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Anti-Intellectualism Redux.

November 10, 2008

“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”

— George Orwell

One of the running memes, I’m finding, among conservatives is that the anti-intellectual movement that the GOP has run with for the past decade has come to a head.  George W. Bush was the poster boy for ordinary, folksy charm… until Sarah Palin was introduced to the world stage and blew it wide open.  Here was a woman who took pride in being intellectually incurious, as she famously displayed during her controversial interview with Katie Couric:

“I’m not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduated college and their parents get them a passport and a backpack and say, ‘Go off and travel the world.’ Noooo. I worked all my life. In fact, I  usually had two jobs all my life, until I had kids. … I was not part of, I guess, that culture.”

But I think the GOP is starting to recognize its shortfalls in championing the ordinary and vilifying excellence.  The fact is, the majority of this country, though not necessarily intellectually “elite,” consider themselves at the very least somewhat intelligent and well-versed.  The country knows all issues aren’t necessarily black vs. white, good vs. bad, pro-America vs. anti-America.  We recognize that there are subtle nuances to every aspect of our lives; and dumbing every issue down to “this” vs. “that,” without even the desire to thoughtfully discuss or debate the subject is inevitably viewed as short-sighted and overly-simplistic.

Kathleen Parker, conservative columnist who famously pleaded the case that Sarah Palin should’ve withdrawn from the ticket, has added her voice to the chorus of many conservative pundits yearning for a shift away from the dumbed-down populism that has taken over the GOP (emphasis mine):

But something else also caused many to jump ship even though, philosophically, a leap toward Obama carried significant risk. Despite conflicts of self-interest, many conservatives shifted away for what we might call the “P Factor”: Sarah Palin. It wasn’t only her selection as McCain’s running mate, which becomes more unbelievable each day as previously off-the-record tidbits are surfacing. More important is what the “P Factor” revealed about the party itself.

It has become angry and ordinary.

And, oh, by the way, proud of it.

We saw that starkly as Palin whipped up crowds, winking her way through attacks against Obama that telegraphed, “He’s not one of us.” We saw the cackling white man toting an Obama monkey to a rally and listened slack-jawed as country singer Gretchen Wilson belted out “Redneck Woman” while Palin clapped and lip-synched her favorite song.

Palin was the embodiment of ordinariness, despite her comely packaging, and managed while invoking the Christian God to repel our better angels.

What a great many others saw was someone out of her depth, whose lack of knowledge—and apparent lack of intellectual curiosity—was a bonding agent with the Republican base. To concern oneself with trivial details such as what countries are part of NAFTA was to be derided as elitist. And everybody knows Republicans hate elitists.

Well, nobody likes elitists, really. But we certainly do aspire to become elites in our various fields of endeavor. Joe the Plumber undoubtedly considers himself an elite among those who keep the water flowing. Would a self-respecting Republican fail to acknowledge the desirability of military elites such as the Force Recon Marines, Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, or Air Force Commandos?

Might we not also want the country to be led by equally elite folks, well-versed in history, geography, foreign policy, and economics? It isn’t necessary that a vice president be able to pass the Foreign Service exam, but she ought to be able to demonstrate that she has read a newspaper in the past year or so. Among new information surfacing from inside the McCain campaign is that Palin didn’t know that Africa is a continent rather than a country unto itself. Is it mean and cowardly for anonymous campaign aides to whisper these anecdotes to the media, as Palin defenders insist? Or shouldn’t we, without snickering, admit that such things matter?

Palin covered her inadequacies with folksy charm and by drumming up a class war, turning her audiences not just against elites but against the party’s own educated members. The movement created by that superelite, but never elitist, William F. Buckley Jr. was handed over to Joe Six-Pack. Know-nothingness was no longer a stigma, but a badge of honor.

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