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Posted by on Sep 24, 2007 in At TMV | 21 comments

The Intellectual Dilemma over “Intellectually Lazy”

An unidentified Bush administration official said Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama exhibited “intellectual laziness.” It’s kind of a ridiculous charge, given Obama’s background (and given the source). But a few liberal bloggers also complained that the charge itself was reminiscent of racist stereotyping in which Black people were seen as academically weak and, to be blunt, stupid and lazy. Brendan Nyhal inquired, can we please “talk about Obama without language that echoes racist stereotypes?”

And in all seriousness, I don’t know, can we?. Nyhal’s question is asked by both the left and the right, but by neither seriously. The left asks it, as Nyhal did, as a rhetorical device to chide conservatives on a perceived racist attack. The right asks it as a segue into their victimization kick about how “it’s impossible to criticize Black people without being called a racist.” Both are, to some extent, right. In a society suffused with a White supremacist history, virtually every negative descriptor in the political lexicon has been employed as part of a general effort by Whites to subordinate and subjugate Blacks. Nyhal certainly isn’t wrong that the “lazy and stupid” stereotype has a long and “distinguished” racist pedigree. Accepting that, then, it becomes a genuinely vexing question of how to disentangle racist usages from legitimate ones — all the more so because, given our past and present, the Black community has no reason to trust White protestations of good faith. We’ve done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt here. But still, politics demand that criticism be acceptable. So, in all seriousness, how to negotiate both goals?

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  • If by “ridiculous” you mean that anonymous sources as the basis of such charges is ridiculous, I agree. I agree with Nyhal’s plea, and have actively defended Obama against silly charges such as the madrassas thing. I’m obviously not an Obama fan, but he should be criticized for what he actually is, not for imaginary sins or irrelevant nothings.

    You can never negotiate both goals as long as too many people automatically attribute ANY criticism of black candidates as racist. Period. Accusations such as “lazy and stupid” should be addressed on the merits, not on someone’s insistence of stereotyping the charge.

    Nyhal certainly isn’t wrong that the “lazy and stupid” stereotype has a long and “distinguished” racist pedigree.

    My Irish ancestors agree. Thrown in drunken, and you’re there. 😉

  • john

    I actually find it quite humorous that someone that works for George W. Bush would have balls to accuse anybody of exhibiting “intellectual laziness”.

  • domajot

    Without even consdiering whether describing Obama as intellectually lazy is racist, it’s aobviously an intellectually lazy characterization tp apply tp the ,man.
    It sounds like an easy, pick-an-insult-out-of-the -bag charge to lay on him. How about researching the man’s intellectual capabilities first? I don’t see any signs of laziness of any kind in the candidate.

  • What John said.

  • casualobserver

    Speaking on the condition of remaining anonymous, a high ranking official of the Bush administration said the moon was made of green cheese and lefty bloggers dutifully spent the day assessing the implications of this revelation.

  • C Stanley

    A predictably dumb political jab by the ‘anonymous WH source” which will have no effect on the election and predictably dumb response by the liberal bloggosphere accusing the GOP of racism, which may or may not gain traction.

    I am glad to see that you are recognizing the inherent problem here, David- that being excessively predisposed to seeing racism might prevent opponents of black candidates from being able to point out any negatives of the candidate (that’s not to say that I agree that this particular charge should have been levelled against Obama- they seem to be taking some ordinary gaffes that occur in all candidate’s campaigns and trying to conflate that with the meme that Obama is all charm and not much substance).

    I’d propose that if there is another reasonable explanation besides racism, perhaps we should give people the benefit of the doubt? As I said above, the reasonable explanation is that the only negative that has stuck with Obama is that he may be a bit too charming and relying on celebrity appeal. Since this ‘attack’ was along those lines, I don’t see why we should dredge up nastier ulterior motives.

    Another approach would be: if this said by a Democrat in regard to a black GOP candidate, would you even entertain the notion that there was any racist intent?

  • CStanley: First, remember that I believe that something can “echo[] racist stereotypes” or be a “racist usage” without having “racist intent.” When it comes to racism, I am not an intentionalist — I think intention has weight on the moral culpability of the offender, to be sure, but whether or not something is a “racist usage” is a quality independent of the intent of the speaker. Consequently, we can (and should!) protest vigorously against racist usages as a separate and separable moral act from protesting racists (although, having been called out on a non-intentional racist usage user can then be called out on negligence or recklessness if s/he persists — but that occurs later down the moral line).

