Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 October 2007

Dishonesty and Stupidity


Some life experiences are so enlightening that they stay in our minds until we die. Like legends or fables, they teach us something important about the human condition, which we could not have learned in any other way.

I had an experience like that some years ago. My job required me to attend a series of routine meetings with roughly the same group of people. In two consecutive meetings, a single person adopted what seemed to me diametrically opposed positions and voted accordingly. I pointed out the switch, somewhat undiplomatically, implying dishonesty.

The switcher was more “political” and had better “people skills” than I. A private meeting was requested. In it, the person spent minutes explaining why what appeared to be a change of position was not. On its substance, the explanation was far-fetched—almost ludicrous. Yet the person was sincere, even earnest.

I concluded that I had been wrong. The problem was not dishonesty. It was stupidity. This person simply couldn’t (1) remember what had been said in the earlier meeting or (2) understand why the two positions were contradictory. The problem was a failure of memory, a failure of logic, or an inability to comprehend how others hear one’s words. Having mistaken stupidity for dishonesty, I apologized for the implied accusation and kept my opinion of the person’s mental acuity to myself.

That incident has stayed with me as if it occurred yesterday. In a single moment, it taught me an indelible lesson. From the outside, stupidity can be indistinguishable from dishonesty.

At times my reaction to George W. Bush approaches revulsion. But try as I might, I cannot conceive of him as a fundamentally dishonest person—a person whose modus operandi is to lie deliberately and knowingly to achieve a hidden goal.

If Bush is a Machiavelli, he is also the world’s most consummate actor. Everything about him seems so simple and open, from his problems with the English language to his fearful grimace on learning of the 9/11 attacks while reading to schoolchildren in Florida. But unlike Bill Clinton, who could stare straight into the camera and credibly disown his relationship with Monica Lewinski, Bush is no actor. Good acting requires both emotional and analytical intelligence.

As Bush repeats his little mantras endlessly, he seems perfectly sincere. A man of intelligence would recognize their inappropriateness to the situation and their more-than-occasional internal contradictions. A man of intelligence would get bored or frustrated repeating the same simplistic slogans day after day—would scream from the sheer monotony of it all. But Bush does not. He is like a simple child caught up in the pleasing cadence of a repetitive nursery rhyme.

This fact, I think, explains our nation’s disagreement on his character. Some of us—maybe one-third—see his apparent sincerity, his simple earnestness, and little else. They don’t recognize the internal contradictions in his logic. They are too ill informed to understand how far from reality his simplistic pronouncements and policies stray. So they think Bush is right and follow him willingly. The rest of us, who read the newspapers at least occasionally, see the discrepancies and internal contradictions and accuse Bush of dishonesty.

But there is a third possibility. Bush may be too stupid to see the flaws in his own thinking or how much his views diverge from reality. He may be a sincere and honest simpleton.

Consider our first false premise for invading Iraq, for example: WMD. It takes some insight and introspection to understand that your own strongly held convictions might be wrong. It takes self-awareness to understand how a deep desire to “correct” the “error” of allowing Saddam to stay in power, after he tried to kill your own father, might distort your judgment. But Bush has simply and proudly disclaimed introspection and self-insight, not once but many times. Should we not believe him?

As for understanding how absolute certainty and intransigence at the very top of a large bureaucracy might distort the perceptions of those below, that’s a pretty sophisticated concept. The entire intelligence community is set up to see reality clearly, isn’t it? How could the monomania of one fool at the top (or two, if you count Cheney) twist the views of all those smart professionals down in the bowels of the bureaucracy?

Nearly all of Congress and our media couldn’t see how. There are some awfully smart people in those institutions, but they failed to see the point until it was too late. Could we expect George W. Bush to see it when he has disclaimed introspection, and when all those smart people, whose job it is to ferret out untruths and contradictions, couldn’t?

Dubya demonstated his non-existent mental acuity again as recently as two days ago. Responding to a reporter’s simple request to state his definition of torture, he replied, “Whatever the law says.”

You would think that a president who had fought repeated battles over torture in the Cabinet, the Congress, and the media over a period of several years might have some conception of what he had been advocating. Not Bush. Not only had he no ready mental conception of torture that he might cite to reconcile his bromide “we don’t torture” with reports of events in the field. He apparently didn’t even care. It’s enough for a man like him that his buddies and the people on whom he relies for advice think that what our military and CIA are doing in our name is OK. Beyond that, his dim intellect cannot go.

If you want a good analogy to Dubya’s character, think of the Austrian emperor in the movie Amadeus, the one who said that Mozart’s music had “too many notes.” That’s what we are dealing with: a man charged with governing a sophisticated society who has nowhere near the mental equipment even to understand the consequences of what is going on, let alone to govern effectively.

During the 2000 election, there was regular comment on Bush’s limited intelligence. Once he assumed the mantle of president it all stopped cold. The naked emperor put on imaginary clothing, which we all pretended to see. We all feared to speak the truth, lest the truth reflect poorly on our own electoral choices and our own intelligence.

Political correctness is rampant in our society. Now it has reached its logical conclusion. Our commander in chief is mentally crippled, but no one can say so. So we all soldier on—some of us to death in combat—politely averting our eyes from the most salient feature of this presidency: George W. Bush’s stupidity.

We have fifteen more months to be ruled by a simpleton. Our only hope of salvation is to seek a brighter leader next time. In the meantime, we should all think hard about what went wrong, that we had to suffer one-man rule by such a man, at a critical point in our history, for eight long years.


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