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Notes on the culture war

Posted on Oct 8, 2008 by billsimmon in politics | 5 Comments

I admit it. I’m a total elitist. I drive a Subaru (we’re a two-Subaru household), I like jazz, I live in Vermont, I drink expensive coffee drinks, I was a Deaniac in 2004, and I get annoyed when politicians mispronounce “nuclear.”

I suppose culture war issues always get extra heated around election time, but it seems like this year it’s particularly bad. Here are a few items for you culture warriors to mull over and comment on…

In last night’s debate in Tennessee, Senator McCain twice made reference to a multi-million dollar “overhead projector” that Obama had sought money for in Chicago. The “overhead projector” was actually a planetarium projector purchased for Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, and doesn’t seem like particularly wasteful spending to me, but I was not McCain’s audience for the remarks. Here’s a helpful guide for comparison…

In the 1990s culture war, there was a lot of talk about frivolous NEA spending on the arts. Perhaps science museums are the new Robert Mapplethorpe?

And apparently there are some right wing culture warriors who are offended by proper word pronunciation.  In particular, Obama’s correct pronunciation of the word “Pakistan” has drawn some fire from the right.  Steve Benen writes

The National Review’s Mark Stein, for example, said that Obama prefers the “exotic pronunciation.” He added, “[O]ne thing I like about Sarah Palin is the way she says ‘Eye-raq’.”

This came after the National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez posted an email that argued, “[N]o one in flyover country says Pock-i-stahn. It’s annoying.”

As I admitted earlier in this post, I myself get a little annoyed by improper word pronunciation (“nuclear” is my pet peeve, but there are other examples too).  But my culture-war ire is not as pathetic as the right’s because…

  1. For me it’s just a minor annoyance that’s fun to pick on — not something I’d seriously attack a candidate on as part of my job as a political writer (were I one), and
  2. I’m defending the correct pronunciation while they’re defending incorrect pronunciation.  I am literally right and they are literally wrong.

Adam Serwer’s quote on this was really good…

To pronounce something correctly is to be “ostentatiously exotic,” while pronouncing something incorrectly is raised to the level of something like a presidential qualification. Meanwhile, there are thousands of Americans of Pakistani descent who are themselves “ostentatiously exotic” by virtue of their names (and it would be elitist of them to expect anyone to pronounce them correctly) and ancestry.

Keep in mind that these are the same people who insist that a culture of ignorance that hold black people back while lauding Sarah Palin’s vast ignorance of public policy as some kind of tremendous virtue. They demand merit from others and only mediocrity from themselves, because said mediocrity is touted as proof of authenticity.

And even David Brooks, who has a history of defending the McCain/Palin ticket, today described Palin (and the anti-intellectualism she represents) as “a fatal cancer to the Republican party.”  Speaking at an Atlantic Monthly event today, Brooks said

“[Palin] represents a fatal cancer to the republican party. When I first started in journalism, I worked at the National Review for Bill Buckley. And Buckley famously said he’d rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. But he didn’t think those were the only two options. He thought it was important to have people on the conservative side who celebrated ideas, who celebrated learning. And his whole life was based on that, and that was also true for a lot of the other conservatives in the Reagan era. Reagan had an immense faith in the power of ideas. But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I’m afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices.”

The whole idea that intelect is something to be scorned while folksy dunder-headedness is something to be admired is astounding to me.  I’m tempted to mention how Nazi Germany scorned intellectuals and draw a comparison, but modern American anti-intellectualism is actually dumber than that. At least Nazi anti-intellectualism was part of a specific, if twisted, political philosophy. (“Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude. At least it’s an ethos.”)  The prideful stupidity of Bush/Palin is more like misplaced self-esteem run amok.

In politics, being sure of yourself despite being wrong can get you a long way, but once you actually attain some political power, you have to start being right or bad things happen (Iraq War, Wall Street meltdown, unchecked climate change, etc.).  So this culture war stuff matters.

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  1. On October 8, 2008, Rob said:

    If word pronunciation is unimportant then I submit that typesetting the mispronunciation is alright too. For example: “Sarah Palin’s views on nucular proliferation.”

    Literary chaos.

  2. Great post. You betcha!

  3. As far as the planetarium projector goes, whatever brings Laser Zeppelin to masses is OK with me.

    And Palin got booed at the Rangers/Flyers season opener in Philly. How ya like the east coast, now, hockey mom?

  4. On October 14, 2008, smoothie said:

    Are you sure you know the correct pronunciation of “Iraq?” What about “Afghanistan?”

    I think it’s clear to me that there is a “correct” pronunciation of “Iraq” for Iraqis; it’s less clear to me that there’s a “correct” pronunciation for United States of Americans.

    Furthermore, in the context of an election campaign is the correct pronunciation the one that Iraqis use or the one that gets you elected?

    IMO, you can probably cannot get elected President of the United States of America if you routinely correctly pronounce “Iraq” (i.e., rolled and slightly aspirated r’s) or Afghanistan (“gh” like a throatier version of the German or Scottish “ch”, and two different kinds of “a”, the first like the “a” in “father,” the last two sort of like the “o” in “baton”).

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