    Second, the “another reasonable explanation” standard strikes me as far too lenient. By its terms it can’t handle “mixed motive” cases, nor ones where the “explanation” is pre-textual (a explanation can appear reasonable and still be pre-textual). Second, it runs into huge trouble in the type of casesGaertner and Dovidio describe as a key way racism perpetuates itself in modern-day society, where the availability of a “reasonable explanation” makes racism more likely because it provides a “trojan horse” for racism to be smuggled in, in a manner less likely to be perceived (either by peers, authorities, or even the perpetrator, who may not consciously perceive himself as racist). Finally, there are serious concerns about whether the standard will end up having any true critical bite. In the case of Obama = “intellectually lazy”, for example, I think any remotely discerning look would not consider the attack to be a “reasonable” one — of all the candidates, Obama has perhaps demonstrated himself to be the most “purely” intellectual and intellectually curious. If the proffered facade was “experience”, then maybe I’d buy it as a reasonable attack, as at least experience is a colorable strike on Obama (I say “maybe” because, as I’ve reiterated, on election day he’ll he have more experience in elected office than every major candidate save McCain). But “intellectually lazy” is so far beyond what can reasonably be associated with Obama that if it is to qualify as a “reasonable explanation”, the standard is nothing but an open gate.

  • C Stanley

    David: I think you have to include the whole context of the statements though. The “intellectually lazy” charge was made in regard to some gaffes that Obama made in the campaign, and the implication was that these weren’t just ordinary slips of the tongue but they showed that he wasn’t very prepared. The person quoted was making the case (weakly, I’ll again note- I don’t agree with him) that this shows that Obama is just relying too much on his charm rather than ‘intellectual preparedness’. Again, I don’t agree but I don’t think it’s a stretch that some might see it this way- and more importantly, that I can easily see these as typical campaign barbs so I don’t see why we should reach beyond that.

    You didn’t mention what you think about my second proposed ‘test’. 😉

  • C Stanley

    Oh, and on your arguments regarding the need for more stringency, it’s the same discussion that you and I have had before; you feel that racism is so important that you have to err on the side of catching a lot of false positives, while I feel that leads to a real harm to those who are falsely accused and I also believe it has a feedback effect of creating more racism (since innocent people from the majority race resent the false accusations).

  • domajot

    I would just point out that in the wake of some of Obama’s :gaffes’ quite a number of prominent thinkers came out to praise his prescient ‘out of the bax’ thinking on the issues involved. One man’s gaffe is another man’s innovative thinking, especially in politics.

    The whole area of political commentary has been so poisoned by resorting to insult trading and attacks instead of serious analysis that I’m beginning to think it’s not always worth it to try to get to the bottom of every inciden – for those directly involved or accused.

    The post asks an important question that those on the sidelined should consider.

    However, if I were a candidate, I would be tempted to poke fun at it instead of answering seriously. I wouldn’t dignify it with a serious response if I could succeed at highlighting its silliness. That would be one way of rising above such accusations and at the same time reducing the value of the accusation.

  • FTR, I think that attacks by Whites on Black conservatives also need to come under “strict scrutiny” (if you will) with regards to racist underpinnings — I think a significant amount of the criticism Justice Thomas receives, for example, smells more than a whiff of this (even though virtually all of it would pass the “another reasonable explanation” test), and deserves serious examination and critique.

    On the false positive/false negatives issue, recall that my point isn’t just that the benefits of stopping racism are worth the harms of increased false positives (though I think they are). I freely concede that falsely labeling someone racist (or even my milder alternative — labeling someone’s argument racist) is a real and bona fide harm, albeit one that I think is empirically considerably less significant than the harms of racism. But as you may recall, I also think that the prevelances are different — I think as a society we “undercatch” racism and overcorrect towards letting probable racist acts and arguments slide. There are, in my view, considerably fewer cases of “false racism” victimizing Whites than there are cases of “ignored racism” victimizing Blacks.

    The feedback argument I think is at best a wash for you — not calling out racism (letting acts slide) creates just as much resentment and hostility in the Black population as calling false cases creates in the White community. Moreover, if my study of America’s racial history has taught me anything (and the following point is only being ratified in the seminar I’m taking currently on the History of the Civil Rights Movement), White reactions to a challenge of racism tend to be rather hostile regardless of whether the underlying charge is true or not. Even in the most bona fide cases, Whites still get all riled up and angry about Black people claiming “special rights” (as President Andrew Johnson did when vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866). “Moderate” Whites then use that “backlash” as an excuse to try and stymie civil rights reform as being responsible for stirring up the population and causing civil unrest. So with regard to White backlash, there is a real risk of the “heckler’s veto” scenario acting itself out — historically, precisely what has happened.

