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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why blinking matters

Sam Harris in Newsweek articulates what's most disturbing to me about Sarah Palin:
What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."


Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence.
I had an argument about Palin with a Republican friend who lives in Texas. She was offended by my criticizing Palin on the Wasilla rape kits issue, which in my opinion is a failure of management (not knowing the policies enacted by subordinates), of focus (crusading against library books instead), of information gathering (sounds like she missed the newspaper articles about the issue at the time), and of honesty and accountability (her campaign has refused to say whether or not she knew about the policy while she was mayor). She responded that "I will also say that my standards have not 'plummeted' and I proudly support Sarah Palin. I have always defended candidates that support my values and who I think will be best for this amazing country." My friend, like Palin, didn't pause for reflection before responding.

She also told my wife that among people she knows in Texas, few were excited about the McCain campaign until he selected Palin. What I read from this is that for people like my Texas friend, competence doesn't enter the picture at all when evaluating a candidate--her appeal is instead a matter of morals and identity.

Republicans don't have a monopoly here, of course. Trustworthiness matters, no matter how hard to measure, and it is part of why I greatly prefer Obama over Hillary Clinton, though they both tell blatant lies about their beliefs and I don't know much about either of them as people. Plenty of people who avidly support Obama could not, say, articulate differences between his and McCain's health care policies.

In fact I see a similar confusion of morals and competence in Democrats all the time, specifically the parents of the high school students I used to teach. Again and again, parents and students, indoctrinated by simplistic TV shows and teachers' lectures, would treat scholastic success as if it were an issue of moral choice (do I forbid my child to hang out on the street corner and get into trouble?) rather than the quality of their intellectual life (turning my child on to books at a young age, modeling a life-long relationship with learning). This produced a phenomenon that we generally assume doesn't exist: students who come home directly after school, never get in trouble, and do their homework, but get C's anyway at Brooklyn schools where all you need to pass is a pulse.

These parents and students faced the foreboding task of catching up to smarter peers and eventually competing against them for jobs; I can see the allure of an explanation that requires a moral decision rather than a reevaluation of how you work to bring knowledge into your day to day life. And that's much of the contrast between Palin and McCain's campaign incarnation on the one hand, and Obama/Biden on the other. It's not that Obama doesn't have his mantras--savings from preventive health care and ethanol subsidies are boondoggles. Liberals certainly have a tendency to ignore the destructive aspects of unions and our lawsuit-friendly legal system, under the almost religious banners of organized labor and access to courts for the little guy. But there is a difference between left and right, if you can take our recent presidential candidates as an indicator of the thoughtfulness of their supporters. There is a side of Obama that appears in the debates and in speeches, a side that he wishes out loud he could show more, which shuns sound bites and prefers informed debate. There is no indication that Palin has such a thoughtful side; in fact it is that very side that Palin and her supporters mock.

Remember that no president in the last generation is remembered as fondly as Ronald Reagan, and that Palin's performance in the vice-presidential debate was the most charisma a national politician has shown since Bill Clinton. If McCain loses, I fear we have not seen the last of Palin, for the same reason that so many parents who don't read books pride themselves on keeping their children off of the street: the world is more easily digestible if you see it as a battle between right and wrong than as a constant struggle to increase and apply competence.

I predict Palin will be elected president one day.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Oct 19, 03:48:00 PM:
The new Sarah Palin For President in 2012 website is now online, with related news, headlines & links at