deliver a real apology.

Kerry's a sick man who couldn't/cannot see the damage he did to his country. The good thing for most of the country is that he's no longer a threat. For us Baystaters he's still one of our Senators-for-Life (TM); much like a toothache he's something you can kind of get used to, I think.

Posted by: Leonidas at January 10, 2005 12:56 PM

"much like a toothache he's something you can kind of get used to, I think."

Do you know how much better you will feel after the root canal?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 10, 2005 1:48 PM