  • C Stanley

    FTR, I think that attacks by Whites on Black conservatives also need to come under “strict scrutiny” (if you will) with regards to racist underpinnings — I think a significant amount of the criticism Justice Thomas receives, for example, smells more than a whiff of this (even though virtually all of it would pass the “another reasonable explanation” test), and deserves serious examination and critique.

    I can see your point here. My example would be Steele in MD- putting aside the nonsense about whether or not anyone actually threw oreos at him, he definitely WAS subjected to a lot of attacks based on the fact that he was “too close to Bush”. Now that would meet the criteria you’ve laid out for failing my own test: it could be reasonably assumed that this was like other attacks du jour, since this was common campaign rhetoric of Dems in 2004. But was there an element of painting him with the Uncle Tom brush? I think so. Whether or not you agree, just go with me on it for a minute. Then the question becomes, if we suspect this motivation, does this actually “deserve serious examination and critique”? I say no. The best remedy is to ignore it, IMO, and address the attack at face value. Hardcore black bigots aren’t going to be persuaded that they shouldn’t consider black conservatives as sellouts anyway, and hardcore white bigots aren’t going to be convinced to vote for a black politician- no matter how much exposure is given to the racist rhetoric.

    White reactions to a challenge of racism tend to be rather hostile regardless of whether the underlying charge is true or not.

    Look, there’s no denying that- I think that’s exactly what happened in Jena, for example. But there has to be some objective criteria for whether or not the underlying charge is truly racist. Nooses in trees, yep. Calling an opposing candidate “intellectually lazy”? Not in my book.

    In a way, it’s like the criminal justice system. Even if someone is suspected of a crime, he can’t be charged unless there’s evidence. Even though we undoubtedly let some criminals go free because of this principle, we do so because we have to make sure people aren’t unjustly convicted. You’re saying that too many people are still ‘going free’ on racist charges, but I’m saying, OK, let’s go after the ones we can convict but let’s not decide that it’s worthwhile to trap innocent people in the net.

  • krit

    I actually find it quite humorous that someone that works for George W. Bush would have balls to accuse anybody of exhibiting “intellectual laziness”.

    Exactly what I was thinking. All of the tell-all books coming out of this administration document this quality in Bush, and to be honest I have seen no evidence of it in Obama. OTOH, I think a charge of racism is a big stretch. If we are ever to achieve equality, blacks will have to learn to develop a thicker skin.

    It falls along the same lines as calling Steny Hoyer a racist for using the word “slavish” to describe Michael Steele. Ridiculous.

  • The problem, C, is that racism is not a crime, and so treating it as if it carried criminal penalties is not really a legitimate move. Now, if we wanted to adopt the French model and start imprisoning folks when they’re convicted of discriminatory acts (right now in America it’s a civil tort), then I’d agree we’d need to be far more careful about netting innocent folk. But, like Prof. Suk in the linked-paper, I think that adopting the criminal law approach would be bad for precisely that reason — while the vindictive side of me would like to see certain racists rot away in prison for awhile, the part of me interested in racial progress wants policies aimed at aiding the victims, not punishing the perpetrators (to borrow from the late Alan David Freeman).

  • C Stanley

    Why so cavalier about the effects of false charges of racism? Just because people aren’t imprisoned they have nothing to complain about? That’s ridiculous: people’s reputations are greatly harmed, political careers ruined, etc.

    I say that the principle still holds because the reasoning for it is still the same, crime or not. Potential victims receive more respect for their legitimate claims when they respect the need to avoid punishment of innocent people. Whites will begin to more universally respect black people only when blacks also respect the need for whites to not be slandered. If that’s not happening, then there will ALWAYS be an element of the white population which will feel justified in being angry toward blacks and thus treating them unfairly.

  • It’s not cavaliarness, it’s a recognition of distinction. I think discrimination is really bad even though it isn’t (and I don’t think it should be) a criminal act (it’s a tort). I think being falsely accused of racism can have really bad effects too, but definitely not at the same level of a false criminal conviction.

    The high barriers we erect to stop false criminal convictions are there in part because of the extreme nature of the sanctions we impose on those convicted of crimes. One can recognize that bad things happen to other people “convicted” of non-criminal behavior while recognizing that these consequences are not on par with being imprisoned for long periods of time, being considered a felon, loss of liberty even after release, etc. (in addition to “reputations…greatly harmed…careers ruined, etc.”). And we do lower these barriers for non-criminal acts, which is why if I sue you for wrongful death, I only need to prove my case via a preponderance of evidence, but if I try and convict you of manslaughter, I need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And if I, personally, don’t want to associate you because I suspect you of killing someone, its arguable that the “standard” I apply to this decision might be even lower than a preponderance of evidence.

