Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Column on Dumbing Down Dr. Rice

Rice Dumbed Down

Tibor R. Machan

Several years ago I used to attend quite a few presentations at the
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace?a Stanford University
think tank?by such famous and prominent conservative folks as Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, George P. Shultz, Martin Anderson, and Condoleezza Rice.
They were and some still are very active scholars there.

Dr. Rice, of course, was just confirmed as this country?s Secretary of
State. And what seems to be something worth contemplating is just how much
smarter Dr. Rice appeared when she gave her presentations at those Hoover
meetings than ever since she has joined the administration of George W.
Bush. Especially during her recent confirmation hearings, this scholar,
who could communicate complex ideas in excruciatingly accurate yet clear
terms, sounded like she had been deliberately coached to appear to be a
simpleton. I do not recall specifics now but it was remarkable how often
she resorted to slogans, banalities, clich├ęs and such while she was being
questioned.

In her famous exchange with Senator Barbara Boxer, Dr. Rice spoke like a
not very smart high school student who is being scolded by a principal
instead of a serious specialist in this country?s foreign policy affairs.
And this suggests to me that there is now another trend in government that
is rather disturbing.

It seems that administration officials have an increasingly cynical view
of the citizenry. I don?t know if it is an accurate view but there is
little doubt in my mind that we are being addressed as if we all had
minimal IQs. Why would this be the case?

One hypothesis worth considering is that democracy has run completely
amuck and so everything that officials are expected to discuss and decide
on now has to be given very wide public airing. The public is in on it all
because they are doing everything for the public now, not just addressing
a special range of tasks.

Now at first inspection this may appear to be wonderful. The government
is responding to the demand that it disclose all of its deliberations with
the citizenry. No secrecy, nothing hidden. Sounds good.

But there is another possibility. Today it looks like the government is
so thoroughly involved in the lives of its citizens, there are so many
issues that it meddles in, that it needs to sooth the nerves of everyone
as it explains what it is doing and why. Government, in short, is not a
specialized institution, concerned with certain specific tasks. It is,
instead, quite literary becoming totalitarian, in the sense that the total
range of human affairs is now its concern.

In a democracy when this state affairs has been reached, nothing can be
discussed in the special vocabulary appropriate to the subject at hand.
Everything needs to be discussed in baby talk, since that is the only
common language that everyone can be expected to understand.

It looks like Dr. Rice was being told by the spin doctors in the Bush
administration to speak baby talk during her confirmation: ?Do not use big
words, do not use complex ideas, talk simple, dumb it down good. You are
talking to everyone all at once.?

In a system of government where officials have specific tasks?such as law
enforcement, dealing with foreign policy, exploring the way a constitution
ought to be applied to novel circumstances?there would, I believe, be no
fear of using the often complex language in which those matters need to be
discussed. Every specialty, after all, generates some complex
terminology?that?s one reason people go to colleges and universities, so
as to pick up that special language with which the difficult details of a
field are to be thought about and discussed.

But when everyone?s problems become the problems of government,
government officials aren?t allowed to use the special language of a given
concern but are more and more tempted to talk so as to make themselves
understood by just anyone. This, in turn, leads to the simplification of
complicated matters. But that way lies the road to obscuring issues,
resorting to language that lacks nuance and thus hides from us what really
is transpiring in various government departments.

I am not sure I like Dr. Rice dumbed down.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Column on Johnny Carson, RIP

Johnny Carson, An American Natural

Tibor R. Machan

Johnny Carson, who died recently, was perhaps the greatest comic
craftsman in American popular entertainment. But this is not to say he was
in any way parochial. Indeed, being a master comic in America is being a
master comic of the modern world, inasmuch as American culture is host to
nearly every other culture in the world and Johnny?s genius was in part to
forge a link with so many millions of Americans.

The first time I wrote about Carson was when TV Guide published a
piece
in which he had been identified as speaking only to Americans. Having come
from Europe and yet finding Carson so able to keep me in stitches night
after night, for years on end, I wrote a letter correcting TV Guide?s
misunderstanding. Then I wrote a farewell column when Carson retired in
1992 and now I wish to focus on one remarkable element of his contribution
to popular culture. Yes, while focused directly on comedy and
entertainment, there was something about Carson that went way beyond
these, namely, his continuous display of self-awareness, of being fully
conscious of himself as he was doing his work and enjoying so much of it.

I recall one occasion when Carson was about to do one of his
stints on
The Tonight Show, one of thousands over the 30 years he dominated late
night television entertainment as the host of The Tonight Show with Johnny
Carson. He was about to use his forehead to break one of those wooden
boards, mimicking a feat of certain martial artists. About to charge
against the board that was being held firmly in front of him by two
experts who appeared as guests on his program, Johnny looked up suddenly
and said, something along the lines of, ?What am I doing?? He went on for
a few seconds in this vein??I am nuts?? ?Whatever has happened to my life
that I am doing such a thing
as this??

I have no idea whether this, as other apparently spontaneous
episodes on
his program, was something that had been scripted but it certainly
appeared to be a very natural, impromptu piece of behavior and was very
funny as well as rather educational. By stepping back for those few
seconds to reflect briefly on the moment, Johnny Carson probably managed
to bring home to millions of his viewers?on this and one many similar
occasions?the significance of something quintessentially and universally
human, namely, self-awareness or reflection, being in the position to
observe and think about oneself and place oneself and what one is doing
within a larger context, indeed, perhaps, within the known scheme of
things.

It is not that Johnny Carson gave some kind of erudite academic
lecture
about the human capacity of self-awareness, certainly not. What he did
without skipping a beat in the comic performance he was embarking upon is
to show how natural and uncomplicated it is for a normal human being to
think about what one is doing, to keep alert and not get totally lost in
the moment even as one is fully engaged in that moment.

Johnny Carson had this capacity, I believe, of carrying on with
his
artistry in a most natural, unforced fashion while also exhibiting the
value of knowing what one is doing, of taking a few steps back and making
sure it all fits. (The few interviews he gave about his work I have
witnessed show
his clear awareness of its nuances and his own interest in an almost
scholarly study of comedy.)

Millions of people who were getting belly laughs night after
night from
this man, the master of comic timing and recovery, were also reminded, in
a relaxed and uncomplicated fashion, of one of the most outstanding
aspects of being a human being: thinking about what one is doing, how it
is to be understood within the larger scheme of reality.

What I personally enjoyed so much about Johnny Carson was his
ability to
put on display an attitude of self-confidence that was never boastful, of
a natural humanity that never fussed a great deal about delivering to us
all something very comforting every night, after we had gone through the
day with its tedium and serious tasks?a solid and reliable dose of genuine
comic relief. Yet mingled with this were probably more important lessons
about our humanity than even Carson had fathomed.

Thanks Johnny!