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June 2001

Dumb Struck

The astonishing popularity of ignorance

It was a pleasant evening—a perfect mix of spring, jazz, light banter, cheddar cheese from Vermont and quality wine from California. Suddenly the climate turned raw. The announcement that Daniel Coats, former Senator of Indiana—sent to Washington by the same folks that sent us Dan Quayle—had been appointed American Ambassador to Germany sent an icy chill down my spine, which settled in the back of my knees and almost made me fall flat on my face. How could they appoint an amateur? Coats is a prominent member of the Christian right and has close connections to the Heritage foundation, a well-known conservative non-think tank. He is best known for his vindictive and vicious attacks on Clinton, privacy, libertarians, homosexuals and women. My German friends supported me as best they could with a genuine show of sympathy. Those outside my circle of friends gloated at my misfortune.
But maybe the appointment was not so stupid. Michael Wolff of New York Magazine suggests that the Democrats lost the election because they were too stupid to be dumb. The Republicans were clever enough to know that being simple-minded was a smart move. Aligning themselves with the Beavis and Butthead faction was everything. They positioned themselves smack-dab in the middle of red America, where it is simply not polite to say that the stupid are something less than the smart. The sympathy vote in America always goes to the dummies. Dumb has no airs, no arrogance, no superiority complex. Dumb is good, solid, righteous.
Following this line of thought across the big pond to Germany, one begins to understand why many Germans disliked Coats’ predecessor, John Kornblum. It was not because Kornblum had the irritating style of a wannabe occupier, as the German press maintains. He simply was not smart enough to play an intellectual lightweight. His knowledge of the German language and Germany was exemplary. Why didn’t the administration select a first-rate conservative from the state department, academia or the business world to replace him? Because that would have been counterproductive. With the appointment of Mr. Coats—a nonentity of great sobriety and purpose—a dumbed-down administration is pushing its politics beyond the conventional.
For Bush strategists, the promotion of the second-rate is not a mistake; it is an intelligent tactic. Replacing Kornblum with an utter novice is a stroke of genius, a genuflection in the direction of lazy-headed Germans who will not be required to adjust their stereotype of Americans as naïve, narrow-minded or culturally impoverished. His combativeness—most observers thought he would be selected as secretary of defense—will be forgiven precisely because he is American, i.e., stupid. Germans will be impressed that he is, contrary to his boss, relatively adept at speaking English. And with a subsidized 24/7 interpreter at his disposal, there is no practical reason for him to learn German. However, if the administration plays it smart, it will force him to sign up for a course with one of Munich Found’s advertisers, ballyhoo his efforts to learn the language and then admit that German is simply too difficult for the simple-minded. The Germans will like him for taking an interest in their language and love him for admitting that he is too dim-witted to master it. The respect he showed for Germany’s right to have its own language could polish up America’s tarnished image as a supporter of human rights.
With “simple-minded is better,” I’ll be able to go to the next party full of confidence that I can speak respectfully of Ambassador Coats—assuming, of course, that at least one other bore, crank or obsessive besides myself, who is willing to discuss politics, is invited. After a couple of beers I may be fit enough to try to defend Katherine Harris’ freakish makeup. I can be part of the healing process. <<<

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