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Yes, They Really Are That Crazy, Redux (Or: Intellectual Penis Envy)

If any doubt remained that the giants of intellectual conservatism who staff National Review Online were a bunch of raving lunatics severely handicapped by intellectual equivalent of penis envy, Andy McCarthy is now making a non-endorsement endorsement of the deeply paranoid and strange notion that Dreams from my Father was ghost-written by Bill Ayers:

There has been speculation about this which I've ignored, no doubt because there are enough policy reasons to oppose Barack Obama and I don't want to feed into what sounds, at first blush, like Vince Fosteresque paranoia.  But I've finally read Jack Cashill's lengthy analysis in The American Thinker.  It is thorough, thoughtful, and alarming — particularly his deconstruction of the text in Obama's memoir and comparison to the themes, sophistication and signature phraseology of Bill Ayers' memoir.

There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is.  And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book.  Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.  And, to be sure, writing is different from speaking — in fairness, some of Obama's off-the-cuff bumbling when he speaks is certainly due to the rigors of the campaign which would cause even the most gifted communicator to faulter from time to time.  But it's not unreasonable to expect more similarity between Obama the writer and Obama the orator.

It really shouldn't be necessary to debunk this, and in fact, it won't do any good for anyone to bother, it's just so god damned loony of an idea. But dammit, it offends me as a writer. And I find it obscene, frankly, that someone who makes a pretense to intellectualism can put such crap out there and try to pass it off as reasoning.

Here's how Jack Cashill starts out his "thorough, thoughful" "analysis":

Prior [strange broken link preserved as a slap at Jack Cashill and American "Thinker"] to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing.  Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant.  I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all.  Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf.  To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour.  It doesn't happen.

Right from the outset is remarkably sloppy thinking, and it's really kind of comical that it's the lede for a story in a publication called "American Thinker." My wife, who teaches composition to college freshmen, would have sent back the draft that included this with a note that indicating it would seriously hurt the grade of the final paper. I really shouldn't have to point out the amazingly obvious logical errors (and there are two howlers, either of which renders the lede worthy of ridicule by any reasonably intelligent junior high school student), but the ostensibly intellectual Jack Cashill didn't spot 'em so I guess I should assume NRO-clique conservative intellectualoids are just not sharp enough to get them.

  1. The fact that Cashill isn't aware of Obama's writing during that time period doesn't mean there wasn't any. There was probably a lot. He was a law student for much of that time, a community organizer giving frequent talks and speeches for much of it as well. And he was talking day after day with black preachers, who train in narrative reasoning at the feet of their family and neighbors from a very young age. This is stuff Cashill should be bright and educated enough to know. That he's not accounting for it strikes me as willful ignorance.

  2. As importantly, writing (something Cashill's clearly not that good at, since he seems unable to form coherent arguments) is actually not even remotely like golf in one very important regard: Golf is comprised of a set of specific cognitive and motor activities that aren't really very mappable to real life, whereas writing (and particularly in African-American communities) corresponds to cognitive and social-interaction activities that an intelligent and conversant person uses all the time in his/her daily life. If you're a thoughtful person, you're always "writing", and always learning about language. So if someone writes a crappy essay that's published when he's 14, and the next thing he publishes is a masterful novel that hits the shelves when he's 30, it's actually not very surprising.

So, what's going on here? It's obviously not that Cashill actually has objectively creditable reasons for believing that Bill Ayers (or anybody else) ghost-wrote Obama's memoirs and speeches (and no, he doesn't stop at the memoirs). There's got to be more to it. I actually don't believe it's purely race, either. I think David Brooks (whose name is probably less than mud at NRO) is onto something with his critique of the (lack of) intellectual foundations of the modern American Right. Now, I don't think David Brooks is an intellectual giant, but dammit, he actually makes a credible effort and he's willing to deal with reality. I don't necessarily agree with his ideas about demographics, for example, but he's done the work of thinking through the problems and I can actually believe he knows more about the details than me.

So is it the standard white male's fear of a black man? Or is it the more profound standard conservative male's fear of an intelligent "leftist"?

So, let's be fair: There are some "leftists" intellectuals who are as frightened to the point of irrationality of intelligent conservatives as Cashill clearly is of Obama. And there are some conservatives -- even some occasionally hot-headed ones, like Andrew Sullivan* -- who are capable of having intellectually honest discussions with people who don't agree with them on doctrinaire matters. Cashill, though, is clearly an intellectual fraud. So's McCarthy. They're so terrified of the idea that someone they don't agree with might be better than them at the one thing that makes them special, that they have to expend this much effort rationalizing away that person's success. 

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*Sullivan's at least intelllectually honest, though, inasmuch as when he does get carried away -- as he sometimes does -- he's generally able to recognize it and willing to call himself out. Buckleyites, in my experience, are rarely willing to do that, and never in deference to anyone they've identified as "leftist."

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