Sep 29

Yes we can, and no she can’t.

Posted by A Writer

 

This isn't a political blog, but political issues will sometimes intersect with the interests of what I talk about here…and given the stakes of the U.S. presidential election this year, those issues are magnified big-time.  This election has attracted far more interest than normal for all sorts of reasons–trying to overcome the eight year disaster which is the George Bush legacy, the financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first African-American presidential candidate ever nominated for a major party in the U.S., and of course the first female candidate nominated for president.

Er–oh.  Yes.  Of course Sarah Palin is actually the first female candidate nominated for VP by the Republican party.  My mistake…but in my defense, it's a pretty common one.  Since Palin's nomination last month, based on media coverage and the breathless enthusiasm of conservative pundits ("she's just so REAL!!!!11!!!") you'd think she was the Republican standard-bearer, with poor old John McCain bringing up the rear.  And this is kind of the root of my concern–her nomination, which says so much more about the state of one part of American politics and, down the road, the state of American education as well.  Why is it such a big deal?

Because this person is by far the least qualified VP candidate on a ticket in the last century…perhaps beyond (though Schuyler Colfax had his own problems, of course!).  And because her boss is 72 years old, with a history of malignant skin cancer.  That's why.  And perhaps, even more importantly, because both facts–and this isn't hyperbole, kids–are being utterly buried by the McCain campaign as fast as it can shovel the dirt, as well as some other rather smelly stuff I won't describe in detail here.  The pick is a cynical lie, and a transparent one at that.

In the interests of full disclosure: I'm clearly left of center on the political front, though I'm nothing close to a lockstep Democrat.  Though I have my own concerns about Barack Obama, it was fairly clear to me as the primary went on that he was quickly learning from his mistakes, was potentially inspirational both symbolically and otherwise, and was a refreshing change (i.e. neither astonishingly stupid nor smugly arrogant like a certain "Decider" I could think of) from the norm, and thus I was happy to vote for him.  And quite aside from my disagreements with McCain on a whole host of issues (really, why is one's inability to keep a Navy plane in the air a qualification for the highest level of public service?), his destructive and incredibly disingenuous campaign had pretty much turned me off as it was.

And then he nominated Sarah Palin, and (for me) all hell broke loose.

Now there are all sorts of things I could say about the transparent pandering of the pick.  There are all sorts of things I could bring up about the Republican party, which has spent much of the last hundred years fighting to undercut rights for all distinct groups including women, suddenly discovering the horrors of sexism (how dare they ask Sarah a question!  Deference, please.).  And don't get me started about the obsession with assuaging the religious right.  But for me, what this truly comes down to is this:

She's just not that bright.

Once the true believers have gotten over the gasps of horror and shocked exclamations of dismay, please let me explain.  I'm not talking about simple intelligence–the ability to understand a casual witticism, the capability of drawing logical conclusions from available evidence (though I'm not sure about the whole dinosaurs and people thing, but let that pass), the skill of forming coherent sentences.  Palin's obviously no fool; she wouldn't have ended up governor, with a pitifully thin list of accomplishments that would make Dan Quayle laugh, if she were.  She's obviously got political sense and savvy–and besides, anyone who can vaguely juggle five kids and a major public service job has got to have something upstairs.  No, I'm referring to something far more insidious: a lack of interest in the world outside.  She's just not very intellectually curious, or even vaguely intrigued, in things outside her very limited expertise.  How else do you explain not getting a passport until last year–when she was already in her mid-forties, and (as both she and her handlers continue to inexplicably cite, as if they're not in on the joke everyone else makes of this) living next to Russia?  How else do you explain a total inability to understand basic economics–or what the relationship between the credit markets and the consumer is?  How else do you explain a lack of knowledge of her own running mate's economical reformer credentials (well, okay, that's partly because he doesn't have any, but at least she could get on the same page with what he claims he's done, right?)?

Is it the five colleges thing?

The bottom line is that Sarah Palin seems like a nice person, and that's obviously part of her appeal.  She's so real, enthusiasts gush.  And while I'm not sure how many Americans shoot moose and race snowmobiles on a regular basis, I'm sure they can identify with the concept of a hockey mom as much as a soccer mom.  So she's got some family troubles…so what?  Everyone has those, right?  She's just like me, people say.  

And that's precisely why she would make a great therapist.  Or social worker.  Or minister.  It's important for people in those professions to be able to directly identify with their clients.

The problem is that she's not doing any of those things.  She's running for Vice-President of the United States of America, one old man's heartbeat away from the Presidency, and she needs to be taken on a United Nations tour like she's the freaking president of the Chamber of Commerce.  Look, folks: I'm all for down home common sense and folk wisdom.  But this job, to be potentially the second most powerful person in the world, doesn't need someone we could meet at the local general store.  It requires the best of the best, the smartest, the most able, literally the cream of all our crop.  Now the tension between meritocracy and democracy in this country is nothing new; for centuries we've struggled to find the balance between equality for all and getting the best and brightest.  But part of that balance has been struck by our tacit understanding that we ultimately elect the best we can, not the most like us we can.  Should they understand what we're going through?  Of course–that's a necessity for good leadership, as it's always been.  But requiring our leaders not simply to understand a certain life but live it themselves is tipping the balance to mass opinion: the Wikipedia/American Idol culture, where what we think is true is more important than what's actually true.  And somehow, over the past eight years, we've gotten the idea that electing our friends and neighbors is a better idea than electing the best we can find.  But where else should we advance this theory?  Science?  Education? Medicine?  ("Sure, you say that's a goiter.  But frankly I don't agree with you, and neither does my friend here.  He says it's cancer, and he thinks we should operate right now, and he's my friend, so I'm afraid you're out of luck.  But thanks so much for your input, Doc.") 

The truth is that Sarah Palin represents the worst retreat to the feel-good generation I could imagine, all part of the race to mediocrity which upholds ignorance as a badge of honor and knowledge as a sign of dangerous, "exclusionary" elitism.  I believe that the majority of Americans are now starting to get this–McCain's collapse in the polls mostly has to do with his economic missteps, but he hasn't been helped by Palin's cringe-inducing interviews, which have started to bother even people who like the whole "hockey mom" persona–but the fact that it's taken this long to make the point is a bit disturbing.  It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with sexism, and everything to do with elitism–the elitism which we ought to require of our leaders, the way we require it of our military generals, our doctors, scientists, and teachers.  No one likes to be made to feel stupid, or patronized.  But reveling in one's relentless average-ness isn't the answer either, and picking a running mate to appeal to that mindset in others is even worse.  Education is founded on the idea of striving for something more than what you are, of learning about the world, of bringing light to the dark places of the intellect.  For me, I want a leader just as interested in that journey as I am, not someone whose idea of foreign travel begins and ends with a snowmobile trip to Canada. 

Though I hope such a trip crosses over some Bridge to Nowhere.  It seems like such a shame to waste the image otherwise.