Responding to the National Review

Since Ian Tuttle’s criticism of my Salon piece on Ted Cruz essentially boils down to “Nathan Robinson is a liberal,” the short version of my response is this: I am not a liberal. Tuttle’s argument depends on my being one, so I consider that to be checkmate.

But I will flesh it out a bit. Tuttle’s piece makes two main points, and I will try to give them the kind of fair and accurate summary that Tuttle did not afford to my own writing. I think they can be distilled as follows:

1. I say that I do not like Ted Cruz’s rigidity of mind, but in reality I only think Cruz is unintelligent because he doesn’t agree with my liberal views. If Cruz were a liberal, I would believe he was intelligent, so I am simply defining intelligence according to my political bias.

2. Like many liberals, I participate in the “political fetishization” of intelligence, because I see unintelligence as a bad thing. In doing so, I overlook the fact that intelligence does not necessarily make one politically competent. After all, Heidegger was a Nazi, and “enlightened despotism” is a very dangerous concept indeed.

To the first point, again, I’m not a liberal, so this completely collapses. My argument also doesn’t depend at all on my being one. The generic structure of my piece is as follows: Politician X is widely praised as intelligent, even by his enemies. However, he does not seem to say particular smart things, and even if we assume this is because he is cunning, well, he doesn’t seem to do particularly smart things either. Politician X also has a very inflexible worldview, and one of the hallmarks of intelligence is a mind that adapts to new information. I tend to believe that Politician X is probably praised mostly because of his credentials and his confidence, rather than his actual intelligence, which if it exists is rarely demonstrated.

Note that this argument applies equally well whether the writer is personally liberal or conservative. It also applies equally well whether Ted Cruz is a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, as Tuttle points out, it can be modified to fit Barack Obama. Tuttle has only proven something to the extent he can show that I would not apply it to Obama. (I do very much apply it to Obama, who is perhaps the paradigmatic lesson in the dangers of being wooed into thinking credentials and charisma suggest insight.)

Tuttle assumes I’m being dishonest when I say that it’s Ted Cruz’s lack of thoughtfulness and not his conservatism that I detest. But I swear it’s the case, which is why none of my argument is about his conservatism at all. Instead, I criticize his saying childish things and making errors of fact, and his lack of self-reflection. The only part that even approaches a critique of his politics is my comment on his distortion of the campaign finance bill, but I simply think it’s a dishonest characterization. In fact, I don’t at all believe conservatism and thought are antagonistic; Thomas Sowell and William Buckley are near the top of my list of thoughtful commentators. I do, however, think Ted Cruz and thought are antagonistic. This implies nothing about conservatism generally, the tenets of which can be held by both the thoughtful and thoughtless alike.

Also note that Tuttle evades the key question of my piece: “Can there be such thing as a learned person who has discovered nothing new since freshman year?” I believe the answer is no, and that praise for Cruz as “brilliant” is therefore undeserved. But Tuttle simply says without evidence that I don’t look for this quality in liberals. Thankfully, since I do look for this quality in liberals, Tuttle’s point is vaporized.

Tuttle’s second point is that I am “perpetuating the political fetishization of intelligence, the liberal belief that if only our politicians were smarter, we could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and repair the ozone layer.” This response is actually both understandable and bizarre. It’s understandable, because on the surface I do criticize a politician as unintelligent. But it’s bizarre, because I spend a large amount of the piece saying that what people call “intelligence” is mistaken. I say precisely that we shouldn’t see a person’s IQ as a useful measure for our politicians. I do say Cruz is none too smart, but that’s clearly largely because I think people are falling into precisly the trap that Tuttle fears, of reading too much into academic success. (Tuttle does say that I conclude too much from my critique of academic values; it doesn’t mean Ted Cruz isn’t intelligent. But that’s precisely why I propose evaluating the evidence for or against the proposition of his intelligence, rather than deferring to consensus.)

