Back in the fall of 2008, when I was but a green grad student teaching a first-year class in rhetoric and composition, I played Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric for my students. This was the one where the vice-presidential candidate failed to name either a newspaper she liked to read, or a Supreme Court case that wasn’t Roe v. Wade. I thought I was being clever, delivering a sly lesson in the concept of ethos. The idea bombed, bigtime. My students spent the entire class laughing their butts off, absolutely incapable of analysis.
Afterwards, a student who identified himself as conservative came up to me, shaking with anger that I had played the interview and allowed the class to react the way they did. (This was before people really started using the internet to harass lib college professors, and so I was not scared, though maybe I should have been. I was a little embarrassed, though. I stammered through an explanation of my intentions, and never brought Palin up in class again.) A few weeks later, a different student brought in one of those “man on the street” segments radio hosts do, in which the host stopped Black passersby and asked them to explain their support for Barack Obama by citing just one policy proposal of his that they liked. Most of them failed to do so, which was the show’s racist point. I think the student sharing this with me thought I’d be amused. After all, I was the one who’d started it.
I was reminded of these pedagogical failings, in all their essential 2008-ness, while reading political satirist Andy Borowitz’s Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber, a confused book about Republicans’ many gaffes, knowledge holes, and failures of curiosity. Partly, that was because Borowitz revisits the Palin interview—“All Couric asked was to name one Supreme Court decision. At that point, just say anything: ‘Ali vs. Frazier,’ ” he wisecracks. But the book also felt like a relic from that simpler time, when people picked up titles like Bush-Whacked: Chronicles of Government Stupidity—or, for that matter, Slate’s own Bushisms series—at Urban Outfitters and put them on the tops of their toilet tanks, to pick up and browse when they were feeling especially furious.
The jokes in Profiles in Ignorance are all layups. Borowitz hammers the canonical Four Horsemen of Republican stupidity—Reagan, Quayle, Palin, and Trump—with a few small detours for your Gohmerts and Cruzes. As is the case with his branded contributions to the New Yorker’s website, Borowitz’s jokes are the type that are right there, so obvious that nobody but him would think to actually publish them. (Two recent Borowitz New Yorker headlines: “Lindsey Graham Warns That Biden’s Pro-Democracy Rhetoric Could Lead to Voting in the Streets”; “F.B.I. Believes MyPillow Guy Committed Crimes Beyond Selling Shitty Pillows.” Get it? I bet you do!)
The popularity of these easy-going posts has long been the subject of quite of a bit of head-scratching from younger, less viral, much funnier Very Online people, who have questioned their life choices upon seeing such work consistently hit NewYorker.com’s most-read list. It’s interesting to try to figure out why Borowitz kills. The guy’s jokes are “dad jokes for self-satisfied liberals” (Salon’s Alex Pareene in 2012) and “lower-tier NPR humor” (Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley in 2016). Some, like John Herrman, writing for the Awl in 2014, also noted the Borowitz Report’s easy capacity to become “fake news.” The posts, so barely-funny that they seem real, once regularly showed up as objects of disambiguation on Snopes.com. (They now carry a prominent “satire” tag.) In 2016 Rob Harvilla, profiling Borowitz for the Ringer, called his work “the Onion with no mean streak … or, if you personally have a significant mean streak, The Onion with no edge.”* In that profile, Borowitz shares the stage with Sarah Silverman at a preelection New Yorker event, joking toothlessly about Donald Trump: “I want my president to be much smarter than me!” Writes Harvilla: “More cheers, laughs, prolonged applause. The line of the night.”
But despite Borowitz’s longtime debt to the elitist liberal political humor of the 2000s, this new book isn’t quite Bush-Whacked. When I say it’s “confused,” that’s because Borowitz seems to understand that it now looks bad (or at least, overly simplistic) to call people—even powerful people—“dumb.” So he brackets his anecdote-rich chapters with an intro and a conclusion that are far more high-minded than the rest of the book. He is writing about ignorance, he stipulates, and won’t be calling people idiots, imbeciles, or cretins, or “speculating about a politician’s IQ or cognitive health.” He backs away from the idea that he’s expecting politicians to have a college education, pointing to Truman, Washington, and Lincoln as examples of good presidents who didn’t. (Don’t think about how different “going to college” was when those guys were 18!) “I want the president of the United States to be intellectually curious for a simple reason,” Borowitz writes. “I think the person running the country should be smarter than I am. We’ve just lived through the alternative, and it was only good for the liquor industry.”
