Exclusive: The Anti-Intellectual Appeal – What Palin Has That Harvard Couldn’t Give Her
by N. M. GUARIGLIA
October 6, 2008
If the entirety of conventional wisdom surrounding Gov. Sarah Palin could be summed up into one sentence, it would go something like this: Palin was a great choice the day McCain selected her, a risky choice in the ensuing week, a brilliant choice after her speech at the convention and subsequent rallies with tens of thousands of fans, and back to being a terrible choice the next week with a very uneven and shaky performance during some sit-down interviews. As expected, she’s been a big gamble.
I suspect after her debate with Sen. Biden her supporters will feel free to exhale a bit. Palin had a good showing. That the bar was set so low only helped her exceed expectations.
As a recent graduate with a degree in international relations, I admit there is a certain uneasiness in watching a would-be VP not being able to spout off, in rapid fire, all the intricacies of Hamas, the Gaza Stip, Iran, Vladimir Putin, preemption, and counterinsurgency doctrine. In my own little fantasy world, an ideal VP is something of a Dr. Strangelove figure – without the nuclear propagation and apocalyptic megalomania – who, as a brainy confidant, hunched over, ever-thinking, and confined in his bubble, is intensely obsessed with offering the president his valued advice on matters of utmost consequence.
But that’s just not Sarah Palin. That’s Dick Cheney. That’s Sam Nunn. That’s John McCain, ironically (he has been a rumored VP candidate every election since 1988, for both parties). Gov. Palin clearly does not have as strong of a frame of reference as do these men. Listening to some of her answers during these interviews, it’s hard not to cringe and think, “Gee, even I could have responded better to that question.”
Does this mean she’s unqualified? Does it mean she isn’t smart? Hardly.
Author Sam Harris, who I never fail to read, recently wrote an article about Palin where he claimed that “elitist” shouldn’t be a dirty word. We should want our leaders to be smarter than us, he said. He’s right. But I fear Harris misses the point on this whole “elitist” business.
How much does knowledge of concrete events – the Bay of Pigs, for instance – really tell us about someone’s far-reaching intelligence? It certainly tells us much about their ignorance. But Palin’s ignorance on certain matters is relatively small in comparison to the ignorance of her opponents in other matters of importance.
What does Sen. Obama truly know, for instance, about the energy industry? What does he know about being an executive, or managing a budget, or finding consensus at a cabinet meeting? He’s never chaired a state’s oil and gas conservation commission. He’s never overseen much of the country’s energy reserves. He’s never negotiated the construction of a multibillion dollar pipeline. He’s never run a city or state. He’s simply never done anything of the sort. But does this make Sen. Obama unintelligent? Not at all.
Let me put it this way: a construction worker in Pennsylvania might not know what to say at a corporate meeting in Manhattan, but who is to assume the corporate businessman from Manhattan is intelligent enough to operate heavy machinery at the construction worker’s Pennsylvanian building site? How much does the incapability of both individuals to do the other’s job tell us about each one’s intelligence? Very little. Does it say anything about each person’s full potential and competency to do the alternate job if taught and given the proper knowledge? No, it doesn’t.
William F. Buckley once said, as serious as could be, that he would rather be governed by the first one thousand names in the Boston phone book than the whole of Harvard’s faculty. In keeping with that Ivy League spirit, I recently wrote an article entitled “Like Sitting in a Classroom,” where I described how listening to Sen. Obama talk about the world was, well, like sitting in a classroom.
To hear Barack speak about war and the Middle East was to hear the “same relativism, the same amorality,” the “same pseudo-wit, the same scholarly braggadocio.” Surmising, I stated Sen. Obama has a “purely scholastic view” of the world – a dangerous and naïve view – while closing:
At least allegorically, this election seems to be between the preachy campus academic, who seems to know a lot, and the older, quieter campus custodian outside in the hallway, whose scarred features, slower mannerisms, and sometimes distant gaze indicate that he’s seen a lot.
That is the Palin distinction. She’s seen a lot. She’s done a lot. And she’s been very good at what she’s done. But she is not an intellectual. Her supporters and detractors alike need to deal with this glaring fact.
So the question then becomes one over who we would rather entrust: the intellectual who has concise, if not sometimes wrong, opinions on extensive matters – or the anti-intellectual whose character, experience, judgment, and instincts congeal in the form of impressive leadership? Sarah Palin might not have as quick of an answer about Iran as does Sen. Obama, but brief her for three minutes about the situation, and rest assured her conclusions will not reflect her initial lack of familiarity with the topic.
The story is often told that President Lincoln, in the immediate outbreak of the Civil War, was aware he knew next to nothing about military affairs. So for the next few nights, before ordering men to battle, Lincoln stayed up restlessly at the local library, reading the classics, and cramming, and learning everything there was to know about warfare and military strategy. After a few nights of scanning through some of the greatest works ever written about war doctrine, Lincoln emerged from his study a new man – a man that would later feel confidant enough to fire incompetent generals, devising a strategy of his own to save the country.
The faults of not knowing the answer to a particular question can be remedied rather quickly, with a speedy up-to-date session or assembly of cabinet members and advisors. In that context, whose skill-sets are more required for the job of presidency or vice presidency: the candidate who has governed people and presided over large swaths of territory, real estate, and property revenue – and knows less – or the candidate who seems to know more, but has never done anything of political significance, legislative importance, or requiring of executive leadership and management?
