Who’s smart? Who’s dumb?

A look at the verbal stylings of George W. Bush and societal presumptions about who’s smart, and who’s dumb.

Who’s smart? Who’s dumb? I rest my case. Ross Perot

Just back from a cruise (on which, more to follow later in the week), I’ve been catching up on my email backlog. A blogger I enjoy and respect (but who shall remain nameless) recently took an admittedly humorous shot at the two George Bushes in his small-l liberal blog. He recounted a story that email traffic between the father and son — both former United State presidents — had been hacked. But good news! There was no indication that any intelligence had been compromised. Ba-da-bsh! (Ed. notes: Percussive flourish added, and no pun intended.)

Cleverly playing on our fears of internet security lapses as well as on two meanings of ‘intelligence’, this little story and the comments thereon from his readers illustrate what I see as our cultural presumption: liberals are smart; conservatives, umm, not so much. Over the years I’ve seen this attitude in religious as well as political circles. (If I could document this observation with, you know, facts, I’d be writing a book; as it is, I’m writing this blog.)

As an easy target for ridicule, George W. Bush should have been the darling of liberals while he was in office. A chatty but not an articulate guy, he gave the media many legitimate opportunities to pounce on his verbal manglings. As for the presumption of stupidity, surely only an idiot would use words like ‘misunderestimated’, not just once but several times. Git your commemorative mug here! How in the world did this clown manage to graduate from both Yale and Harvard?

Now the good folks at snopes.com take a more generous/balanced approach, acknowledging that Bush used ‘misunderestimated’ more than once, but also caught himself at it.

Conservatives like to play the Say What? game too: check out the fuss over President Obama’s consistent/determined mispronunciation of ‘corpsman’ as ‘corpse-man’, or his talk of the 57 states he had already visited in his first campaign. Yet I believe they play this game under a cultural-assumptions handicap in which the gaffes of liberal public figures are dismissed as aberrations or excused by fatigue or nerves, whereas the gaffes of conservative public figures are taken as proof of what is already suspected.

After all, if conservatives were really smart, they’d be liberals. Right?

Postscript: Despite two attempts, Mr. Perot never made it to the presidency, but in 2012 Forbes ranked him as the 101st richest person in America with a net worth of $3.5 billion. With his blend of liberal and conservative positions, maybe he’s onto something here. Who’s smart, who’s dumb, indeed.

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4 Responses to Who’s smart? Who’s dumb?

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    I cheerfully admit my bias against G.W.Bush. But I think there is some validity to your crack that “if conservatives were really smart, they’d be liberals.” A number of studies seem to say that education and liberal attitudes have a correspondence. (“Liberal” is a very large blanket that covers everything from theology to climate science.) Whether this is coincidence or cause-and-effect, though, is not clear. It could be that better education leads people to see more sides of an issue, to apply critical analysis, to recognize more alternatives. Or it could be just that people with more liberal leanings tend to see more education in their quest for “truth,” whatever that may be. But the literature does suggest that reactionary attitudes (such as those of the Republican Tea Party, for example) tend to correlate with lower education, and liberal attitudes tend to correlate with higher education.
    How G.W.Bush managed to graduate from TWO prestigious universities, however, is indeed a conundrum.
    JIm T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Well, there’s intelligence and then there’s education. We likely all know highly educated folks who aren’t “smart” in the life sense; and at least some of us know relatively uneducated folks (or inexperienced, at any rate), who aren’t stupid. I can readily believe that education correlates pretty well with more-open attitudes (as you say, which is cause and which effect is not as clear), but I object to public discourse based on the notion that anyone who takes a different position from me must be either stupid or evil. Maybe they’re actually onto something… just as I like to think that I’m onto something too.

  2. Susan Wright says:

    What intrigues me is that this seems to be a topic for discussion only in the US. I googled “are liberals smarter” and found pages of articles on the subject—all American. I wonder whether this shows a propensity on the part of Americans to pigeon-hole people based on very little evidence (she said, showing her bias that Canadians are smarter than Americans). Looking forward to hearing about your cruise Isabel.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – I’d guess that Canadian politics aren’t quite as aggressive as the American version – less at stake, here, perhaps, not being a world power or anything close to it. But my sense is that the general attitude holds here too – think of the attitudes to Stockwell Day, who went from an admittedly disastrous leadership position to a very respectable ministerial role. Dinosaurs notwithstanding, the guy has gear.

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