October 13, 2012

JAMES TARANTO: Dr. Strangelaugh — Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb.

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength,” the longshoreman cum philosopher Eric Hoffer once observed. Hoffer died in 1983, so he probably wasn’t referring specifically to Joe Biden’s performance in last night’s debate. Still, the observation is fitting.

In addition to the vice president’s boorishness, a lot of observers noted that he frequently smiled and chuckled at inappropriate times–even during a discussion of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Republican National Committee quickly put out an ad consisting of nearly a minute of such clips followed by the caption: “Vice President Biden is laughing . . . Are you?” If Biden finds himself out of work in January, he may have a career ahead of him as a Fixodent pitchman.

So what’s with Dr. Strangelaugh? Let’s ask an evolutionary biologist. . . . A smile is an instinctive gesture of submission. Often the submission is mutual, as when two friends exchange smiles or when Maestripieri’s strangers break into small talk on the elevator. But when a man uncontrollably smiles at a potential or actual adversary, it is a show of weakness. That isn’t necessarily to say that Paul Ryan dominated Biden, although there is no question Ryan demonstrated self-control where Biden utterly lacked it. As some commentator or other (probably several of them) observed before the debate, Biden’s assigned task was to “right the ship” after the Barack Obama disaster. Since the ship has a titanic design flaw–a gaping O-shaped hole right in the hull–that was an impossible task. Biden had ample reason to find the situation intimidating.

And so he overcompensated for his weakness by acting the bully in an attempt to dominate Ryan. His behavior was not only consistent with Hoffer’s aphorism but in sharp contrast with that of Mitt Romney, who actually did dominate Obama in a coolly masterful way. If Biden’s rudeness was an imitation of strength, Romney’s poise was a display of the real thing.

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