This echo of the 2016 New Yorker event is a telling bit of continuity. Borowitz’s more careful caveats aside, this new book shows that the Trump presidency has not changed him, very much, at all. While being ostentatiously accepting of the non-B.A.s among the presidents, Borowitz dings Sarah Palin for attending a (completely bonkers) number of colleges as an undergrad, and Dan Quayle and Donald Trump for refusing to allow the media to view their college transcripts. “Reading is a pretty good indicator of intellectual curiosity,” he says of Quayle, “and there’s scant evidence that Quayle read anything besides his golf score.” Borowitz seems to have missed the realization that we all had a few years ago that well-educated people can consume plenty of books and still end up friendly with fascists.
Profiles in Ignorance also can’t seem to decide what “incurious” or “ignorant” actually means—which suggests that there’s something else going on here, something Borowitz, stuck in 2008, is simply incapable of identifying. Ronald Reagan’s tendencies to invent fake quotes, read and cite John Birch Society manifestos, and lie about how food stamps work and about the existence of “Welfare Queens” are all certainly regrettable. But are these things “ignorant”? Likewise, Borowitz picks at Donald Trump’s tweets, noting their capitalization, misspellings, and malapropisms—an exasperating critique that’s as simple-minded as it accuses its target of being.
“At a news conference about a heat wave that had already resulted in eighty deaths and rampaging forest fires,” Borowitz writes, “Dubya called a Forestry Service official to the podium by yelling, ‘Tree Man, get up here!’ As the official spoke, Bush stuck out his tongue and puffed out his cheeks, imitating a blowfish.” Juvenile, sure, and honestly kind of infuriating to remember, especially (as Borowitz points out) because this was also how Bush acted after Hurricane Katrina. But was this kind of Bushian affect really “ignorance”?
As Borowitz takes on climate denial, it becomes clearer to the reader what he himself can’t see. The phrase “I’m not a scientist,” which Reagan coined, is a common gambit used to cover for saying things about climate that are just wrong, but Borowitz doesn’t seem to register that, quipping about Rick Scott’s use of the phrase that he was “rebutting an accusation no one made.” He mentions the time in 2021 that Rep. Louie Gohmert asked a Forest Service official if he could “change the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun” to fix climate change. The point isn’t that dumb Louie Gohmert thought we could move the moon! The point is that Louie Gohmert was trolling, throwing mud to slow down a conversation.
That’s a concept with which Andy Borowitz seems wholly unfamiliar. We are far, far beyond “smart” and “stupid,” and have been for years. In the very time period Borowitz is analyzing, the percentage of members of Congress without B.A.s—never representative of the population—went way down, from a quarter in 1960 to almost zero today. At the same time, public trust in government has declined—two facts that make for uneasy bedfellows. Animosity between the college-educated and those without B.A.s grows. Mainstream liberals—Fauci-lovers and Warren-heads alike—seem to continue to believe that if they can scold the public into caring about “facts,” “plans,” and credentials, they can win. And trolls, both online and IRL—usually, though not always, on the right—play fast and loose with facts, for lulz and political gain.
This complex zeitgeist of mistrust and partisanship and intentional misunderstanding, the subject of so much public thought since 2016, is beyond this satirist’s abilities to address. More than anything, Profiles in Ignorance cannot exist if it acknowledges a simple fact: Some segment of the American people has repeatedly elected these politicians, and so they must have responded to this malevolence, or ignorance, or incuriosity—or whatever you want to call it, so long as you don’t say “dumb.” The most articulated theory in the Borowitz cosmology (he read his Postman, and he cites it) seems to be that those people are brainwashed by media. “By elevating candidates who can entertain over those who can think, mass media have made the election of dunces more likely,” he writes. “Fact-free and nuance-intolerant, these human soundbite machines have reduced our most complex problems to binary oppositions.” (Binary oppositions like “smart guys” and “dunces,” maybe?) But the media, also, happens for a reason! We try to serve an audience; we worry about money; we rethink our approach as that audience shifts. Borowitz should know this; he’s one of us, too. And in this book, he’s almost doing exactly that.
In his conclusion, the satirist settles on a very commonly prescribed remedy for “fixing” all of this: We should talk to each other more, organize locally, make connections in person. Sure! That’s good, and it’s also the opposite of what this book is doing. As I found out in that class back in 2008, once you are reduced to these kinds of “gotchas,” conversation grinds to a halt. Even Andy Borowitz knows, I suspect from reading this wildly uneven book, that we are way beyond this. But there’s still an audience out there of people who want to feel like they’re better than the others they fear. And that audience will pay, and pay.
By Andy Borowitz. Avid Reader Press.
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Correction, Sept. 19, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Rob Harvilla’s last name.