Let me put a case to you. Here are two athletes. One is measurably faster, higher scoring, has fewer injuries, and brings out the best in his team-mates. The other is demonstrably slower, lower scoring, has more injuries, and is a well known prima-donna on the playing field. Which of the two would you rather sign for your team? It’s not even a question, of course. In sports we take elitism, which is to say, a regard for excellence, for granted. Would it were so in things that actually matter.
Let me put a further case to you. Here is a political candidate. He speaks five languages, is interested and indeed well read in art, architecture, botany, biology, chemistry, classical music, comparative religion, constitutional law, engineering, geography, geology, history, literature, mathematics, the philosophies of ethics, mind, and religion, political science, physics, and zoology. He is a noted author, political theorist, and can correspond on more-or-less equal terms with some of the greatest minds of his generation.
But none of this, of course, would count in Thomas Jefferson’s favour were he running for political office today, and his enthusiastic Francophilia, his lack of military service, his irreligion, together with the certain-to-be-revealed scandal of an extramarital, interracial coupling that produced a child would sink him altogether. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter would tell him to take his Godless, liberal, family-hating elitist butt back to France and to the stay there with the other book-readin’ peaceniks. We don’t like yer kind ‘round here, Jefferson.
Here is another political candidate. She speaks one language, but is famously inarticulate. Her books are ghost-written. She has never been to France. She thinks that that the world is six thousand years old. She claims to be Christian but demonstrates no knowledge of theology or scripture. She routinely condemns judges for misinterpreting the United States Constitution, but seems to have little conception of what the Constitution actually says, nor can she name a ruling she opposes except one. And yet she wishes to occupy the same office as the aforementioned Mr. Jefferson, and there are millions of people, including the three named above, who would like to make it so.
The problem, of course, isn’t with Sarah Palin, or indeed with any of hundreds of politicians like her. The problem is with the progressive diminution of the intellectual qualities of our political culture. For a great many reasons, expertly unraveled in a recent book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason, even the merest hint of higher-order intelligence on the part of a candidate is now labeled as “elitist”, sometimes even by journalists who by any standard are card-carrying members of the elite themselves.
The fundamental problem facing our society is that most of our societal problems are too complicated for people to understand without considerable effort. Climate change, the rising costs of health care, global economic transformation – understanding such issues requires effort and careful weighing of evidence. The obvious response, that people are too busy to think about such issues, misses the point. The point is that most people aren’t even trying — polls demonstrate this very clearly — and there’s little excuse for that when nearly all of us have at our immediate disposal access to vastly more information than any generation before us. If you can find an hour per week for the hockey pool or Call of Duty or re-runs of The Simpsons, is it really impossible to find an hour per week to study issues that are of actual importance?
My own position is that, if it is, it is probably best to abstain from voting. Voting is a responsibility one has to one’s fellow citizens, and voting from a position of ignorance – or voting strictly on the basis of longstanding and unexamined party allegiances – is an abuse of that responsibility. Unfortunately, as it stands, a large percentage of our political leaders are elected on the basis of their ability to mobilize unexamined or pre-existing beliefs. You can go a long way beating the podium about “tax and spend liberals” even when you fully intend to tax and spend like mad yourself, because you count on the fact that a large percentage of people won’t bother to do any independent fact-checking. You can also go a long way in trying to convince voters that your opponent is an “elitist”: somebody who, by virtue of being thoughtful and reflective, can be said to not represent the “values” of most people out there. That claim, at least, would have the virtue of being true.
I’m not a big fan of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, but there’s no denying he’s a serious intellectual with scholarly credentials that would put most academics to shame. So there’s something very sad about seeing the man reduced to wearing cowboy hats and chomping down hot dogs and calling people “folks” at rallies, all in an effort to solve what dozens of commentators have called his “image problem” – which is to say, his inability to “communicate” with the “common man.” Just once, I’d like to hear a politician say what’s demonstrably true: that it’s the “common man” who’s the problem. It’s his inability to put down the remote (or the video game controller) long enough to learn and think about issues that are of actual importance that’s the reason our democratic political process has now been reduced to the most debased and vulgar pandering populism.
Is education the solution? Certainly not: the progressive dumbing down of our societal discourse is occurring at precisely the moment when more and more people are going to school for longer than ever before. The issue isn't "education" as our school-system defines it (education as the accumulation of facts) but thinking. Above all, more than anything else, we need people to stop and think. This means acknowledging that problems of real complexity require careful consideration before we reach conclusions about them. But our political system is geared to go in to the opposite direction, and appeals instead to the basest and crassest gut instincts of people who prefer to have others do their thinking for them. Any candidate who tries to do otherwise is denounced as a spineless elitist, suitable only for the “ivory tower” and not the “real world”.
A professor of mine, recently departed, used to wander the aisles during final exams and quietly admonish his students, “More thinking. Less writing.” In other words, when you don’t know what you’re talking about, stop talking.