Belmont Club

Of cavemen, farm boys and flat-earthers

President Obama, whose achievements have always been in the glittering future, responded to calls by political rivals to allow more oil drilling by comparing them to flat-earthers.

Mr Gingrich has mocked Mr Obama for highlighting new schemes for producing petrol and diesel from algae. Mr Obama attacked him and his fellow Republican candidates for “talking down” alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power. “Apparently they like gas guzzling cars better,” he said.

“If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably must have been founding members of the ‘Flat Earth’ society. They would not believe that the world was round.”

Gingrich was not the only person living in the Stone Age. The President also had some choice words for, all persons, President Rutherford Hayes.

“One of my predecessors, President Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone: ‘It’s a great invention but who would ever want to use one?'” Obama said. “That’s why he’s not on Mt. Rushmore.”

“He’s looking backwards, he’s not looking forward. He’s explaining why we can’t do something instead of why we can do something,” Obama said. “The point is there will always be cynics and naysayers.”

The only problem with that characterization, according to an historian, is that Obama’s citation is apocryphal. Moreover, Hayes was in fact the first President to have a telephone in the White House.

We thought it was a bit unsporting of Obama to attack President Hayes, who is quite unable to respond. So we called up the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, where Nan Card, the curator of manuscripts, was plenty willing to correct Obama’s ignorance of White House history. Just as soon as she finished chuckling.

“I’ve heard that before, and no one ever knows where it came from,” Card said of Hayes’s alleged phone remark, “but people just keep repeating it and repeating it, so it’s out there.”

Wait, so Hayes didn’t even say the quote that Obama is mocking him for? “No, no,” Card confirmed.

She then read aloud a newspaper article from June 29, 1877, which describes Hayes’s delight upon first experiencing the magic of the telephone. The Providence Journal story reported that as Hayes listened on the phone, “a gradually increasing smile wreathe[d] his lips and wonder shone in his eyes more and more.” Hayes took the phone from his ear, “looked at it a moment in surprise and remarked, ‘That is wonderful.'”

In fact, Card noted, Hayes was not only the first president to have a telephone in the White House, but he was also the first to use the typewriter, and he had Thomas Edison come to the White House to demonstrate the phonograph. “So I think he was pretty much cutting edge,” Card insisted, “maybe just the opposite of what President Obama had to say there.”

The tendency to depict Republican Presidents as rustics was recently criticized Conrad Black, who is also the author of “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom.” Black dismisses the theory that the Eisenhower monument strive for the effect of the Unknown Soldier, so that by depicting Eisenhower as hayseed, the nation might honor all the other hayseeds who fought in World War 2.

The controversy has arisen over the proposed design of the architect Frank Gehry, the renowned octogenarian (and originally Canadian) specialist in flamboyantly sculpted aluminum or stainless-steel walls, most famous for his Guggenheim art museum at Bilbao, Spain. Gehry proposes to hang stainless-steel-mesh tapestries from stone columns to depict Eisenhower’s Kansas origins: an imaginative and attractive technique. Where it becomes more complicated is in the proposal to have, as the only representation of Eisenhower himself, a statue of him as a barefoot teenage boy in Abilene.

This is nonsense. The monument is not raised up to a farm boy, but to the Supreme Commander of the Allied armies that liberated Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 and to a two-term president of the United States in tense and complex times.

It is quite in order to show his upbringing, but the tapestries should show him also in his military-command and presidential roles, and so should the statues. In a four-acre site, there is room for three tapestries and three statues (if the Kansan part must be maintained). Apart from aesthetic considerations, there is the matter of historical justice. Portraying him as a farm boy incites the notion that this is a monument to everyman, like the tomb of an unknown soldier. This was a notion championed by a culture critic at the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott, who said that “there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, who could have done what he did . . . if tapped.”

There may be a method to this sudden desire to portray Republicans as pygmies. A Canadian professor of computing has been steadily compiling an analysis of persona deception. By comparing the word frequencies of candidate speeches, he measures how far a candidate burnishes himself relative to his earlier pronouncements.

You will recall that Pennebaker’s deception model enables a set of documents to be ranked in order of their deceptiveness, detected via changes in the frequency of occurrence of 86 words in four categories: first-person singular pronouns, exclusive words, negative-emotion words, and action verbs. Words in the first two categories decrease in the presence of deception, while those in the last two categories increase. The model only allows for ranking, rather than true/false determination, because “increase” and “decrease” are always relative to some norm for the set of documents being considered.

How does this apply to politics? First of all, the point isn’t to detect when a politician is lying (Cynical joke: Q: How do you tell when a politician is lying? A: His lips are moving). Politicians tell factual lies, but this seems to have no impact on how voters perceive them, perhaps because we’re come to expect it. Rather, the kind of deception that is interesting is the kind where a politician is trying to present him/herself as a much better person (smarter, wiser, more competent) than they really are. This is what politicians do all the time.

The anonymous Canadian academic noted that President Obama has been relatively modest about burnishing his personal record, both in comparison to his current Republican rivals and to himself in 2008. “This is quite different from what happened in the 2008 cycle, where his levels were almost always well above those of McCain and Clinton. It’s not altogether surprising, though. First, he can no longer be the mirror in which voters see what they want to see since he has a substantial and visible track record.”

(The sole area where Obama’s current persona deception index is way above the norm, is interestingly enough, in his pronouncements toward Israel. “The interesting point is the outlier at the top left of the figure. This is Obama’s speech to AIPAC. Clearly this is not really a campaign speech, so the language might be expected to be different. On the other hand, if it were projected onto the single-factor line formed by the other speeches, it would be much more towards the deceptive end of that axis. Since the underlying model detects all kinds of deception, not just that associated with persona deception in campaigns, this may be revealing of the attitude of the administration to the content expressed in this speech.”)

But the analysis makes an interesting point. Obama cannot boost himself much in the eyes of the voters because they now have a record to compare him against. He is no longer the “blank screen”. He is more like the $4 a gallon gasoline sign. Given the upward limitation on the virtues he can ascribe to himself, it is obvious that the best way to go is down. So he can take the line that Republicans are morons. They are stupid. They are bigots. They are retards. And oh yes, they laughed at the telephone when it was first developed, and some of them still think the earth is flat.

None of it has to be true, any more than it is true that Eisenhower was a representative of every hillbilly who ever picked up a Garand. But it will sell to those who think themselves far more clever than they really are. You flatter a group in the doldrums by pointing out things could always be worse. They could be the Other. Well, just keep being your cool selves till you turn the Other on.


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