Bush is an Idiot: Not!

Matthew Yglesias makes two rude remarks about George W. Bush. Not only do I regard making such remarks as encroaching on my private turf, but in this instance both seem to me false-to-fact. And the wrongness of one helps make sense of the other.

The first has to do with the latest Andrew Sullivan flap. Apparently (I must have missed it) some Left Bloggers have been gay-baiting Sullivan. Glenn Reynolds has been (I think properly) tough about this. Yglesias responds, in effect, that’s it’s odd to hear so much concern about homophobia from backers of a President who believes (1) that no one should have sex outside of marriage and (2) that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

That isn’t really much of a defense of liberal gay-baiting, but it’s not a bad debating comeback: presumably being denied any sexual contact at all is worse than being made fun of for whatever sexual contact one does have. If Bush believes both of those things, Yglesias seems to be saying, then he must believe their logical entailment — that no gay person should ever have sex — and therefore must be a moral monster.

Hold that thought for a moment. Now consider another recent Yglesias comment, this one making fun of the coinage “idiotarian” and the attempt to construct a political philosophy consisting of being against it:

Incidentally, don’t you think “anti-idiotarianism” would be a good name for an ideology based on the proposition that a country shouldn’t be led into war by an idiot?

Now come on, guys, how many times is GWB going to eat our lunch before we figure out that he’s not an idiot? He’s radically unserious, both morally and intellectually, but that’s not the same as being stupid. Let’s not forget that dyslexia, which he almost certainly has and which explains some of his verbal stumbles, is defined as unusual difficulty in reading despite normal intelligence.

When Yglesias calls Bush an idiot, what he means, I think, is that Bush is in the deepest sense not a philosopher: not someone who cares about the difference between true and false, as opposed to what he can get people to believe, or who is concerned that the things he believes should be congruent with reality, or even consistent with each other.

I agree with Plato that it would be useful if our rulers were philosophers in that sense. (Plato can’t have meant that rulers should be deeply interested in, say, epistemology or ethical theory, unless he was an idiot, which seems unlikely.) But I also agree with Plato that, desirable as it might be, having a philosopher-king is not the usual state of affairs. And I strongly disagree with Yglesias’s apparent view that all non-philosophers are idiots.

Arianna Huffington has observed something else about Bush: his low tolerance for complexity. Again, not the most desirable trait in a ruler. But note that the capacity to believe contradictory propositions can substitute for a tolerance for complexity (or rather, tolerance for the cognitive dissonance that recognizing complexity usually entails). So Bush, for example, can believe that nonmarital sex is bad (not obviously false, in sociological terms), that gay marriage would disrupt the social order (again, not a silly belief, though not one I share) and not draw the conclusion — except, perhaps, as a “Sunday belief” — that all gays should be condemned to perpetual celibacy.

Holding the first two beliefs but not the third would be impossible for Yglesias, or me, or you, dear reader, or for anyone Yglesias would regard as not an idiot. But it’s quite easy for the majority of the population.

What Orwell called “doublethink” needs to be inculcated in intellectuals, but that is only because an intolerance for contradiction has been drilled into them. Normal people do it naturally. The average American believes in both physics and astrology. The average American considers himself a Bible Christian but does not believe in Hell. The average American thinks that we should be spending about ten times as much on foreign aid, as a percentage of the Federal budget, as we actually spend, but also wants the foreign aid budget cut, and will simply refuse to believe you if you tell him the actual numbers.

Again, this isn’t aberrant. This is normal and natural. Universities exist in part because people who really, really believe that 2 + 2 = 4 under all circumstances aren’t comfortable in business or government or the professions. Unless intellectuals learn (to use another Orwellism) to “bellyfeel” the fact that most people aren’t intellectuals and are nonetheless not stupid, they’re going to keep getting unwelcome political surprises.

How gay conservatives deal with the fact that the politicians they support hold, or at least express, a set of beliefs that imply that no gay person should ever have sex is a different question.

[Note that it’s possible to believe that without hating gays or thinking that they are bad people. The traditional Christian position is, as C.S. Lewis expressed it, that a homosexual orientation is “a burden to be borne, not a sin to be repented,” but that perpetual chastity is the only proper way to bear that burden. Just chalk it up to the Christian God’s rather quirky sense of humor.]

Granted the assumption — which I don’t hold, but which isn’t obviously self-contradictory — that gay sex is a bad thing, there’s nothing inconsistent thinking that gays ought to be celibate. It’s exactly my view about those unfortunates who are attracted sexually to children, and only to children: the desire isn’t their fault, but they must not act on it, even if the only alternative is celibacy.

“But,” you say, “gay sex isn’t at all like pedophilia. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Right. But that’s where you and I on the one hand, and George Bush and most of the electorate on the other, disagree.

The voters’ views are obviously changing, and we can trust GWB and his fellow conservatives to follow in due course, once they’ve milked gay-baiting for whatever votes it’s worth. (As Bush did against McCain in South Carolina two years ago, promising never to appoint a gay person to a job in his administration.) After all, today’s Republicans have learned to treat Jews and Catholics as damned near as good as white folks; why not gays? And changing his position won’t cost non-philosopher Bush a night’s sleep.

UPDATE: More thoughts here on Bushism and postmodernism.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com