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.