11/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Our Candidates Insult American Intelligence

It probably goes without saying that John McCain and Barack Obama's tributes to "Joe the plumber" in tonight's debate were transparently treacly, even manipulative. When a commentator on CNN remarked that the Joe comments had an "insider" tenor, however, this struck me in more ways than the most obvious: that the senators had both met and exchanged with a this Joe figure and that most of us hadn't been there, at least in the sense that most of us hadn't scavenged through the extant smorgasbord of restive media discharge -- articles, blogs, videos, rumors, clips, jokes, and so on--most of us hadn't "met" Joe the plumber. What was more disturbing to me was that most of us aren't represented by Joe the plumber.

Joe the plumber, more than an insiders' exchange, felt like a Norman Rockwell painting, a pat eulogy to a veteran, an panicked industry's ad celebrating the virtues of drinking milk... than a legitimate and provocative subject of debate. But the Norman Rockwell painting et al don't quite capture Joe the plumber, either, because there was something condescending about the senators' homilies: The working-class praises become a kind of normative rhetoric. We already have Joe six-pack, hockey moms, and now Joe the plumber; and to balance things out, we've got the Wall Street fat cats, the elitists, and the super wealthy--throw in a few buzz words: "golden parachutes" or "gold-plated Cadillac" or "summer house." The rhetoric is obviously totalitarian; it represents the for-us-against-us paradigm that we've so ardently objected to.

What's worse: In its wake, we have Joe, PhD, who's been a student... forever. Now, Joe, PhD -- in many hockey moms' minds--may not be the kind of figure that gets your emotional juices flowing. Indeed, Joe, PhD, may be devoting his livelihood, his health, his career, and so on to, say, the representation of women in medieval literature. He may not have the same kind of livelihood conversations that a hockey mom whose child has Down syndrome may have, but does that make his work any less significant? Joe, PhD, writes your kids' textbooks, hockey mom. Joe, PhD, makes nuclear energy possible. Joe, PhD, makes an economic bailout possible, Joe six-pack. So let's give Joe, PhD, a little airtime.

Now let's talk about Josephine, the transsexual, who lives next door. Now if you live in rural America, you may have never met Josephine, and if you have, you might not have even noticed that Josephine was at one time Joseph. Is Josephine an extreme example? No. What's extreme is the fact that Josephine can be singled out and targeted -- ideology aside for a moment -- can be singled out for a hate crime, raped, murdered, shoes stolen, and strung out for dead on a fence post. What's extreme, moreover, is that some of us wouldn't call that a hate crime. And what's most extreme, I think, is that Josephine will probably never be a part of the senators' Joe-the-plumber rhetoric because she's not iconic; she's not normative; she's not really the stuff of home-cooked American politics.

My friends, let's consider Jose the illegal immigrant. Or let's talk about Joey the locavore-hunter-fisher-writer-vintner-overall-Renaissance man. Joe, the homosexual who wants to marry Joe, the other homosexual. Let's talk about Joe the millionaire-philanthropist.

The point is: the Joe-six-pack, Joe-the-plumber, hockey-mom rhetoric does more than pander to the "lowest-common denominator;" it condescends to the rest of us. Those of us who have our masters degrees and have worked damn hard to get them. Those of us who were born outside the lucky lot of the Norman Rockwell iconography -- and there are a lot of us.

I'm not surprised that John McCain would bank on this rhetoric; he's done it in the past, and his running mate has made it her platform. I'm only mildly surprised that Barack Obama would play along. After all, he has an election to win, and indeed a-glass-of-milk-a-day has a large following, particularly when you have a funny name and a dark skin color. I would hope, though, that those who watched the debate would ask their candidates to stop talking down to them. After all, we're the smartest, best, strongest, most innovative people in the world. We understand big words, and we embrace them.

A tip of the hat to Joe, PhD.