Which of these two candidates has the knowledge and experience relevant for the job: the candidate who challenged her own party and incumbent governor because of corruption she saw, or the candidate who, keeping his future ambitions in mind, voted “present” 130 times, afraid to make his position on matters of controversy fully known?
For the sake of argument, let’s focus on the other VP candidate, Sen. Biden. The man had been around since the Age of the Missing Link. He has an opinion on everything from nuclear proliferation in Pakistan to Pakistani accents in Delaware drug stores. But has any of this experience helped good old Joe come to grasp with some of the most vexing challenges our country faced throughout his long career?
After a full briefing, would Gov. Palin’s instincts have led her to cut off aid for the South Vietnamese at a time when they needed us most? As we know, Congress pulled the plug, the South fell, and communism and genocide expanded all throughout Southeast Asia (“boat people,” Pol Pot, and so forth). Sen. Biden, in all his infinite wisdom, didn’t foresee these cataclysmic events.
Would Gov. Palin have voted to cut defense spending to the extent that Sen. Biden did? Would she have opposed Reagan’s policy, as Sen. Biden did, of rolling back Soviet influence across the world, leading the charge to obstruct U.S. assistance to anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, as well as U.S. aid for the anti-communist government in El Salvador?
Would Gov. Palin have opposed missile defense in the 1980s? Would she have labeled President Reagan’s Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI) “one of the most reckless and irresponsible acts in the history of modern statecraft,” as Sen. Biden did? Would she have opposed withdrawing from the AMB treaty? Would she have opposed the original Gulf War and 1991 liberation of Kuwait, as Sen. Biden did?
With the Israelis under fire from the PLO, Abu Nidal, and Syrian jihadists in Lebanon, would Palin have threatened then-Israeli leader Menachem Begin to cut off economic aid to Israel if it did not unilaterally stop defending itself, as Sen. Biden did in 1982?
After 9/11, would Palin’s instincts have led her to suggest we should inexplicably reward the Iranian dictatorship for their “cooperation” with a check for $200 million? Would she have voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, as Sen. Biden felt inclined to do?
Would she have suggested trifurcating Iraq into three ethnic enclaves? (Sen. Biden is the most unpopular American politician in Iraq for a reason, and this is it.) Would she have opposed the troop surge in Iraq, declaring that General Petraeus was “dead flat wrong” as Sen. Biden did?
I could go on, but I won’t. But the point should not be lost, that the “experience vs. judgment” mantra is a two-way street. Biden has extensive experience, but he’s mostly been wrong. Barack Obama has minuscule experience, and he’s mostly been wrong too.
I suppose that the discrepancy in this definition of “knowledge” could be reduced to another metaphor, back to an experience we’ve all shared in school, and a question we are all able inquire. We should ask ourselves what it was, exactly, that thwarted the intelligent kid in class from being in with the “in crowd.” What was it that the cool kids knew that the nerdy kids didn’t?
This is a gross generalization, but it is an adequate and interesting social question. What is it about children perceived to be overly intellectual that makes other children recoil? Why is it that an employer is more attracted to comfortable interpersonal exchanges, rather than robotic off-the-sheet answers, with his or her potential employee during a job interview? What do affable people have that some brainy people do not have? Why is it that the names of the gifted scholars who called Ronald Reagan a “Hollywood cowboy” and “amiable dunce” won’t be remembered as well as that of their target of criticism?
In short, why is it that we differentiate between “doers” and “thinkers” and are inclined to have greater confidence in someone who doesn’t over-analyze and over-think about a problem for long?
The answer is moxy. Guts. Backbone. The kind of quiet self-confidence and swagger that comes with a record of accomplishment and assuredness in one’s own instinct. We humans tend to like that. We’re attracted to people who succeed in things and do not feel obligated to explain why and how, or brag how their own brilliance made it all possible.
When Sen. Biden tells tall tales to voters about getting shot at in Iraq or getting shot down in Afghanistan – let’s not forget his history of plagiarizing whole speeches about someone else’s family, of course – it is the political equivalent of a geeky fifth grader with great grades, knowing full well his smarts alone won’t entice friendship from others. It is a search for acceptance by other means; the same reason the overly intellectual office clerk boasts to his peers with exaggerations and embellishments, insecure in the attractiveness of his own stories that actually happened.
It isn’t that Sarah Palin is unintelligent. It’s that she’s not an intellectual. She’s never been a professor, like Sen. Obama. She hasn’t sat through endless and needless dribble from the academic lecture-circuit. She’s probably never read Noam Chomsky, and if she did, she’d be repulsed.
She learned how to deal with opponents on the basketball court, not Conflict-Resolution 101 class. She learned of gender equality hunting with boys before school, not while writing an oppression studies thesis. She learned what she was made of while challenging corruption in her own party, not in Rev. Wright’s Trinity Church or at William Ayers’ cocktail party.
How odd that on the one hand a woman is criticized for taking on more than she can handle – with five kids and all – while on the other, lambasted for having not spent enough time thinking through all of her opinions on antiquated American history. Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden are intelligent and knowledgeable men. But neither of them have Gov. Palin’s executive experience, her record of success, her personal magnetism, or her political people-skills. They don’t have the ingredients relevant for the jobs they seek. Palin does.
Gov. Palin might not be an ivory tower thinker, in the detached collegiate sense. But she’s a doer. Her knowledge is a different sort than the prototype politician. It’s the kind of knowledge that garners greater appreciation for American culture in far-off, distant Alaska than those working in the heart of the country’s capital. It’s the kind of knowledge rooted in personal experience, upbringing, and instinct – or what Thomas Paine called “common sense.”