In my last blog I suggested that academic infighting has its wellspring in a petty meanness that is the consequence of picking at other peoples' unimportant flaws. I proposed an alternative standard: that people should be content, not with being the best, but with doing their best, and that others should respect those who do. I believe that this would do much to promote happiness in everyday interpersonal affairs. Clearly, however, it should not be applied to (for example) brain surgeons, from whom we can reasonably demand excellence by objective rather than relative standards. And it ought not to be applied to political leaders, either, and especially to those who aspire to the highest office.
I consider myself an adherent of Walt Whitman's admonishment that we should stand up for the stupid and the crazy, and so I will begin by observing that Sarah Palin has the virtue, at least, of not being a lawyer. She would probably make a good president of the local PTA, or a competent call-center manager, or a kindly elementary school librarian. And she's probably a hoot come bingo night down at the Legion — especially after a round or two — and I have no doubt that she's the kind of self-sacrificing mother who spends a lot of time carting her kids around in a mini-van, and who will be there in a flash to bail them out when their first minor run-ins with the law begin to occur.
Don't misunderstand me, I have no ontological bias against local PTA presidents, call-centre managers, or elementary school librarians — they come in all shapes and sizes. But on the whole, I wouldn't pick one at random to be the leader of the free world. In fairness, I wouldn't pick many university professors for the job, either, and given the choice I can think of a few I'd like even less than Gov. Palin. At least she doesn't prefer the other side in the war on terror.
But imagine, gentle readers, that person, positioned quite literally a heartbeat away from the same office once occupied by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Picture the woman who said "in the great history of American rulings, there have been rulings" standing in the shadows of the men who wrote the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. It's like Jessica Simpson being appointed Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge when Stephen Hawking gives it up.
But this column isn't really about Sarah Palin. The case against her was complete within a week or so of her being chosen as McCain's vice-presidential nominee, and many prominent conservative commentators have admitted that placing her on the ticket was a serious blunder for their party. My concern is about what Palin represents - a vulgar anti-intellectualism that has become a central feature of North American politics. It is not altogether new (Richard Hofstadter was writing about it half a century ago) but Palin, I think, represents something different in kind. Not mediocrity (she has yet to attain that) but the actual glamorization of wilful underachievement, and the expression of an utter contempt for those who aspire to critical thought and reflection. "You can't blink," she has told more than one interviewer, as if the unwillingness to assess the consequences of one's actions is not merely a requirement for higher office - but the only requirement for it.
In a recent interview, Republican strategist Bay Buchanan defended Palin, stating, and I quote, "You don't appeal to American voters by speaking with your mind." In other words, my American friends, a major Republican Party strategist believes that you're too stupid to think about the issues. Sarah Palin begins by telling you the same thing, and with every sentence she reassures you that it's okay, because she's too stupid to think about the issues, too. And the party faithful cheer until they are hoarse.
It's those people who are the problem. Palin is fond of talking about Hockey Moms and "Joe Six Pack", but those people don't actually vote, and in part because the Sarah Palins of the world don't, actually, speak to them or for them. But the party faithful do vote, and they are the ones who bear ultimate responsibility for the dreary state of contemporary North American politics; they are the ones best positioned to demand more from their candidates, but they are too busy waving their signs and stupidly applauding every twitch and grunt of their party's pick to actually do it.
In 1914, when the rank-and-file of the British Expeditionary Force were told that they were to depart for Belgium, they declared at once their readiness to smite the Belgian foe for King and Country, only to discover that they were being deployed to defend Belgium. But what mattered was that they met the minimal criteria for infantry: they were willing to point their guns whichever way their commanders told them to, and so, too, will the legions of the party faithful — the ones with the buttons, badges, hats, and signs — point their banners whichever way the party wills, and for whatever vicious and vile candidate the party puts forth. People who will roar like lions for the fully scripted platitudes that emerge from the mouths of politicians at stage-managed party rallies are either complete cynics, willing to prostitute themselves for their party's victory, or just plain dumb as stumps. Either way democracy is better off without them.
I wish I could say that the other party is much better (think of Bill "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or Hillary "I landed in Bosnia under sniper fire" Clinton and tell me that that's true), or even that circumstances were much better in my own country. Over the years, I have had students who are otherwise elegant writers, engaging speakers, and the most cautious and careful thinkers, but who are involved in the kinds of party politics that make most cults seem open-minded by comparison. My heart shrivels slightly when I think of them cheering and even growing teary-eyed when some nitwit promises them "change, for a better tomorrow" or "hope, for our children - and for our children's children". If they uncritically swallowed or spewed Kool-Aid of this kind in my class, they'd get an "F". In modern politics, they can aspire to high office.