Why Rudy And Dinesh (And Other Smart Men) Say Stupid Things

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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You know the trope: Republicans are the stupid party; Democrats are the evil party. Has a cliche ever felt truer? To prove the former, one need only look back over the last 24 hours. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said this: “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America.” There are a lot of things you could say about Obama, but suggesting he doesn’t love America is beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza tweeted a picture of Obama holding a selfie stick, and added these words: “YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE GHETTO…Watch this vulgar man show his stuff, while America cowers in embarrassment.” I know the whole “you can take the boy out of the country,” line, but really… Boy? Ghetto??

It’s important to note that these are not stupid men. These are not inexperienced men. These are not uneducated men. Quite the opposite. According to his bio, Rudy attended “New York University Law School in Manhattan, graduating magna cum laude in 1968.” D’Souza’s a Dartmouth man. Nor are these unsophisticated people. Both are quite cosmopolitan.

You can’t blame lack of intelligence, education or sophistication. And yet, they say stupid things. Repeatedly. We all commit gaffes and make mistakes; but these are repeat offenders. But why? This is one of the many questions I’m wrestling with in my forthcoming book. There may be no definitive answer, but I have a few theories.

The first is simply, as Daniel Flynn has argued, that ideology can blind us all. It makes us stupid. And it does not discriminate. We naively believe that travel or education — being exposed to diverse environments and people — has a moderating effect, tamping down our extreme impulses, causing us to rely more on reason than passion. But sometimes it works the other way (see Sayyid Qutb’s years in America). We also tend to think that highly intelligent people are way too smart to say or believe stupid things, yet a high IQ doesn’t moderate us — it merely makes us better able to argue our own ideology.

Another theory: Too many political commentators are so interested in generating buzz and controversy that they are willing to marginally hurt the country and the conservative cause in the process (talk about not loving America). Generating controversy is a good way to stay relevant and keep your name out there. And because we are so polarized and our politics is so vicious, there are plenty of incentives to do this (and scarcely few disincentives). Call it a moral hazard, if you will, but we are now in the business of rewarding bad behavior.

Does anyone think Rudy or Dinesh will lose TV hits or book sales or speaking gigs — or whatever! — over this? Not likely. By tomorrow, we will all be on to the next scandal — on to the next person who wants a bit of buzz. If nothing else, this makes them more interesting. Meanwhile, some in conservative base will eat this stuff up. “Finally, someone is telling it like is!” they will say. The problem, of course, is that while Rudy and Dinesh prosper, it does come at a cost to someone. It’s one more day of conservatism looking stupid and mean — it’s one more dent in the facade that this is the movement of Burke and Buckley and Reagan. Meanwhile, it simply contributes to the general hostile work environment that is today’s America. It’s one more tiny bit of noise and graffiti for us to overcome. Individually this might not be that important, but there’s a cumulative effect.

It won’t be easy to get rid of this kind of stupid behavior, but (based on Rudy and Dinesh’s resumes) the answer is not more education (despite what Scott Walker’s critics may think) or sophistication. This isn’t a matter of intelligence. What we need is intelligence, plus some old fashioned conservative values … like wisdom, humility, and prudence.