JAMES TARANTO: DR. STRANGELAUGH ****
Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb.
“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength,” the longshoreman cum philosopher Eric Hoffer once observed. Hoffer died in 1983, so he probably wasn’t referring specifically to Joe Biden’s performance in last night’s debate. Still, the observation is fitting.
In addition to the vice president’s boorishness, a lot of observers noted that he frequently smiled and chuckled at inappropriate times–even during a discussion of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The Republican National Committee quickly put out an ad consisting of nearly a minute of such clips followed by the caption: “Vice President Biden is laughing . . . Are you?” If Biden finds himself out of work in January, he may have a career ahead of him as a Fixodent pitchman.
So what’s with Dr. Strangelaugh? Let’s ask an evolutionary biologist. In “Games Primates Play: The Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships,” Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago writes:
When two rhesus macaques are trapped together in a small cage, they try everything they can to avoid a fight. . . . To avoid immediate aggression, and to reduce stress, an act of communication is needed to break the ice and make it clear to the other monkey that no harm is intended (or expected). Macaque monkeys bare their teeth to communicate fear and friendly intentions. If this “bared-teeth display”–the evolutionary precursor to the human smile–is well received, it can function as a prelude to grooming. One monkey brushes and cleans the other’s fur, gently massaging the skin while picking and eating parasites. This act can both relax and appease the other monkey, virtually eliminating the chance of an attack.
So, if you are a rhesus macaque and find yourself trapped in a small cage with another macaque, you know what to do: bare your teeth and start grooming. If you are a human and find yourself riding in an elevator with a stranger, in theory you could do the same thing (or the human equivalent thereof): smile and make small talk.
A smile is an instinctive gesture of submission. Often the submission is mutual, as when two friends exchange smiles or when Maestripieri’s strangers break into small talk on the elevator. But when a man uncontrollably smiles at a potential or actual adversary, it is a show of weakness.
That isn’t necessarily to say that Paul Ryan dominated Biden, although there is no question Ryan demonstrated self-control where Biden utterly lacked it. As some commentator or other (probably several of them) observed before the debate, Biden’s assigned task was to “right the ship” after the Barack Obama disaster. Since the ship has a titanic design flaw–a gaping O-shaped hole right in the hull–that was an impossible task. Biden had ample reason to find the situation intimidating.
And so he overcompensated for his weakness by acting the bully in an attempt to dominate Ryan. His behavior was not only consistent with Hoffer’s aphorism but in sharp contrast with that of Mitt Romney, who actually did dominate Obama in a coolly masterful way. If Biden’s rudeness was an imitation of strength, Romney’s poise was a display of the real thing.
The left’s Angry Birds found Biden’s performance gratifying, but independents like blogress Ann Althouse, a swing-state 2008 Obama voter, were put off:
That debate was so annoying! Some of the CNN commentators are talking about how Biden did what he came to do, to fire up the Democrats. “This was not for the independents,” says Van Jones. Okay, well, but independents were watching, and Biden was horribly rude. He created this disturbing atmosphere of anxiety.
Again, that last point seems to us a misreading. The “atmosphere of anxiety” was the result of Obama having stunk up the place with his awful performances last week and during the past 45 months. Biden probably could not have done any better unless he suddenly developed a regard for his own dignity.
Mediaite.com reports that even Tom Brokaw said it was inappropriate for Biden to laugh during the discussion of Iran, whose president has vowed to exterminate Israel. Reader Taylor Dinerman, a journalist who specializes in aerospace (and who also knows National Review’s Rich Lowry), argues that Biden’s pooh-poohing of Iran’s developing nuclear capability was dangerously fatuous:
The worst part of the debate and the part that I wish Ryan had been able to counter was when Biden started in on the “They don’t have a bomb to put (the fissile material) into.”
This is outrageous. The hard part of building a nuclear weapon is to get the fissile material, bomb designs are a dime a dozen and anyone who has access to a copy of the Progressive Magazine from the 1970s when they published a bomb design they had dug up from some documents that were found in the Los Alamos public library can build one.
The A.Q. Khan design has long been available to them including any refinements the North Koreans have made.
Making a warhead that can fit on a missile may be harder, but building a basic nuclear weapon that could be put on an airliner or a ship is easy once you have the material.
Doesn’t seem so funny now, does it?
Even when poor Biden tried to be witty, he failed. The Associated Press reports that “the two catchiest phrases of the night” were “bunch of malarkey” and “bunch of stuff.” Oh yeah? Well, the stuff store called, and they’re running out of you!
At one point, Ryan observed that “Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates [and] increased growth.” Biden replied: “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?” Oh, now he’s Lloyd Bentsen?
(For our younger readers, Lloyd Bentsen was slightly famous in the olden days for not having become vice president.)
The oddest moment of the night came after Ryan detailed ObamaCare’s cuts in Medicare, including the establishment of the Independent Payment Advisory Board. The IPAB is popularly known as the “death panel,” but Ryan did not use that phrase; he simply referred to “this new ObamaCare board.”
Joe Biden, however, called it by its popular name: “You know, I heard that death panel argument from Sarah Palin. It seems every vice presidential debate I hear this kind of stuff about panels.”
Actually, there was no mention of death panels in the 2008 vice presidential debate; the subject didn’t come up until the following year, when President Obama was pushing ObamaCare. Why would Biden use a term that people on his side claim is false and invidious? Like his compulsive smiling, it’s a tell: He has absorbed the idea that his political side has a monopoly on Truth and all dissenters are either fools or knaves. He thought he was ridiculing Palin, but she gets the last laugh. He has helped to propagate her idea instead.
Here Comes the Bride
- “[Hans Christian] Andersen’s tale doesn’t end there. When the little boy exposes him, the emperor turns a blind eye and says, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ Andersen concludes the story, ‘So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.’ “–William Bennett, CNN.com, Oct. 11
- “Moderator Raddatz Kept the Trains Moving”–headline, USA Today, USA Today, Oct. 12
Here’s Camille Paglia, one of the two most prominent living natives of Endicott, N.Y., in an interview with Salon:
What is the administration’s response to the murder of our ambassador [in Libya]? Nothing. Do we have a presidency or not? The ambassador’s journal was lying on the floor for CNN to find, and it took weeks for the FBI to get there and spend a day–after sensitive documents were stripped long ago. The State Department has clearly become a morass of political correctness. Hillary and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice should resign. Of course the mainstream media were mum for weeks about the Libyan scandal. And that just empowers the right-wing in the country. The media’s pampering and protection of Obama over the years simply led to his weakening–which was on excruciating public display at his first debate with Romney, who landed blow after blow.
Count Paglia as the latest to stumble upon the Taranto Principle.
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