SOPHISTRY

Beyond any doubt the most irritating type of person to have in a classroom – not only as a teacher but also as a fellow student – is the one who turns everything he is wrong about into a philosophical question about the nature of truth. This is one of the oldest and lamest rhetorical tactics in the book. "It may seem like I'm demonstrably wrong, but who can really know anything? What is truth?" That kind of crap. It is, to paraphrase my favorite description of Newt Gingrich, the kind of thing that really stupid people think sounds smart. And one of the reasons you hear this kind of thing in a classroom is that young people tend to be overconfident and think that they are more charming, intelligent, and persuasive than they are.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most people grow out of that around the time they start to drive, it looks like this is going to be Scott Walker's go-to strategy for dealing with criticism throughout his kamikaze run at the White House that we are just now beginning to endure with no end in sight. Does Barack Obama love America? How can anyone really know? How can anyone really know anything? I couldn't possibly say one way or the other without having spoken to Barack Obama about this directly.

Scott Walker: epistemological skeptic.

This kind of logic has always been the backbone of lowest common denominator populism (What do scientists really know? Isn't everything just a theory? Can't I be right even if everything I say is wrong?) and it has quickly become integral to the grand GOP strategy. Having gone all-in on anti-intellectualism and willful disregard for facts in the early W Bush years, they're certainly not going to start telling the rube army that ideology may not always trump facts at this point. The Republican Party is a coalition of smart people trying to sound dumb and dumb people trying to sound smart; Walker is a tool of the former and the archetype of the latter.

Personally I'd love to see Walker win the nomination from a practical perspective – he'd do about as well in a general election as Rick Santorum, in all likelihood. But from the more important perspective of my own mental well-being, I don't know if I can listen to this guy for 617 more days. I'd gladly risk a more electable Republican winning the nomination for the easy to digest, pallid blandness of a Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush. If not, anyone who wondered what it would happen if a hack local politician got thrust into a presidential election is going to get the chance to find out. We will watch the putative greatest nation on Earth ask itself if a guy who looks like, sounds like, and has the intellectual capacity of a career liquor commissioner in Racine should become so-called the leader of the free world. I don't worry about him winning; I worry about having to live through it.

This must be what it felt like to live through the Harding-Coolidge years.

35 thoughts on “SOPHISTRY”

  • Hi Ed, although this is my first time posting here, you have been one of my favorite bloggers for years. This post helped crystallize my thoughts about why Scott Walker bothers me so much, and it also reminded me of your classic F*** Ayn Rand post. (http://www.ginandtacos.com/2009/03/10/seriously-fuck-ayn-rand/)

    Walker seems to be emotionally stuck at ~18, which is sad for him but a horrible thing for America. Republicans who embrace Walker as their "next great hope" will drag their party even further into their anti-science, anti-factual, anti-anything Obama mindset. Like you, I dread his possible ascendance as the Republican nominee because of the psychological trauma this would cause me. I hope you are right that he almost certainly could not win.

  • Interesting parallel between Walker's obfuscations and the typical college sophomore's trip into The Big Questions. That sort of "what is truth? How can we know anything" thinking is what you always hear from the kid who didn't quite make it into college, but wants to join in his friends' late-night party conversation. It's a way of trying on the clothing of intellectual exploration without slogging through the work necessary to actually address such questions. That Walker would indulge in this to this day is an idicator of his intellectual immaturity. And it's supremely annoying because he so obviously thinks he's putting one over on the press.

  • Maybe it's ancient philosophy cliches that tend to reappear every now and then; so after trying skepticism for some time, it will be possible to see in the near future a Rethug politician reincarnating cynicism by doing the Diogenes' thing: living in a barrel, never taking a shower and masturbating furiously in public just to show his utter disrespect to his neighbours. Wait… or was I speaking about college students?

  • I've already told my betting friends: it's Jeb for the nomination. Walker has never faced Republican dirty tricksters or criticism from fellow GOPers. This is his moment in the sun before the Bush Family and its lackeys make him roadkill by next February.

  • Walker is the Koch brothers' boy. Given that they have pledged to spend approx. $900 million for the 2016 electoral cycle (why not go for the even billion, guys?) I see no reason why Walker won't be a strong contender for the nomination. And given how much Obama has disappointed the Democratic base over the last six years and how boring a candidate Ms. Clinton is sure to be I think anyone who does not take Walker seriously is making a big mistake.

  • The "no one can really know anything or do anything about it" line is the basis of Megan McArdle's line o' tripe, though "what is truth?" goes back to Pontius Pilate.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Postmodernism has done two things for our culture, one good, one bad. It has eliminated the authority of absolute right, which I think has been a good thing. But without realizing it, we have also eliminated the standard by which people can be made to accept that they are wrong. When science is the sole arbiter of truth in a society that is functionally scientifically illiterate, all you need is some hack institute to fudge a couple of whitepapers and you can begin building your very own alternate reality, free from the worry that anyone could ever convince you that you're not right.

