You've read about Gov. Pat McCrory's selection of a poet laureate for North Carolina whose poetry did not merit a laurel. Days later, Valerie Macon resigned. McCrory said at first that his role in picking her was minimal—he chose from a list his staff gave him.
Yes, that sounds like McCrory. It's also believable that he knew nothing about the previous poets laureate, a distinguished group, and didn't know that by choosing Macon without first seeking recommendations from the N.C. Arts Council, he ignored a long-established process.
I don't believe, though, that his staff was unaware of the process. The fact that the press release announcing Macon's appointment quoted from the Arts Council's guidelines suggests some awareness. "Guidelines," the statement said, "call for the poet to be a North Carolinian with deep connections to the cultural life of this state, literary excellence and influence on other writers ... among other recommendations."
On the contrary, I think that Republican staffers quite deliberately put forward an undistinguished, if well-meaning, poet as a sign of their contempt for poetry and the arts.
At the risk of giving them too much credit, I think they also foresaw the headlines as serious poets and past laureates ripped McCrory's choice.
Even if they didn't, I know they're taking bows now with their GOP friends for what followed. McCrory virtually ran to the microphones to announce that he'd chosen an outsider, an everywoman who was concerned with the homeless even if she wasn't part of "the standard or even elite groups."
After Macon resigned, McCrory huffed at "the way some in the poetry community have expressed such hostility and condescension toward an individual who has great passion for poetry and our state."
McCrory: Standing tall for the common person.
Defending Macon—or so he claimed—against some snooty snobs.
Welcome to a Republican dream come true.
Stifled, O days! O lands! In every public and private corruption!
Smother'd in thievery, impotence, shamelessness, mountain-high;
Brazen effrontery, scheming, rolling like ocean's waves around
and upon you, O my days! my lands!
That's a bit of Walt Whitman's "Respondez!" from the mid-19th century, assessing the corrupt state of the nation. Earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself."
My point is, American poets and intellectuals have attacked U.S. politicians since the beginning, and the politicians fire back. Usually, the politicians get the better of it because, as H.L. Mencken complained during the Scopes trial, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
In the South, especially, there's a colorful history of mutual antipathy, and not just about evolution—though debates about the Bible explain a lot of it.
For example, George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor and 1968 presidential candidate, railed against "pointy-head intellectuals" in the civil rights movement. In 1972, Richard Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew, a former Maryland governor, decried the "elite corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." They opposed the Vietnam War.
And we can't forget North Carolina's Jesse Helms, who rose to fame blasting professors at the University of North Carolina for teaching "filth"—i.e., English literature. It's unproven whether Helms said that UNC stood for "University of Negroes and Communists"—it's not in the surviving transcripts of his virulent TV editorials for WRAL. But he did fight integration and liberal tendencies at UNC with everything he had.
In 1963, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote the go-to text on this topic. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life documented the continuing clash between intellectuals on the one side and politicians, pastors and business interests on the other. The former seek to improve society with their ideas, science and expert analysis. The latter, doing fine with the status quo, resist change; more than that, they arouse the public's fear of change with warnings about radicalism, sinfulness and anti-patriotism.
Republicans didn't always have the market cornered on idiocy and anti-intellectualism, but of late they seem to. Take, for example, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's statement that he can't possibly know if climate change is real because, "I'm not a scientist." Rubio is what passes for presidential timbre in the Republican Party. A Kentucky state senator, a Republican, recently said that climate change can't be real because Earth and Mars have the same temperature.
No, not even close.
Nor, as I discussed last week, is there any truth to McCrory's statements that North Carolina is the better for Republican economic policies—notably, tax cuts for the rich and corporations and denying unemployment benefits to people who've lost their jobs.
Nonetheless, McCrory and his fellow Republicans make their claims with disdain for the pointy-headed intellectuals who've actually studied economics. Just as they disdain the geologists who warn that fracking may endanger our drinking water. And disdain the Common Core standards for public education developed with teachers' input—what could teachers possibly know about how children learn?
Worst of all is their disdain for people who've written and studied great poetry, because in our best poetry we hear the search for meaning, beauty and truth in our very existence.
But then, this is the governor, and the party, who last year slashed education funding at the K–12 and university levels, with McCrory, one month in office, attacking the "educational elites" who teach subjects that don't produce jobs.
Here was McCrory's try for meaning and beauty: Higher education isn't about "butts in seats, but how many of those butts can get jobs."
If he butts out of picking the next new laureate, that would be poetic justice.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Poet and the Politician."