She’s the stooge for a rhetorical gimmick that is one of the right’s second-level favorites. Charles Murray hauled the gimmick out during a recent discussion when he referred to “Pauline Kael Syndrome.” The idea is that she was the movie critic for The New Yorker, so therefore in 1972 (the year of Nixon’s great landslide) she must have said the following:

“How can Nixon have won? No one I knew voted for him”

But she didn’t. She said the following:

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” 

“Sort of the same thing, I know,” Charles Murray says hopefully. Sort of exactly not. Yes, either way you get somebody who doesn’t know too many people who voted for Nixon. But in the true quote, she realizes that this is not a normal state of affairs. In the doctored quote, the one the right has been batting around all these years, she’s living in a fool’s paradise — “How could Nixon have won?” She comes across as ditzy and conceited, off in her own little world of insular vanity. Which pretty much sums up the right’s view of liberals and “cultural elites.” As a gimmick Kael Syndrome is only one item amongst the right’s arsenal, but the gag grows from a key element of their world view. 

I know the true text of the quote because Murray was good enough to quote and cite Prof. John Pitney, who sent him an email to straighten him out.

Next-to-last point: Kael did a lot of sensing of Middle America while she sat in theaters and screening rooms; I always liked that side of her, and the baiting of respectable liberal opinion. In some cases I think she was on to something, in some cases it was just fun to watch her. But that business cut no ice with anyone who wasn’t reading The New Yorker. For all the rest of the world knew or cared, Kael might as well have been some well-meaning soul with big earrings and a long turquoise scarf.

To sum up. Anybody who knows anything about Kael knows that she realized the world was not the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She spent decades reminding the Upper West Side of this fact. Of course, most people don’t know much about Kael, but they’re willing not to talk about her. The exceptions are either undergrad film students or fellows of the American Enterprise Institute.

So, reflecting on Charles Murray and the rockhard integrity of his mental processes, I will now introduce my final point:

If you’re going to quote somebody — especially to make a point about that person— you ought to know something about her. 

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