But here I think Tuttle and I have two approaches to saying the same thing. Both of us believe educational success or specialized disciplinary knowledge do not in themselves make one a worthy leader. Tuttle’s way of putting this is that we can call these qualities intelligence, but we shouldn’t think intelligence so defined is necessarily any kind of political asset. My position is that we shouldn’t call it intelligence because that word in iteself connotes capability, and that that connotation is dangerous. Interestingly, both of those positions lead to the conclusion that whatever Ted Cruz has (whether you continue to call it intelligence like Tuttle does, oryou call it Lawyer’s Guff like I do) should not be deferred to or praised insofar as it relates to politics.

To sum up: Ian Tuttle’s response to my piece largely ignores what I said, and depends on assumptions about me and my politics that are impossible to infer from the piece. His only points are that I am a hypocritical liberal and that I believe the intelligentsia should guide politics. Both of these appear to come from speculative psychoanalysis rather than a reading of the text.

New Salon article about Ted Cruz

I have written an article for Salon dealing with the allegations of intelligence directed toward a certain Texas senator. I find these suggestions “false and dangerous.” An excerpt:

Even Ted Cruz’s critics seem to concur on one point: whatever else you might say about him, the man is very smart. Mother Jones magazine has called him the “thinking man’s tea partier.” Josh Marshall, in a mostly withering assessment, made the same obligatory concession to his being an “incredibly bright guy.” Jeffrey Toobin’s recent, ostensibly critical New Yorker profile of Cruz is full of quotes about his being “the smartest guy in the room,” his “sophisticated” constitutional views, and the “extraordinary” erudition of his senior thesis.

Cruz likely finds all of this very pleasing indeed. In his interview with Toobin, Cruz quotes Sun Tzu, saying that “every battle is won before it’s fought. It’s won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought.” In getting those who despise him to genuflect to his intelligence, Ted Cruz has already won one battle. Jeffrey Toobin may lace his piece with dismissive sneers, yet somehow he still contributes to the ever-growing heap of liberal respect for Cruz’s mental acuity.

But there’s no reason to keep this up. For one thing, it doesn’t seem especially true. It can’t really be that we think Cruz has a sophisticated mind, given that the only thoughts he produces are angry pants-on-fire platitudinous drivel. Even those who lavish praise on his oratory seem to agree that his heat-to-light ratio nears the infinite, and that “thoughtfulness” and Ted Cruz cannot exist in the same room. His only memorable quotes appear to be cheap jokes, and the most notable speech of his entire career is not his own, but Dr. Seuss’s. Nobody who has witnessed a few minutes of Cruz’s piece of senatorial performance art would have thought to label him a thinker, were it not for the preexisting consensus that he is one.

Read the rest.

Dream Diary: “The Hardest Punch I’ve Ever Thrown”

Everyone on the street, black and white alike, was wearing white top hats or white suits. I asked a group of people what it was all about.

“The ball is tonight,” the girl said. She invited me to go with their group. As we talked I learned they’d actually been my next-door neighbors for months, which we all had a good laugh about.

I had to go back to my apartment first. It was overflowing with books, but I decided I needed more books and so went to the bookshop in the back room of the house. The owner was a large man who always tried to beat me with a pipe or have his dog attack me, but his book selection was too good for me to stop going there. This time when I left he followed me outside and tried to assault me. I gave him a savage punch in the nose. His face dented. I apologized profusely. I said it was by far the hardest punch I’ve ever thrown.

“That’s obvious,” he said.

But for some reason it was my nose that started to bleed. It wouldn’t stop for hours.

* * *

“Because of you, I’ve been cutting myself more,” she told me.

“Please don’t do that,” I said.

* * *

Across town, my father and I were trying to get home. As we went through the park, I thought about the buildings I would build if I knew how, how they would be both classical and modern in a way nobody had ever known before.

I also thought about how Elvis is fading from the public mind, then I realized that I knew two songwriters who both had what Elvis had, though neither one knew the other. I would have them get together to rework the lost unrecorded Elvis Presley song “Parasol,” and it would be a big hit that put Elvis back on the map.

