“At Least He Looks Presidential”


Any number of people would look equally presidential in the situation we witnessed tonight. Some of them are good friends of mine. They are self-possessed, have an authoritative bearing, are practiced public speakers across a full range of contexts (including debates), and could have learned everything that was said tonight in less than a week just watching a selection of Obama’s and McCain’s campaign speeches. But none of these friends of mine has any business running for president. Thankfully, they are not.

But Barack Obama and John McCain are running for president. And they both look like they could be president. It’s befuddling and disappointing that this is the single most significant factor the pundits have utilized in calculating the net result of tonight’s debate. Obama only had to look presidential to win—even if McCain also looked presidential—as long as McCain did not deliver a knock-out punch. This because Obama’s lead in critical states has lengthened. And that’s more-or-less how things turned out, if we’re to believe post-debate chatter.

What do pudits mean by a “knock-out punch”? What many of them mean is the slick delivery of a purely rhetorical zinger. An example, courtesy of Brit Hume (Fox News), is Ronald Reagan’s admittedly clever and endearing jibe about not taking advantage of Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience.

Give me a break. Has the media gone bonkers? The most charitable spin I can put on this is to suppose that the punditocracy is merely speculating (perhaps quite plausibly) about how viewers (especially undecideds) will perceive the outcome. But that isn’t exactly what the pudits are saying. It sounds like it’s what they themselves believe. And they should know better. More than that, they would serve us better if they attempted to educate us in the proper criteria for evaluating a candidate for the presidency. Otherwise, we don’t really need them.

Maybe they think that’s what they are doing—educating us in a tradition of collective wisdom. If so, they and I disagree about what that is and what criteria matter most.

I’m of the anachronistic opinion that we need to distinguish between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions for being qualified to serve as president of the United States. Looking presidential (talk about a subjective variable) may be a necessary condition—may be. But in my judgment it is by no means a sufficient condition. A candidate must have other qualities. And among the preeminent qualities are proven experience and policies that make sense on close inspection.

That probably sounds like an endorsement of a particular candidate. But I’d like to know who disagrees with me about the criteria. “Proven experience” may be a lock for John McCain. “Policies that make sense on close inspection” will be matters of principled disagreement among those who take pains to understand proposed policies thoroughly, know what to look for in sensible policies for times like these, and have the disposition to embrace those policies.

Do you reckon you’re one of those people? I’m not sure I am. Remember that “zen-like” question the candidates had to answer at the end of the debate? “What is it that you don’t know now that you’ll have to learn after you become president?” Maybe those of us who plan to vote in November should be asking ourselves a parallel question: “What is it that we don’t know now (about the candidates) that we’ll wish we knew after one of them becomes president?” Something tells me that tonight’s debate did little to dispel our dangerous ignorance.

Our democracy is threatened by a glib populism. I suppose that’s always been true to some extent. But greater access to modern media by more people, and the dumbing down of America, is cause for concern. This can’t be what the Founding Fathers had in mind, though I’m sure they feared the possibility of its emergence.

Let’s at least think as hard as we can before we “pull the lever” (to use a quaint expression).

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What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?


horton-hears-a-who_1“A humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style, etc.,” is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “parody.” If you spend an afternoon reading a book like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, then set off to the theater with your family to see the new film Horton Hears a Who, you may be surprised to find yourself drawing parallels between the movie and the book.

Horton is the naïve, indiscriminate, credulous elephant. He gets it in his head that a speck that has come to rest on a clover is home to a civilization of “humans” who are invisible because they are too small to be seen. Kangaroo, on the other hand, is sensible and stern. She recognizes early on the danger posed to the community by Horton’s fantastic notions. She confronts Horton about his silliness and warns him to cease and desist. But Horton, being an elephant, is too “faithful” to abandon his convictions. And in due course, what began as a harmless idiosyncrasy evolves into a mission that imbues Horton’s life with fresh meaning and purpose.

Kangaroo is beside herself with concern, especially for the children, who—horrors—have begun to use their imaginations. Her motto is, “If you can’t see it, taste it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Horton’s claim—that “the speck” is inhabited by humans who call themselves “Whos”—fails this test.

Or should I say, it almost fails this test? Horton, after all, hears intelligent noises coming from the speck. Eventually he even engages in meaningful conversation with the diminutive mayor of Whoville. So Horton, at least, has empirical evidence for his belief. And that seems to be all that Kangaroo requires.

But that isn’t all that Kangaroo requires. She also stipulates that it’s impossible for there to be anything so small and human. So she is a radical empiricist with an a priori prejudice against the existence of things she can’t see. And her a priori commitment diminishes her ability to hear what Horton can hear. Of course, Horton is equipped with ears that are especially sensitive to very slight auditory data. Since he is unique in this respect, no one really believes him. This despite the fact that he has no special motive to mislead a community of individuals he obviously cares about.

Horton isn’t a complete doofus. He can’t get Kangaroo to listen for what she isn’t willing to hear. So he challenges her prejudice with a thought experiment. “What if our own world is just a speck from the point of view of some greater being?” he asks. Kangaroo is unable to entertain this possibility. She is as absurdly sure of herself as she believes Horton to be.

A major difference between Horton and Kangaroo is that Kangaroo is a demagogue, and most members of her community are lemmings. They may not follow her logic, but they do follow her lead. She adopts the posture of an infallible authority figure and whips up alarm among those who are no more able to think for themselves than Horton is supposed to be.

The mayor of Whoville suffers a similar fate. He’s called a “boob” by a leading member of the town council. This is a painful slap in the face. The mayor’s influence is fanciful. And his explanation for what is happening in Whoville is believed to be delusional. Like Horton, he risks ridicule for what he believes to be true. But that’s not all there is to it.

The mayor fears for his community, which does not recognize the danger that threatens Whoville. Initially, he does not seek to convince the citizens of Whoville. He knows they will not believe that an invisible elephant in the sky is their protector. Still, he takes responsible action on the basis of what he knows, even though he risks humiliation.

Horton Hears a Who is a smart and entertaining film. I doubt that it’s a deliberate parody of the emotionalism exhibited by the “new atheists.” But I can’t help thinking Richard Dawkins will not be happy with it. At least he can’t complain that he was tricked into doing the voice-over for Kangaroo.

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