Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jacksonian Honor Among Pundits: Walter Russell Mead Challenges Rush Limbaugh to a Duel

by Michael Kaplan

Andrew Jackson kills Charles Dickinson in a duel, 1806

Jacksonian honor is alive and well, and in some unexpected places. Earlier this year two of my favorite pundits, Rush Limbaugh and Walter Russell Mead, engaged in an affair of honor that so far has been kept in the realm of words. Jacksonians (past and present) do not like intellectuals. In fact it’s not an exaggeration to say that Jacksonians loathe and despise the intellectual elites. The feelings are mutual. (This makes it interesting for me as both a Jacksonian and an intellectual). Outspoken contempt for academic intellectuals has long been a staple of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and political rhetoric. It’s a large part of his appeal for his Jacksonian audience. In a January 7, 2010 segment on his radio show (titled in the transcript at “An Intellectual Analysis of Obama”), Rush attacked Walter Russell Mead for trying to analyze Barack Obama’s seemingly indecisive foreign policy on PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer instead of just calling him a coward. For Rush this showed that Mead was a head-in-the-clouds intellectual out of touch with reality. Rush, in good Jacksonian fashion, went on to mimic Mead’s ums and ahs while mocking the entire concept of intellectual analysis as mere academic narcissism:

I can do intellectual-speak. I’ve studied these people. I know how to do the affectation. I know the words. I know all this stuff, and one thing I know when you do intellectual-speak is you are not immersed in any kind of reality. You're doing something else. You’re trying to impress yourself. You’re trying to impress everybody else around you with your so-called smarts and so forth, and your ability to, “Analyze things in ways that other people just can’t come up with because, you know (deep breath), they’re just not equipped as we intellectuals are.” But in the meantime these are the last people you want with you in a foxhole. I mean, they don't even know where one is.
A caller from Birmingham, Alabama named Barry could not agree more with Rush’s contempt for the intellectual elites:

CALLER: We’ve got our emerging ruling academic elite like Russia and China, but, you know, we're talking about this intelligent elite, I'd love to see ’em stacked up with Jefferson and Madison, I’d love to see them debate with a real resonance man who can run a farm and handle commercial enterprises and really walk with common sense. These people have never seen the outside of a classroom. And, by the way, who ran the ship into the ground anyway? If Sarah Palin is ineligible because she’s not an intellectual, well, tell me, who ran the ship into the ground? I think it was the intellectuals. I’d love to have a framer, a truck driver, maybe a Sarah Palin, somebody that can kill and skin a moose perhaps.
Barry from Birmingham no doubt speaks for many Jacksonians who believe that the common sense of ordinary Americans is more important for a leader than academic credentials. Rush concluded that the real problem he has with intellectuals is that they are overeducated:

RUSH: So I just got an e-mail out there during the break: “Rush, what is an intellectual? What's so bad about smart people?” It's a good question, folks. The modern iteration of intellectual, when I use it, we’re talking about academics, people who have done nothing but spend time in a library or an office or a classroom and have no hands-on, real-world experience doing or producing anything, including meeting a payroll, pure and simple. Overeducated.
Not being one to let a challenge to his honor go unanswered, Walter Russell Mead responded in his own blog in good Jacksonian fashion, by challenging Rush to a duel:
Call me an Obama apologist, Mr. Limbaugh and I can take it. Call me a pointy headed intellectual and shill for the establishment, and I can weather the storm.
But to reproduce my ums and ahs, sir, is a step too far. Pistols at forty paces; my second will be in touch with yours to designate the time and place of our meeting.
So far there has been no word in any media outlet of this duel taking place—outside the realm of words that is. That’s just as well. After all it’s for the best that pundits pushing sixty fight their Jacksonian duels to the death in the realm of ideas.

Entertainment value aside, this exchange between Rush and Mead raises a serious issue in American history and society: what is the proper place of the intellectual and the life of the mind in a populist democracy? If Jacksonianism has an Achilles heel it is its almost visceral anti-intellectualism. Now Jacksonians do have good cause to mistrust the liberal intellectual elites, many of whom make no secret of their contempt for traditional American virtues and values and those people who uphold them. But Jacksonians, like Rush in this case, do throw out the baby with the bath water when they summarily dismiss the value and legitimacy of the life of the mind and those who dedicate themselves to it. Many intellectuals, scholars and teachers, support Jacksonian values of patriotism, honor and American exceptionalism and greatness while rejecting the anti-Americanism of the left. Historian Victor Davis Hanson is one example, as are Walter Russell Mead, Thomas Sowell, Monica Crowley, and I, your humble blogger. More on this issue in an upcoming post.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan