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Inter-Ivy Resentment Masquerades as Political Journalism

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“Meaningless erudition,” is it?

This New York Times article, by Jay Caspian Kang’s recent New York Times article, “How Pete Buttigieg’s Meaningless Erudition Made Him the ‘Smart’ Candidate,” is a snotty hit job.

It begins with what Kang evidently considers to be humiliating for Mayor Pete: he’s no longer fluent in the Norwegian he learned. Kang seizes on the fact that Buttigieg forgot most of his Norwegian, as though this revelation was the product of Kang’s ace reporting, whereas in fact the information came from Buttigieg himself — in Norwegian. And what the hell is the point of the scare quotes around smart?

“In his weeks on the national scene, Buttigieg has built a brand squarely aimed at a certain kind of liberal intellectual — the type whose prose-driven, subjective, humanist view of the world has lately fallen out of style, replaced by data analysis and ideology. His unassuming face now seems to be everywhere. The blitz has felt less like a presidential campaign than a liberal-arts variety show — a best-case scenario for what happened to Max Fischer from ‘Rushmore.’ A few weeks after the musician Ben Folds told a story about playing a duet with the candidate, a Buttigieg adviser tweeted a video of Mayor Pete ‘tickling the ivories’ before a talk at Scripps College. Even his choice of song — Spoon’s ‘The Way We Get By’ — fit the brand, nailing a demographic of upper-middle-class dads who wax nostalgic about their college radio shows and the professors who taught them to love James Joyce. As Notre-Dame burned, Buttigieg offered his sympathies in French.”

Oh.

So not only did he forget Norwegian (the language he used to say that he had forgotten Norwegian). Pete Buttigieg speaks conversational French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, and Farsi, so even if he did forget his Norwegian, he can rely on six other languages — plus English — to get by on. Gimme a break, Jay.

And get this: “I don’t doubt that Mayor Pete, a Harvard graduate and the son of two professors, is genuinely smart. Nor do I think the excitement about his candidacy has been driven entirely by the polyglot fetishes of my media colleagues. He speaks in a calm, thoughtful manner with a touch of a young Dustin Hoffman’s charm. The candidacy of an openly gay man has genuine symbolic importance.”

It’s all a symbol, huh? This article is symptomatic of a recent trend in both Buttigieg’s coverage and the responses to the coverage. The leftier-than-thou crowd (of which Kang may or may not be a part; his article is so full of snark that it’s not clear what his politics are) makes it a point to complain about Buttigieg’s race and gender. And it’s no surprise that this camp’s loudest voices on social media are as white and male as he is. Buttigieg’s absolutely flabbergasting candidacy thereby makes a magician’s shift from real value to symbolic value.

No. This is wrong. The homophobic jerks who heckle him at events aren’t symbolic. The courage Mayor Pete demonstrates when he faces down those assholes isn’t symbolic either. And it’s worth noting that Jay Caspian Kang is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Columbia University. Not exactly the opposite of the dads “waxing nostalgic” about their liberal arts college days.

Kang ends the piece with this: “My fear is that such a system might look a bit like Buttigieg mania: an insidious game in which entire lives of experience, or even exactly matching credentials, get overshadowed by the dilettantish longing of the upper middle class. The Mayor Pete bubble should serve as a portent of what might happen if we strip away every objective measure of merit, however problematic or biased, in favor of how someone’s idiosyncratic talents make us feel. Consider that the person [writer Anand] Giridharadas and others have described as the opposite of Donald Trump isn’t Elizabeth Warren, a self-made public intellectual and policy expert from a more rural and blue-collar background than Buttigieg’s campus roots, but an erudite 37-year-old mayor who seems most intent on dazzling the country with his academic feats of strength.”

Oh really? As far as I can tell, Buttigieg seems most interested in running for president. And it’s not as if he’s been bragging about his linguistic skills. Yes, the media has been entertaining itself with his accomplishments, and he certainly hasn’t let them down. But that’s a far cry from tossing off a campaign speech in Farsi. And I agree completely about Warren; when was the last time a community college graduate ran for president?

I would like to give Kang a grade. In the not-so-good old days, professors at schools such as Bowdoin, Columbia, Harvard, and such would award certain students what was called a Gentleman’s C, which is to say that they’d have flunked if their names hadn’t been Vanderbilt or Astor. I think Jay Caspian Kang merits a much higher grade than that — I found his article annoying but well-written, challenging, and certainly not stupid — but for the sake of a cheap pun, I’m awarding him a Caspian C.

From CNN’s “Five Things Newsletter”: “A new Quinnipiac University poll finds that 70 percent of voters (including 86 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic) say they are open to electing a gay president. The same poll also discovered, however, that only 36 percent of voters (including 40 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic) think the United States is ready to elect a gay president.”

Frankly I don’t think Pete has a Cherry Garcia’s chance in hell of being elected president. Still, I resent the question. If we had to wait until America was “ready” for a gay or lesbian president, we’d still be afraid of the mailman discovering our subscription to The Advocate and no grandma would ever be told the truth about their grandkid’s sexuality.

Follow @Ed Sikov on Facebook and Twitter.

Updated 2:59 pm, May 12, 2019
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