  • Both Sides Do It says:

    The trouble with the "what can we really know?" line is that it absolutely fails in debates. It can be used sparsely. But the second it becomes something people think you'll say, you're media fodder and you're done. Having the rep as the "what can we know" guy doesn't rile up the base, makes you look weak, and makes it seem like you won't be able to tear the Democrat's throat out. Which is the sole heuristic most Republican voters use when casting primary ballots.

    This might be an annoying tick of Walker's when ambushed for a soundbite or on the state campaign trial, but he'll cut it out on the national stage.

    On a larger note, y'all can cast tea leaves on the republican side if you like but Imma be huddled over here for a year muttering to myself over and over not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton

  • What Hoosier and Both Sides said.

    I think Walker's "What is Truth" is an attempt to appear vanilla and non-threatening to the Centre-(Right/Left), while not alienating the base. An out-right "Of course Obama loves America" would alienate the base he'll need to get through the primary. To wheel out the, "Islam-o-fascist" trope immediately pins him as an unelectable teabagger to everyone else.

    A Clinton/Bush match up would be the worst of all possible worlds. Clinton is just Bush with bread and circuses. While she's signing off on Keystone-XL, VoucherCare, the gutting of Social Security, and destroying what's left of the unions, we'll distracted with legal marijuana and any other bullshit piffle people want. Never mind that "walking while black" will remain a capital crime, and we'll still see the emergence of Judge Dredd.

    I don't see why they just don't run on the same ticket they're that close.

    At least we can get high, 'cause we're going to need it after she's done.

  • Today's Republicans face an interesting dilemma.

    A stone-cold crazy faction of primary voters is able to swing the nomination, but makes up no more than 20% of the general electorate. Candidates need to placate the crazies, without saying anything too obviously insane, because that would come back to haunt them in the general election.

    Romney was largely able to ignore the crazies, because his opposition in the primaries was so uniformly pathetic. There were a few outbreaks of madness, such as Clint Eastwood's rant at the GOP convention, but on the whole Team Romney were able to keep a lid on things. (They had their own delusions, such as the "skewed polls" nonsense, but at least they knew better than to openly claim Obama was an America-hating devil worshipper.)

    Since then, the crazy faction has diverged ever farther from reality. It's questionable whether even the smoothest and most adept of politicians can bridge the gap between the delusional base and the wider electorate. Clearly, Walker is far from the most adept of politicians, but it's uncertain whether Jeb Bush or Chris Christie could do any better in the long run.

  • HoosierPoli,

    That seems a bit incoherent – wasn't the whole point of postmodernism that there is no truth as opposed to that science is its sole arbiter? Maybe I misunderstand what you are trying to say.

    From my perspective, the situation is rather more complex: Yes, there are parts of Western Civilisation that have successfully convinced themselves that expertise is just another ideology like their own, but there are also other parts that have internalised the idea that scientists and other experts are the arbiters of what is what. Therefore a double strategy is the most successful: express anti-intellectualism to satisfy the former people but found a few think tanks to satisfy the more gullible of the latter. It covers all the bases except people who do the hard work of doing a bit more research themselves, but who has the time for that?

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Funkhauser:
    I hate Scott Walker as much as the next guy, but if this comes down to Clinton v. Bush, I'm going to die a bit inside. It probably will, though.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Gov . Wanker (sic) has Richard M. Nixon's beady and shifty eyes, his receding hairline, and all of the same paranoid victimized butt-hurt – but none of Nixon's political savvy or smarts.

    To me, he looks like the guy who finished last in a Community College CPA class.

    And, outside of his well-received speech a couple of weeks ago, when I heard he had the audience on his feet, he is an insipid and banal speaker.

    But it doesn't take much to made the stupid, ignorant, and bigoted GOP base cheer, whoop, and give a standing-O.

    All you need, is to talk about the evil of Libtards, how you want to turn immigrants into Soylent Green, bomb the shit out of the Middle East, and then turn the corpses into Toasted Soylent Green.

    Oh, and evil of those mooching and dependent "Ni-CLANG!"

    And, of course, your love of Jesus, "The King of Peace."

    Conservatives suffer from a major "Irony Deficiency."

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Oh, and good to have you back, Ed!

    I missed the hell out of ya!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Economic Geographer says:

    Pedantic footnote: At least one modern head of state has been a legitimate philosophical skeptic. Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister of the UK from 1902-1905, was a Cambridge-educated philosopher and author "A Defense of Philosophic Doubt." He reputedly summed up his philosophy as "Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all."

    Shockingly, he was a terrible prime minister.

  • "The Republican Party is a coalition of smart people trying to sound dumb and dumb people trying to sound smart" – genius.

  • This reminded me of a classic uni bull session moment. An innocent young student had been exposed for the first time to the Solipsist Deepity. He was eagerly telling us how all knowledge is ultimately indeterminable, as all we know are our sensory experiences. We could be a brain in a jar, maaan! Another housemate, scornful, held up a cracker. "Does this cracker exist – yes or no?" The Junior Philosopher wavered, then answered bravely, "I don't know.'
    "You're either lying or very stupid." Crunch went the cracker.

  • Would The Rube Army [so stealing that] swoon over Walker for VP as they did for $arah "Bullseye" Palin?