    As I said, I’m not exactly uninterested in punishing folks who are racist, but it is a far less important objective for me than providing restitution to the victims. Someone who is robbed should be compensated, even if we can’t catch (or convict) the perpetrator. We recognize this simply as ethical treatment of victims, and as proper behavior given the disjuncture between what’s necessary to be a real victim of a wrong (something bad happening to you unjustly) and convicting the perpetrator (catching an identifiable perpetrator who can be tied to the crime beyond a reasonable doubt). My focus remains on the former well over the latter. I’m fine with trading higher burdens on the punishment side, where we call someone out “you’re a racist” (preponderance of evidence sounds roughly reasonable to me), in exchange for a real commitment to provide compensation to victims, where we repeal unjust legislation, provide restitution for those who have faced discrimination, etc..

  • C Stanley

    So who is the victim in racial politics, and what restitution should be made there? If the remedy is to assume that negative campaigning against minorities is racially motivated unless proven otherwise (which of course is impossible, to prove a negative) then your restitution is in fact causing harm to the other candidate who may be completely innocent.

  • C Stanley

    Oh, and I do get the distinction between criminal and tort law, but I simply think you are lowering the bar WAY too much here. Basically you’re saying that NO evidence is needed- that the party should be presumed guilty if the minority party involved perceives racism. User defined harm is a dangerous concept IMO.

  • domajot


    It seems to me you are making a circular argument. that, in its totality, hinges on accepting the premise that the resolution of racial inequality is up to blacks, and they should do so by giving up considerations for inequality in the entire social and justice system. By accepting that premise, then, whites gain equal status for claiming victimhood.

    I find that premise extremly problematic, so much so, that in a braod view of things, I have to reject it.

    You can’t talk about equal punishment and equal justice without taking a closer look at what that really means in individual casss.
    When a black offender and a while offender both break the same law, how much justice each gets witll depend to a large extent on the prejudices, or lack thereof, among the jurors the level and quality of available legal counsel provided, as well as other factors. To say that ‘equal’ in Jenna should be strictly determined by legalese is, in itself, a distortion of justice.

    The law, at least partially, recognizes the complesity by allowing concepts such as circumstantial evidence and mitigating circumstances. Ir is never as black and white as you would have it.

    When it comes to ‘racial’ campaign ads, judgement is equally clouded by insisting on a ‘clear’ rule of thumb, which is, never, in fact, clear at all Again, this forced notion of seeing the issue in simple and clear cut terms begins to look like an attempt to compete for victim statue..

    The first and necessary step in resolveing all these issues lies in ackowledging that they are not simple or clear cut and are, in fact, very complex and itneracting. They involce a lot of chicken and egg argumentation, and we should be adult enough to acknowledge the difficulties. instead of attempting to circumvent them by claiming they’re not there.

    The backlash phenomenon is both actual and potential. That’s a matter of tactics and practicality, though, not one of principle. There was a clear backlash to abolishing slavery, the offshoots of which we are still experiencing, but backlash on its own does not constiture a valid argument.

    In the same vein, one could argue, that turning one’s back on lawfulness is a backlash to the lack of perceived justice in the justice system. Again, backlash on its own, constitues neither a valid arguemtn nor a guide to practical solutions.

    What we all want is equal justice and the end to negative campaigning in all its forms.
    Wat we don’t agree on is whete the remedy should start, who is to take the first step, and most importantly, what does ‘equal justice’ look like when you meet it face to face.

    The debate is doomed to never ending in resolution is we are guided by false notions of clarity in a very
    muddy and complex situation.

  • DLS

    User defined harm is a dangerous concept

    Particularly when there often is no harm (it’s just seen that way, to delusional extremes), and of course there is no reason that this should be the basis of true “social insurance,” namely a new entitlement. (In fact, such a system would economically harm those having to pay costs that were created by the offender.) Reparations as an entitlement (collectively enforced) have no legitimate case.

  • C Stanley

    As I mentioned in the newer post that David has on this topic, I was specifically discussing the allegations of racism in political ads here, not the justice system in general, or other forms of discrimination/racism in society.

    As to the political issue, I have no idea after reading all of that what your actual position is, except that you feel it’s complicated. I agree it’s complicated, but I don’t see how it helps to just acknowledge that but then have no solution to navigate the complexity.

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