Stupid is as Stupid Does

Jonathan Martin's Politico's article, Is Rick Perry dumb? concludes that while some people may think he is (like Paul Begala), the Texas governor is actually quite a talented and capable figure. It ends by quoting a source who says:

“The political graveyard in Texas is buried full of people who have underestimated Rick Perry,” he said. “We had a U.S. senator who did that and she didn’t even make the run-off. Sooner or later, they’re going to figure out that he’s not just lucky, he’s good.”

So Rick Perry isn't stupid. Not by a long shot; but you know the question had to be asked. As John Hinderaker in Powerline observed, every conservative candidate has to dispel the presumption of retardation before he can be taken seriously.

Is Ronald Reagan electable? Is George Bush a wimp? Is Michelle Bachmann crazy? Is Rick Perry dumb? It’s bad enough to raise these questions but the pathetic mainstream media only asks them about conservatives.

But in fairness, it's not just about dumb. The other form of the question is whether conservatives are crazy. That can take the form of rhetorical questions like, is Michelle Bachmann a Christian? Stacey McCain was surprised to find what kinds of associations that creates in people's minds. If she is, then be afraid, be very afraid.

Regular readers will recall that on Friday, Aug. 5, I covered an appearance by Michele Bachmann at the Spirit Midwest Christian Music Festival in West Des Moines, Iowa. It had been raining all afternoon before Bachmann arrived and gave her Christian testimony, which I recorded on video and posted the next day.

Some vicious monster ripped off my video and edited it, so that when Bachmann begins by jokingly asking the crowd, “Who likes wet people?” — because everybody was soaked to the bone, including me — instead there is a caption, “Who likes white people?”

Ken Layne of Wonkette then spread that smear all around the Internet.

Why do some liberals think conservatives are usually dumb, religious fanatics or unhinged? Some will sincerely answer it is because they are.  There are websites dedicated to examining whether George W. Bush is actually a chimpanzee.  At one level this reflects a real belief, akin to the feelings of racial superiority among those who once thought the Japanese were copycat monkeys before the Second World War.

The more thoughtful know better. Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker, for example concludes that Clarence Thomas, despite the stereotyping to the contrary, is a real brain, albeit one full of ideas he may not necessarily like. Toobin writes:

These tempests obscure a larger truth about Thomas: that this year has also been, for him, a moment of triumph. In several of the most important areas of constitutional law, Thomas has emerged as an intellectual leader of the Supreme Court. Since the arrival of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in 2005, and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in 2006, the Court has moved to the right when it comes to the free-speech rights of corporations, the rights of gun owners, and, potentially, the powers of the federal government; in each of these areas, the majority has followed where Thomas has been leading for a decade or more. Rarely has a Supreme Court Justice enjoyed such broad or significant vindication.

The conventional view of Thomas takes his lack of participation at oral argument as a kind of metaphor. The silent Justice is said to be an intellectual nonentity, a cipher for his similarly conservative colleague, Antonin Scalia. But those who follow the Court closely find this stereotype wrong in every particular. Thomas has long been a favorite of conservatives, but they admire the Justice for how he gives voice to their cause, not just because he votes their way. “Of the nine Justices presently on the Court, he is the one whose opinions I enjoy reading the most,” Steve Calabresi, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law and a co-founder of the Federalist Society, said. “They are very scholarly, with lots of historical sources, and his views are the most principled, even among the conservatives. He has staked out some bold positions, and then the Court has set out and moved in his direction.”

Not every liberal will like this and neither should conservatives for entirely different reasons. While Toobin is certainly doing the honest intellectual thing in recognizing Thomas' intelligence, conservatives should regard this development with some dismay. There were advantages to being regarded as stupid, the most important of which was that the opposition always underestimated you. They would see only slapstick comedy even when the stage floor was being sawn in a circle out from under them.

To the question: 'is Rick Perry dumb?' the nuanced answer at the low point of Barack Obama's career is now, "unfortunately not". Gone is the feeling of effortless superiority. And that is too bad. In the early days of Sarah Palin's emergence, liberals could be counted on to send comedians after her. Today, the President himself responds to her statements. It's arguably an upgrade. And those who think differently should remind themselves that the tendency to caricature the opposition goes both ways. If the political balance between conservatives and liberals is still so close after all these years it can only mean a rough symmetry of talent on both sides, though the skills might be of different kinds. Clarence Thomas is not dumb and Barack Obama is not a comedian, at least in the sense that his opponents might think he is.

People tend to disparage those who are unlike themselves. A thesis at the Command and General Staff College examined the most famous historical case of the what might be termed the sudden discovery of competence: the Japanese superman warrior myth of 1942. In six months the Japanese man went from being a monkey to a superman.

the “impregnable” British fortress of Singapore fell to the soldiers of the 25th Army, although Yamashita’s men had faced an enemy that outnumbered them by nearly two to one. Hong Kong fell on 5 January, the Netherlands East Indies and the vital Burmese port of Rangoon on 8 March, and the Philippines on 9 May. The offensive ended with the defeat of the bulk of the British and Indian forces in Burma at Kalewa, on the Chindwin River, near the Indian border. On the surface, the Centrifugal Offensive was a master stroke by Japanese combined arms forces against a numerically superior enemy. Western characterizations of the Japanese as “pre-Hellenic, prerational, and prescientific” inhabitants of a “class-C nation” rapidly became tales of born jungle and night fighters with near superhuman powers. The myth of the Japanese “Jungle Superman” had been born.

What is less widely realized is that the Japanese themselves, no less than Thomas Shenton, the Singapore governor who urged Percival to "shove the little men off", were under the spell of illusion. The Japanese made the fundamental mistake of believing the US Navy to be inferor, until Midway and Guadalcanal taught them differently. Only when both sides realized that the other had strengths did a grudging respect set in. Fortunately or unfortunately, Toobin now gets it:

The implications of Thomas’s leadership for the Court, and for the country, are profound. Thomas is probably the most conservative Justice to serve on the Court since the nineteen-thirties. More than virtually any of his colleagues, he has a fully wrought judicial philosophy that, if realized, would transform much of American government and society. Thomas’s views both reflect and inspire the Tea Party movement, which his wife has helped lead almost since its inception. The Tea Party is a diffuse operation, and it can be difficult to pin down its stand on any given issue. Still, the Tea Party is unusual among American political movements in its commitment to a specific view of the Constitution—one that accords, with great precision, with Thomas’s own approach. For decades, various branches of the conservative movement have called for a reduction in the size of the federal government, but for the Tea Party, and for Thomas, small government is a constitutional command.

The liberal cause should have gone on believing that George W. Bush was a chimpanzee. And yes, it's not too late to hope they'll imagine that Rick Perry is stupid.  But maybe the easy time is over and hard slog is about to start.

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