I found a remote control car in the street, sat on it, and rode it home. I frightened some nuns with the point of the antenna by mistake. I frightened some boys with the point of the antenna on purpose. The streets were full of people. “Bicycle streetcars” went by, which were bicycles modified to run on streetcar tracks, housed in a streetcar shell. You could rent one from the Department of Transportation.

Arriving home, I had to enter through the tiny red-and-yellow concrete tube. Usually I went into the tube feet-first, and so slipped gracefully through its many twists and turns and popped out into the house. This time I went in head-first, and it was tiny and claustrophobic and I could barely wriggle through. It took ages to work my way through and I was terrified by the end that some liquid would come rushing through, I desperately wanted a way out but I knew I had to keep crawling.

When I at last popped out, my mother was there, distraught. She said she had been delivering packages for Amazon, and one of her deliveries had been at LSU, and these frat boys had asked if they could rape her, and when she told them Amazon wouldn’t let her, they became very upset.

Dream Diary: “The Girl Who Wrote For Buzzfeed”

I arrived early to the reunion but it was already dark. When I went outside, I found that they’d filled my car with sand because I’d parked in a reserved spot. As people left the reunion they saw me in my formalwear, scooping sand out of the front seats with my bare hands so that I could drive home.

* * *

The girl who wrote for BuzzFeed sat behind me, in a tight red evening dress.

Nobody was happy to be there. The classroom was rank and peeling, the teacher was a droning old fellow with a noisehair-moustache.

The girl who wrote for BuzzFeed kept making comments to her study partner at the next desk, who was mumbling in response. The girl who wrote for BuzzFeed’s comments grew increasingly louder and were more critical toward the teacher.

“This is some bullshit, isn’t it?” she said.

The teacher continued talking about Melville.

“This is some bullshit, isn’t it?” she said again, a few seconds later. This time he harumphed to indicate he had heard her, but he ignored it and kept speaking. I couldn’t believe her insolence. Everyone was growing uncomfortable.

“This is some BULLSHIT, isn’t it?” she said, so loud that the teacher had to stop. He walked down the aisle towards us. He looked weary, but not angry. He did not want to teach anymore and she was making a hard thing harder.

“Do you have a problem, Ms. ____?”

“Yeah,” I chimed in, “you think just because you write for BuzzFeed you have a right to disrupt the class and disrespect the teacher?”

The teacher looked at me.

“Mr. Robinson, I don’t think you should talk, given that you’re reading a book about Legos while I’m lecturing about Melville.” The class burst into laughter.

How did I end up the humiliated one?


Dream Diary: “My Perfect Smile”

I asked the American Airlines reservation desk why I hadn’t received a confirmation. Was I booked on the flight?

“Yes,” she said. “But you’re not leaving with the rest.”

I asked her what she meant.

“You’ll be on a different flight, which will intercept your flight mid-air. You will be lowered from one plane into the other with a harness.”

I asked her if any other passengers were making such a dangerous maneuver. She showed me the seating chart, which had one seat highlighted, with the words “to be added mid-air” typed in.

“No,” she said, “just you today.”

* * *

I was unhappy about returning to the prison compound, because I couldn’t get rid of the two screwdrivers before arriving. One was orange and one was red. There was no place to dispose of them and I was already walking into the main yard. I just held them out in front of me, hoping the guards would see that I was not trying to hide anything.

The screwdrivers were not like ordinary ones, with a plastic handle and a metal rod. They were entirely handle, which swooped down to make the screw head at the bottom. They were very heavy, as if they were filled with weights.

Jimmy Neutron, the most brutal guard, was standing with two other guards, clearly trying to impress them with self-serving anecdotes. He saw me and stormed over angrily. He did not wait for explanations. He took one of my screwdrivers and plunged it into my stomach. He beat me without mercy.

When he stopped, I had five of my teeth in my hand. I could tell my face was a mess. He let me pass, and I went to the inmate recreation room. The walls were purple. The other inmates were all law students.

They were very friendly. But I kept expecting them to show more pity, considering how brutal my beating had been. I kept moaning that I just wished I could put my teeth back in. It wasn’t until I got to a mirror that I saw what my friends had seen. All the teeth I lost had been from the back of my mouth, not the front. My smile was still perfect.