    Maybe if, like Palin and Perry, he got some intallekchual glasses to take the edge off his resemblance to a goggle-eyed homunculus? (tnx, C. Pierce)

    Dunno about the wig and red high heels, tho, although maybe…

  • Here's how the election will go down:

    First, we'll be distracted by folks like Walker, Huckabee, etc. to keep us burbling until the Powers That Be (PTB) decide who they want to continue the assault on the Middle Class.

    Then, the PTB will make their decision, if they haven't already, which I think they have.

    Next, they will crank up the Mighty Wurlitzer of the corporate media. We've seen that the media can create any reality it wants in about three weeks. Those of us who are old enough remember that in December of 2003, Howard Dean was the "unbeatable front runner." Then, he made the fateful mistake of saying he would do something about media consolidation. The next day, the Wurlitzer began it's symphony. Day after day, in media outlet after media outlet, Dean was declared "unelectable." By mid-January, the "unbeatable front runner" had become "unelectable" in the minds of the voters. The coup de grace was the phony "Dean Scream," which was a total setup by the networks.

    The Wurlitzer this time, as it has in the past, will demonize whoever is running against the PTB's Chosen One. That demon will be used to scare the bejeezuz out of anyone who isn't a mouth-breathing follower of the opposition's choice. We will get the "lesser of two evils" lecture, the "think of the Supreme Court" lecture.

    Finally, the PTB's candidate will win. The names are really unimportant. The cast of characters is interchangeable. The president is just a front man/woman for the PTB.

  • Those Harding/Coolidge years led to Hoover. And that was the last time the Republicans won without a Nixon or Bush on their ticket. I have no idea what that means politically, since I don't even know what the Republicans believe in anymore. They seem more like a Boy Scout troop with a closeted Klansman for a leader than a political party.

  • Skepticalist says:

    Scott Walker reminds me of my preacher neighbor who loves saying that teaching an alternative to evolution is only way to give students a choice.

    A win by Walker would be similar to nominating a deep thinker on the order of Wayne LaPierre.

    No adults allowed at CPAC but fantasy is more than welcome. They did answer the old "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" question after all.

  • There is a simple empirical test. Walker and several of his like-minded Real Americans can turn themselves over to ISIS. We can then see 1) if he can deal with them, and 2) if Obama will do anything to rescue them once things go pear-shaped.

    Hello Rubber, my name is Road.

  • I have trouble figuring out how Walker got elected TWICE as governor of Wisconsin. He looks like a beaver with brain damage. If a beaver with brain damage can convince the people of Wisconsin to elect him twice, I am thinking he could probably convince a lot of people in the USA to vote for him, too.

  • No Load Brick says:

    "What is truth?" is surrounded by dog whistles for the tea party, so it's a safe for small audiences …

  • Please, Ed, don't insult Warren G. Harding by drawing comparisons between him and Scott Walker. Harding may not have been qualified to be President, but he was one of the great bloviators of his time. He was in demand as a speaker, he was the master of talking skillfully about absolutely nothing for hours. People liked to listen to Harding. He managed to sound like he knew what he was talking about even when he didn't have a clue. Plus Harding was a nice guy. People enjoyed being around him. He won the 1920 election because he promised a return to normalcy — the country was still recovering from participation in World War I. At that point, it didn't really matter who the Republicans nominated. The country was sick of Democrats and involvement in European wars.

    The nation as a whole was devastated when Harding died — we tend to forget that all the corruption scandals associated with Harding's administration, like Teapot Dome, broke after his death. There were rumors about his personal life (his womanizing made Bill Clinton seem like a rank amateur), but his handlers managed to squelch most of them.

    Walker, on the other hand. . . I have a hunch there are Wisconsites who hope Walker runs for President simply because if he's on the campaign trail he won't be in Madison. How he managed to win the governorship twice can only be attributed to the fact the Democrats have become incredibly skilled at running lousy campaigns and picking unelectable candidates.

  • Holy shit guys, this guy is dangerous. I've lived under the Walker Regime for five years now and I've always said he's stupid, which he is, but he connects somehow with the low information voter. One-third of Union members voted for him. Maybe not now after R2W, but his Douchery somehow connects. They don't listen to the eggheads. And while I've sat here for three elections thinking this guys unelectable, he keeps getting elected. If he gets the nom he could win the general. Don't take his shtick lightly. A very, very dangerous man.

  • Bucky – let's all hope that The Oligarchy don't want to get burned again by a male Palin who's good at Bumper Sticker Speak and dogwhistles but otherwise hasn't got a clue.

  • Bucky, could be that a third of union members hate their union. I was talking to a union guy today, and he was griping about all the dues that come out of his check…as if the union has nothing to do with the size of that check. And he's not an idiot, sadly.

  • There are smart Republicans over there? I look at the government benches here (UK) and can barely spot a Conservative with an IQ above room temperature. Indeed most f them are maybe one rung above moss on the evolutionary ladder (though to give them their due, they do at least believe in evolution…).

    They're hugely sociopathic and as cunning as shithouse rats but clever? No.

    Treasure those smart Republicans, they could be more like their UK counterparts and you really wouldn't that.

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