Palin’s Next Ten Words

September 26, 2008

Susan Jacoby:

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today’s very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades.  [There is not a] lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.

Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. (“Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture,” Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a “change election,” the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.

Sam Harris:

Americans have an unhealthy desire to see average people promoted to positions of great authority. No one wants an average neurosurgeon or even an average carpenter, but when it comes time to vest a man or woman with more power and responsibility than any person has held in human history, Americans say they want a regular guy, someone just like themselves. President Bush kept his edge on the “Who would you like to have a beer with?” poll question in 2004, and won reelection.

When Tom Stoppard won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, some reporter outside the theatre who didn’t know who Stoppard was but still wanted to get a question on camera pointed at the Oscar and said “Those are pretty heavy.  You could do curls with them!”  Stoppard looked at him and deadpanned,

“I wouldn’t do that.  I’m an intellectual.”

Later that night I got in an argument with someone, someone who got the irony even, about Stoppard considering himself an intellectual.  “That was a dumb thing to say.  It’s a pretentious word.” And so on.  The political pejorative “elite” (which has replaced “liberal”, since no politician would ever call themselves that anymore) wasn’t in the mainstream then, or he would have used that no doubt.

Are there other countries – there must be – where the citizens prefer mediocrity?  Where “elite” and “intellectual” are words meant to raise your suspicions?  I don’t really buy it that Americans look up to the likes of Paris Hilton more than people in other countries look up to fools, but they sure don’t sniff with suspicion at their public intellectuals as much, nor do they like  their politicians to be average.

This is a woman who not only doesn’t understand a foreign policy doctrine (including the current one) but actually doesn’t know what the phrase means.

When she says “In what respect, Charlie” in her goofy accent and shifts around in her chair it’s straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit.  But it’s not satire, it’s real.  This is a politician who aspires to national government, and yet has apparently never read a book about foreign policy, much less a newspaper or a news magazine. [James Fallows writes well about that here.] I feel confident guessing that, until last month, she got her foreign policy opinions (and most other political opinions outside of bridges and drilling) at church functions and dinner parties with like-minded rapture-ready conservatives.

“What we need to do is stand up to those Muslims, and not back down.”  Much nodding ensues.  “What those welfare-lovers need is a good kick in the pants, and a little work ethic.”  Guttural noises of affirmation.  “If they knew the love of Jesus, they wouldn’t abort so many babies.” Amen.  “That liberal media…”

Getting your political opinions that way wouldn’t be inexcusable if she weren’t – it’s a cliche but true – a heart beat away from the presidency.

I’ve defended McCain at my own head-nodding, knee-jerk liberal parties, not because I like him or support him, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to call bullshit on bullshit hypocritical, ideological, partisan nonsense (and there’s plenty of that on the left).  I’ve defended Bush against deceitful means-to-an-end fools like Michael Moore and Moby.  But with this would-be presidential moron, I give up.  Have at her, as they say.

“As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of America where do they go?  It’s Alaska!”

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter’s microphone, saying things like, “I’m voting for Sarah because she’s a mom. She knows what it’s like to be a mom.” Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.

“Soccer mom.”  When did we first hear that?  Mid-Clinton, right?  But at that time, it meant politicians were shooting for that lowest common denominator, just trying to get the votes.  That’s lame, but complicated and understandable.  But how did courting those votes morph into electing a soccer – hockey – mom?

As if that weren’t enough, she’s a total religious nutcase.  Even Bush, and I’ll pat myself on the back and say that I said it before Sam Harris wrote it, even Bush isn’t waiting for the rapture, although some of his buddies are.

You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. In the churches where Palin has worshiped for decades, parishioners enjoy “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” “miraculous healings” and “the gift of tongues.” Invariably, they offer astonishingly irrational accounts of this behavior and of its significance for the entire cosmos. Palin’s spiritual colleagues describe themselves as part of “the final generation,” engaged in “spiritual warfare” to purge the earth of “demonic strongholds.” Palin has spent her entire adult life immersed in this apocalyptic hysteria. Ask yourself: Is it a good idea to place the most powerful military on earth at her disposal? Do we actually want our leaders thinking about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy when it comes time to say to the Iranians, or to the North Koreans, or to the Pakistanis, or to the Russians or to the Chinese: “All options remain on the table”?

Again and again you read or hear people say Most people in this country are Christian, Separation of church and state also expects the religious not to be discriminated against, You sound hysterical, The religious right aren’t taking over, and so on.  Well.  Why did they pick her?  One of the most important reasons: she appeals to a segment that the Republican Party (half of the country) has grown to cater to, and whose votes they can’t win without.

Blame Obama too, and that dumb speech he gave (2004?) grasping at God.  Suddenly the Democrats are as God-fearing as the Republicans (look at Hillary this year: did she talk like that before?  Kerry certainly didn’t.  Now every Democrat is God-this and God-that.).

I don’t see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government.  And I want to warn the press and all the voters out there, if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to.

31 percent of post graduates do not believe in God.  Among members of the National Academy of Sciences, only seven percent believe in “a personal God” (the NAS is the cream of the crop of American scientists).  There is a correlation among increase in education and decrease in belief.  And yet only one member of Congress admits to not believing in God.  In other words, demands for admissions of faith result in the public being lied to:  There’s no way the House and the Senate aren’t full of atheists and agnostics: they – admittedly though off the record in some cases – simply lie to get elected.

When a British reporter asked Blair – Blair of undeniable devout faith – if he and Bush prayed together, Blair recoiled and said “No, never!” Even though he probably did, the UK doesn’t like that crap in their politics.  If the same question were put to an American candidate now – a Democrat even – they’d have to answer yes.

“I must now state not what kind of church I believe in, because that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.  I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…”

No Democrat, nevermind Republican, could give that speech now.  Stem cells, abortion, condoms and sex-ed in American schools and Africa and everywhere else, discriminatory faith-based initiatives, creationism and evolution denial, nervous religious anti-science: none of these would be controversial if we didn’t let politicians drag their religion into government.  These aren’t controversial questions of suffering or ethics.  They’re actions taken by our government almost entirely because of bronze aged superstitions.  It’s not going to get bad, it is bad now.

Take a belief that really should be nothing more than a curiosity to us, until you see its consequences in the world: the Catholic idea that condom use is somehow immoral. This is a genuinely ludicrous idea. I can assure you that the computational powers of the human brain are insufficient to provide a good argument for this. But map this idea onto sub-Saharan Africa, where literally millions—something like 3 or 4 million people—die each year from the spread of AIDS. And what you have there are Catholic ministers literally preaching the sinfulness of condom use in villages where the only information about condom use is the representation of the ministry. It seems to me that the time for respecting beliefs of this sort is long past. This is genocidal stupidity. It is criminal negligence of a sort that we would not tolerate in any other institution, yet the Vatican cannot be criticized to the degree that it should because it’s the Vatican. There is an overarching taboo around criticizing religious faith.

(Some of these anti-condom charities are funded by Bush’s ridiculously named “faith-based initiatives,” which Obama has promised to continue, with some modifications.)

Here are some videos of the kind of beat-down I hope to see when I wake up at the Satanic hour of nine a.m. tomorrow, and hope to see over the next few weeks.  Although, we shouldn’t expect Biden or Obama to flaunt their brains or expose Palin’s (and to a lesser extent, McCain’s) lack of brains.  And saying  “God doesn’t belong in politics” is fifty years away in America, if ever.

Watch this from two mintues in:

Oh, here’s a book about anti-intellectualism in America.   And her other one about Freethinkers in America.


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