Dream Diary: “The Package”

After swiping the package, Freddie and I had each taken an identical blue van, to throw them off our trail. My van stalled somewhere in the French Quarter, though, which made me nervous since I was the one with the package.

I scrambled on foot through the city streets, ducking in and out of bistros with the grocery bag in my hand. I nodded hello to curious customers squeezing by me as I stood in teashop doorways scanning the block.

I at last made it to the same safehouse I had used last time, a decaying, overgrown cathedral at the top of a hill. There was no longer a roof, but there were some little enclosed rooms along the sides of the nave. It was used as a student flophouse.

Several girls looked at me. I tried to make conversation. “So, are you guys in school?” But the question only confirmed that I was too old to be there. I felt like a pervert.

I called Mr. Vitte, to get instructions on where to drop the package. He said I was to leave it at “The Forum.” He acted as if everyone knew what that was, but I’d never heard of it. I sensed it had columns. I asked him. “That’s all I know,” he said. I was furious, because I knew I’d have to spend the next hours asking everyone in the city what “The Forum” was, and I’d look like a fool, and I desperately wanted to get rid of the package.

I thought of my father. I wondered if it was possible for him to love me, given that he had signed me up for this. What if they found me? How did the thought of my bones being crushed for his mission affect him? Did he think that was acceptable? I’ve never seen anyone so furious as they were when we took the package.

As it turned out, Holly was living in one of the siderooms. In chaos, as usual. I felt some relief, because she has a sense of the capable about her. Nothing can go too wrong here, I thought. she will explain her way out of a crisis.

But there was no time to get comfortable. As I was looking round her room, two of them showed up looking for me. The cockney, warty blonde one, in tight jeans and matching denim shirt, and Lemmy, oily hair past his shoulders, trenchcoat flapping behind him. They were asking some of the students if anyone had seen me. The students looked dazed and didn’t reply. The two men began overturning rubbish bins furiously.

I was surprised at how quickly they’d found me. Last time I used this safehouse they hadn’t found it for ages.

Holly instantly took charge. She closed the door to her room and stood in front of it, filling the doorway.

“Can I help you?” she said. They must have sensed that she was going to be difficult.. They did not bother to ask if she had seen me. They asked more roundabout questions.

“Does anybody work here?” the blonde one asked. Holly stalled them expertly.

“Work?” she said. I put the package among some garbage. I hid in the corner.

The conversation continued, Holly perfectly evasive, but the men more and more suspicious. The blonde one looked through the little window in her bedroom door, and shifted his eyes around the room. I knew that he saw me. It hadn’t been this way last time. Last time he’d looked through the window, I had been just out of sight. This time, my whole face was visible. We locked eyes.

The blonde one shoved Holly aside and dragged me out by the ear. He took out a penknife.

“I’m going to ask you where the package is.”

“I don’t have the package,” I lied.

“We’ve just come from Freddie, and he said you had the package. Two vans can’t fool us.”

“Freddie has the package.” The man stabbed me in the palm.

“Now, I am going to give you 15 minutes, and you’re going to go and get the package, and you’re going to give it back.” Dutifully, I went and got the package. It wasn’t worth being tortured over.

“Since I gave you the package quickly, perhaps we could talk about letting me live.” I was instantly nauseated by my cowardice. Not at giving up the package so quickly, but at begging for my life to be spared when he had never even said it would be taken.

There was a dog-eared rainbow poster on the church wall, a remnant from the days it was used to educate disabled children.

With the package returned, and their violent fury quelled, we all walked down the hill. The men’s associates came speeding round the corner in a blue van. They jumped out. They had machine guns. My interrogators didn’t have machine guns.

The blonde one grabbed a machine gun, and said “watch this.” He began to take aim at some birds that were floating in a puddle that had formed like a stream. Holly advised him not to shoot the birds.

“You’d do far better with a stone and a slingshot than a machine gun. The problem is that at this short range your accuracy is poor.” She kept chattering and it took him ages to finally fire. I knew she was trying to save the birds’ lives.