Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Ode to Ordinary

Now that we've managed to kick the can (our economy) forward a bit longer, we can turn our attention back to more mundane things, like the upcoming presidential election.

We've survived the 1st Presidential debate, and the one & only VP debate is on the horizon for this week. We'll be treated to an episode of what will no doubt be billed as "Sarah Shines."

Sarah Palin evokes many reactions, on many levels, for me. From the petty: her shrill voice makes me cringe; to the important: her policies, such as her pro-gun, anti-choice, fundamentalist, extremist religious views -- make me cringe.

One of the issues that I've touched on before, is the GOP promoted anti-intelligence meme, which is also a feature of the Palin candidacy. As Sam Harris noted in Newsweek recently, in When Atheists Attack:

Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady's misfortune—and, above all, upon the 'liberal elites' with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.

The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth's surface (she didn't have a passport until last year), or that she's never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.

* * * *

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."

"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."

"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."

The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. 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. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

The devolution of intelligence as a criteria for elective office was also lamented by political writer Dick Polman, in Populism gone wild: Palin latest example of push to mediocrity :

The rise of Sarah Palin inevitably prompts me to ponder the demise of meritocracy in America.

Never mind the fact that her presidential readiness is measured by the proximity of Alaska to Russia, or the fact that the McCain camp listed Ireland as one of her foreign visits until it turned out that her plane had merely refueled on Irish soil. I'm more interested in the simple test that she has twice flunked about her own state - and the fact that John McCain, using grade inflation, gives her an A anyway."

* * * *

Palin, however, is merely the latest beneficiary in the national celebration of mediocrity, much like one of those early-round American Idol entrants who wins insta-fame for being Just Like Us. Lest we forget, the lame-duck administration in Washington has long been dumbing down the standards for public service, by seeking to elevate the ill-qualified to positions of authority.

* * * *

One wonders how the Founding Fathers would view the demise of meritocracy.

Alexander Hamilton insisted in the 76th Federalist Paper that our leaders "would be both ashamed and afraid" to elevate people whose chief qualification appeared to be "insignificance and pliancy." But today Hamilton would probably be dismissed as an "elitist" who cannot relate to the average Joe's apparent yearning for leaders who know just as little about the issues as they do.

So goodbye, Hamilton, and hello Roman Hruska.

The late senator from Nebraska is the guy who once defended an ill-qualified, ill-fated high court nominee by saying, "So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

On the other hand, now that's she's had a chance to strut her stuff, Palin may have shown us the limits of how far down we're willing to go in the name of dumb. Truly, especially after Bush, I would never have believed that there was a limit. But, as Kate Phillips of The NYTimes' Caucus blog notes, Curbing Their Enthusiasm:

The drip, drip, drip of bad reviews keeps falling this week against Gov. Sarah Palin, whose two-day segments of interviews with CBS’ Katie Couric have weakened conservatives’ initial embrace of and enthusiasm for the vice-presidential nominee. As if Senator John McCain already hadn’t faced a rough week, which started with conservative columnist George Will bemoaning the Republican candidate’s positions on the economic bailout and suggesting Mr. McCain may be unfit to be president.

Now, conservatives had never warmed to Senator McCain this time around, but they were wowed by Mr. McCain’s selection of Ms. Palin as his running mate and at first, circled the wagons to defend her, despite her lack of foreign policy experience. She talked their values and represented small-town America, something neither ticket had offered to anyone before she surfaced.

But it seems a watershed moment occurred online earlier today when Kathleen Parker, a writer for, reversed her initial support for the Republican vice-presidential nominee and said Ms. Palin should drop out. Put the country first, she basically advised, by saying you need to go take care of your family first.
Daniel Larison of the American Conservative's Eunomia adds, in T-Minus Six Days:
The entire Palin episode has been like some drunken bacchanalia that gave way to a terrified awakening several weeks too late. When her critics were painting her as a new Eagleton, her supporters were laughing at them as lunatics filled with hate, and now they are beginning to think that the haters may have been onto something. The GOP is experiencing self-immolation, and I can’t say that I am very bothered by that.
Once again, parody far surpasses reality in the blending of fact and fiction in SNL's spoof of Palin's interview with Katie Couric. We've reached the point where it's difficult to distinguish between Tina Fay and Sarah Palin -- both their faces and their words.

Via Crooks and Liars, Michael Leddy of Orange Crate Art observes, in Couric and Palin and Orwell:
As George Orwell points out in "Politics and the English Language," one need not take on the responsibility of thinking when composing sentences:
You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connexion between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
Look at what we have here — ready-made phrases, stray bits of language, as if pulled together from some desperate cramming for an exam: back on the right track, health care reform, job creation, one in five jobs, opportunity, reform that is needed, reducing taxes, reining in spending, shore up our economy, tax reductions, tax relief, the trade sector, the umbrella of job creation.

You know no one's home when we're told that "reducing taxes . . . has got to accompany tax reductions, and tax relief."
UPDATE (9/29): For more of the chorus of criticism, as the LATimes puts it, see Some on the right are joining a chorus of criticism over Sarah Palin and Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, Palin Is Ready? Please.

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