Smart Talk

Some right-wing blogs are discussing articulation versus intelligence. Todd Zywicki writes,

This piece by Randall Hoven on American Thinker raises a question that I’ve been wondering about, namely how it came to be that many people believe that Sarah Palin is not smart enough to be Vice-President. I think that what it probably explains it is a tendency to confuse glibness with intelligence, or perhaps more accurately, to confuse the ability to “bullshit” with actual intelligence.

This begs the question, what does he mean by “smart”? For the record, I don’t think Sarah Palin is stupid, if by “not stupid” we mean having a capacity to learn. I am guessing she has an above-average IQ.

I would say the better word is “unprepared.” Her knowledge of world affairs is, shall we say, shallow. But I think if someone gave her a job in the State Department that required her to learn, in five to ten years she might be a match for Henry Kissinger. Not that I care for Kissinger, but whatever you think of him, he’s not stupid.

For that matter, George W. Bush probably has, or had, as much cognitive capacity as most other presidents. People who know him say he’s not stupid, just intellectually lazy. If something interests him, he can learn about it quickly enough. It’s just that there’s a world of stuff that doesn’t interest him.

Lack of intelligence and lack of knowledge are both called “stupid,” but they are not the same thing. I get the impression that until recently Sarah Palin has not given much thought to issues that don’t directly affect Alaska. And that was fine, as long as her job was all about Alaska. But it’s not fine for a POTUS. And the depth of knowledge she needs to be POTUS is not something even a very bright person could pick up in a few easy lessons. It takes years.

I spent a lot of my life editing other people’s writing. I noticed a long time ago that sloppy language reveals sloppy thinking. The blog post linked above is an example; the words smart and intelligence are not used with precision. “Smart” means a lot of different things. Palin is smart in some ways and not smart in others.

And there are people who use language in lieu of thinking. Victor Davis Hanson’s verbose essays are mostly word salads, for example. Christopher Hitchens can turn out clever sentences, but he doesn’t tie his clever sentences together to make defensible arguments. He leaves gaps one could drive a truck through. His essays tend to be much less than the sum of their parts.

Some of us are better at writing than speaking. I’ve had a little experience at public speaking, and manage not to suck at it too much, but if I want to be very clear I’d rather write. I have sympathy for the candidates when their mouths get ahead of their heads and the words come out wrong. Sometimes a stumble is just a stumble and not anything to get excited about.

However, show me a person whose language is consistently sloppy, and I’ll show you a sloppy thinker. An adult of above-average intelligence, speaking or writing in his native language, ought to be able to convey his ideas coherently. His rhetoric may be wooden and graceless, and that’s OK, but if it’s fuzzy, it’s darn near certain his ideas are fuzzy, too.

Regarding Barack Obama — the blogger linked above says,

Obama has this ability to fall back on empty stock-phrases that he utters with a furrowed brow and gravitas, projecting a perception of intelligence and understanding even if what he is saying is largely devoid of substance. For instance, it seems relatively clear that neither McCain nor Obama has the slightest clue about what caused the financial crisis or what to do about it. But McCain’s discomfort and lack of knowledge when it comes to talking about the financial crisis is transparent, whereas Obama is able to cogently spout empty generalities that obscure his lack of knowledge.

It’s true that many of Obama’s stump speeches are more soaring rhetoric than substance. However, he is one of the few people in national politics who does do substance when it’s called for. The “race” speech and the “faith” speech are examples. The guy is a real thinker. You can tell he likes to dig beneath the surface of issues and understand them deeply. This is a trait I appreciate.

However, people who are sloppy thinkers themselves don’t appreciate clarity of thought. They like to wallow in the warm familiarity of stock phrases and comforting biases; all other communication bounces off them without leaving a dent. Anything that requires critical thinking to understand probably won’t register.

7 thoughts on “Smart Talk

  1. “Anything that requires critical thinking to understand probably won’t register”.

