I doubt that House majority leader Dick
Armey is going to go down in history as a great intellectual heavyweight.
His weapon of choice is more the sledgehammer than the scalpel, and
his less-than-subtle pronouncements on the Palestinian question have
got him into trouble
in the past.
In an interesting twist, however, the man who was accused just a few
months ago of calling for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is now
of anti-Semitism. In a discussion in Florida in front of a largely Jewish
audience, he said that there were two types of Jewish Americans: those
with "deep intellect", who work in "occupations of the
brain" like engineering, science and economics; and liberals, with
"shallow, superficial intellect", who work in "occupations
of the heart". He meant artists, not cardiac surgeons.
Florida is the center of the fight between Democrats and Republicans
for the Jewish vote, which has historically been overwhelmingly Democratic.
Over the past year, however, the Republican rhetoric of pre-emptive
action against Arabs who want to kill us has resonated with many in
the Jewish community. Hence Armey’s presence at the discussion, and
hence the Democrats’ gleeful response.
Much of the debate is extremely boring: just as socialists used to
call anybody who disagreed with them a "fascist", now Republicans
and foreign-policy hawks are using "anti-Semite" even against
prominent Jewish Zionists such as Gerald Kaufman. So if the tables are
being turned and Dick Armey is getting a taste of his own side’s rhetoric,
I don’t really mind, even if it’s clear that he’s no more anti-Semitic
than Kaufman is.
What’s much more interesting is Armey’s non-apology apology the following
day, when he told reporters he was simply making a broader point about
liberals’ wrong-headedness. "If you were a southern Anglo Baptist
liberal, I promise you I would say you were not well educated and probably
not a very deep thinker, because that’s what liberals are," he
"Liberals are, in my estimation, just not bright people. They don’t
think deeply, they don’t comprehend, they don’t understand a partial
derivative, they have a narrow educational base as opposed to the hard
Southern Anglo Baptist liberal? Who could Armey possibly be thinking
of? Surely not the world’s most famous Rhodes scholar, the man who even
conservatives agree was one of the most intelligent presidents ever?
Whatever else you might accuse him of, being "not well educated"
and "just not bright people" seems a bit of a stretch. But
even putting that to one side, it’s an interesting piece of rhetoric.
It fits into the famous Charles Krauthammer thesis
that conservatives think that liberals are stupid. Liberals, of course,
don’t believe the opposite: we might oppose everything Condi Rice stands
for, we might think she’s wrong, but we don’t think she’s dumb.
I’ve even known a couple of bright right-wingers personally: one, a
distant relation, was Keith Joseph, the house intellectual of the Thatcher
More interestingly, however, Armey has taken the standard Democratic/Republican
distinction and overlaid it onto CP Snow’s "two cultures"
distinction between the humanities and the sciences. In his book, it
would seem, the liberal arts are the Liberal arts, and the basic conservative
laws of science (mass, energy, momentum) are actually Conservative as
It’s quite a brave thing to say, especially in this most anti-intellectual
of administrations. (Somehow I doubt that George W Bush is a whizz with
partial derivatives.) It also goes against the standard dumbbell view
of Democratic voters: that they’re generally either very smart or very
stupid, while the GOP gets the broad mass in the middle.
And, in the final analysis, it’s very unlikely to be true. The most
left-wing university in Britain has historically always been the London
School of Economics. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
is made up of nothing but hard scientists, and is hated by all self-respecting
conservatives. What’s more, scientists tend to work in universities,
and universities are generally very liberal places. If voting were confined
only to those people who understand partial derivatives, I think the
Democrats would be very happy: they could finally make political capital
out of the astonishing mess that is president Bush’s economic policy.
Does Armey know this, deep down, do you think? Probably not: for all
his posturing, he’s not really a scientist, he’s merely a former
economics professor. That’s why he chose proficiency with partial derivatives
as his metric for whether one belongs on the side of Einstein or that
of Shakespeare. I’m sure he’s very good at them: economists usually
are. But they’re also very good at getting into lengthy, heated and
incoherent debates with each other. Maybe that’s how Armey got his present
lofty position in politics.