Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Liability of Intellect

Reading the latest issue of The New York Review is becoming a rather disconcerting affair. The lead article is titled "A Fateful Election" and is introduced by the Editors with the following sentence:

For an election in which so much is at stake, we asked some of our contributors for their views.

The New York Review is one of the few American publications where you can consistently enjoy intellectual thinking at its best delivered through text. For the reflective reader this is its greatest asset. For an election that is likely to be decided more on the basis of suasion than on that of logic, the intellectual impact of The New York Review may also be its greatest liability. Consider, as a case in point, the final paragraph of the contribution by Ronald Dworkin, by far the most capable of those New York Review contributors who "cover the legal beat:"

These reasons why Obama should be president make the stakes in this election even greater. Our economy is near catastrophic and worsening, unemployment and foreclosures are increasing, our foreign and military policies are disastrous, the Republican president is ridiculed and despised, the Republican candidate flails and lies. Even a mediocre Democratic candidate should win easily. If a remarkably distinguished candidate like Obama loses, this can be for only one reason. We Americans can do something great in November. Or we can do something absolutely terrible and then live with the shame of our stupid, self-destructive racial prejudice for yet another generation.

Obama supporters may delight in having such a ringing endorsement; but will it "ring true," so to speak, to those undecided voters, who may well decide the final outcome? Do those voters want to be made to feel as if they are on the bring of doing "something absolutely terrible" and that they stand for "the shame of our stupid, self-destructive racial prejudice" simply by virtue of not yet having made up their minds? The Editors of The New York Review are not exaggerating about how much is likely to be at stake in this election, but the criticality of the election should not be enough to push Dworkin from his usually reasoned prose into the depths of the sort of polemic of which all of us, particularly those undecided voters, have had our fill.

Consider what is really at stake. Of all the reasons there may be to support Barack Obama, the one that has influenced me the most is the way he has demonstrated the potential to persuade us to work together to get out of a mess brought about by a powerful few. This has not been cast as a condemnation of the Bush Administration or even of the ineffectiveness of the Congress in the face of Executive abuse of power. Rather, the message is that, however we got into the mess, we can only get out by uniting our wills and our efforts. It also reminds us, without mounting an explicit attack, that George W. Bush's claim to be a "uniter" was hollow rhetoric at best and an egregiously deceptive fiction at worst. Obama did not have to attack, because he could inspire with a coolness of speech that could deliver all the suasion of rhetoric without forcing the logic on his listeners. That coolness may ultimately be his greatest asset in the face of those undecided voters who are clearly fed up with polemic, no matter who happens to be providing it.

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