    I think you are onto something!!! That’s why the righties hate higher education (they prefer the term community college). Right wing ideology has become quite an industry ever since Reagan started the assault on education in this country, how else can one explain the popularity of morons like Rush, Hannity, Billo, etc. My favorite right-wing blog is redstate.hate (its not really dot hate but I think it rolls off the tongue better), they would never bother to discuss such topics as articulation or glibness, they would lose their typical reader immediately. It’s more redmeatyish. You should check it out its good for a laugh when you need one.

    As for Sarah Palin, I agree she is not stupid. If she was stupid she would have attended 6 colleges and not graduated. She is however the most dangerous major political figure that I can remember. She is the real American Taliban (Christian version). Could you imagine that wackjob with the NSA at her fingertips? I believe her complete scariness was responsible for Obamas record 150 million dollar fund raising month; she didn’t just energize the conservative base.

  2. These are the same sad folk who were sketching out conspiracy theories about the “Photoshopped” Obama crowd in St. Louis on Saturday; or the 100,000 bussed in by labor unions (in 1,500+ invisible busses, apparently). These are the same indecent folk claiming Obama’s grandmother isn’t really sick. These are the same fearful folk inciting assault, theft, vandalism and death threats.

    That they feel qualified to discuss “intelligence” takes outrageous hubris. But the gods’ payback is going to be a bitch.

  3. There’s a public face of conservativism, which has few intellectual heavyweights (maybe George Will and that outrageous pretender, Jonah Goldberg) and a whole lot of loutish rude boors at the bottom to rope in the masses. This public face is openly anti-intellectual, and proudly proclaims this kind of ignorance as a badge of honor. They somehow convinced the country that George Bush would be a great guy to have a beer with, as though gaining the presidency were a kind of high school popularity contest. They’re trying to pull the same trick this year, you betcha, with that swell gal hockey mom, Sarah Palin [wink].

    The private aspect of the conservative movement is ruthless, smart, and exceedingly skillful at manipulating the public. They’re the people setting up and pulling the strings behind the public face. The public face is skilled at conning as many as possible, through all kinds of deceptions. This includes illogical arguments, outright lying, imprecise thinking and writing, and so on. It’s just the nature of the beast.

    The public that gets drawn into this, are there less from the brilliance of the argumentation or communication, and more from a shared sense of outrage, even if this outrage was manufactured by the private aspect. These are people who lack or refuse to use critical thinking skills to see through the arguments presented to them. Mostly they want to believe what they want to believe, and they don’t care about facts or reasoning. The rightie bloggers you write about come from this culture where poor thinking skills are the norm.

    The private aspect is more interesting than the public face, as the public face is simply the front men, the carnival barkers, the empty glad handlers there to handle the masses. The private side that finances and sets all this up is where the brains are. Their existence is proof that intelligence – and I suspect very clear and precise thinking and writing – have little to do with principles. I’ve personally known brilliant Ph D level people who were absolutely ruthless and without scruples.

    On a personal level, I’m often aware in my own communication and thinking the things you wrote about. My thinking and writing are often sloppy and imprecise, and I see myself given over to word salad now and then. I really appreciate you pointing and explaining these things in the right, because I’m guilty of them from time to time, unwillingly. I think the only way to sharpen this is to communicate frequently in a group setting where there is a lot of critiquing going on – and blogging is a very limited step in that direction.

  4. As the race hurtles closer to its conclusion, the arguments on the right seem further and further away from reality. I’ve become enamored of the Corner, because I rather enjoy watching the collective meltdown of the hypocritical right.
    Imagine that: Reagan-lovers who decry the ability of a politician to persuade with simplified language…

  5. The really intelligent people on the right do not speak publicly about what they intend, because they know it would be unpopular. So they must use deception and misdirection to elect candidates, and this leads ultimately to a kind of know nothing stupidity.

  6. I think Mahakal nailed it. Conservativism serves the oligarchy, and flogs red-meat issues like abortion, gays and taxes to rope in its voting block. What we’re seeing at McCain/Palin rallies is nothing but the naked face of rage inflamed by a collection of hot-button issues that conservative leaders privately has has little interest in (except for taxes) but exploit well to cement their voting block. Except that bad economic times erode that cement. and they need to keep turning up the volume to prevent their base from considering more reality-based concerns.

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