Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reason #Eleventy-One why Obama's "inexperience" is not the same as Palin's

Interesting article here from Ruth Marcus of the WaPo (Washington Post). "McCain vs. Palin" is the matchup she envisions, although that delightful debate mental image is actually just a vehicle to talk about Palin's qualifications (achem, lack thereof) and doesn't actually stage a hypothetical meetup between the two parts of the Republican ticket. Sure, what she actually wrote might be more informative, but why break with MSM tradition and inform us?

Anyway, cynicism aside, she makes the point about Palin that I think people, especially the "liberal media" and liberals themselves have been scared out of making: Palin isn't just inexperienced, she's not... um... worldly, let's say. Well-read, let's say. Well-traveled, let's say.

Ok, let's say it: she's not the brightest Cougar in the pack.

This is not to say that she's dumb in some sort of, um, "below average" way -- just that she's too dumb to be Vice. Her statements to Katie Couric that continued to support the idea that somehow Russia's physical proximity to Alaska is relevant to foreign policy -- "It's very important when you consider even national-security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America. Where--where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to--to our state." -- as Fareed Zakaria says in his rather good article on Palin,
There is, of course, the sheer absurdity of the premise. Two weeks ago I flew to Tokyo, crossing over the North Pole. Does that make me an expert on Santa Claus? (Thanks, Jon Stewart.) But even beyond that, read the rest of her response. "It is from Alaska that we send out those ..." What does this mean? This is not an isolated example. Palin has been given a set of talking points by campaign advisers, simple ideological mantras that she repeats and repeats as long as she can. ("We mustn't blink.") But if forced off those rehearsed lines, what she has to say is often, quite frankly, gibberish.
I might amend myself and say Palin is simply inexperienced or unknowledgeable -- except it seems to me that anyone with half a mind would've given up the "we're close to Russia" talking point long before now, which several commentators have pointed out. Someone smart would've made it a soundbite -- "Well, I did say that we were close to Russia, but that was tongue-in-cheek," and then made a politically plausible if still ultimately untrue argument, like "The real point is that, having been so close to Russia, it has been quite an inspiration to deeply study what's going on there, having that presence there makes one curious about the world, and as a result I've felt compelled to read up, to understand our neighbor there." This seems self-evidently not true, as she hasn't shown any special real knowledge of Russia, but if they gave her a crash course and a couple of plausibly deep conservative observations on Russia, they'd have fixed a lot of their problem there, thinkst I. It seems to me that both Palin and her handlers must be incompetent not to have caught that -- or better prepared her questions on the bailout! Instead of what Zakaria described as "This is nonsense--a vapid emptying out of every catchphrase about economics that came into her head..."

BUT, we can't make any of those arguments, because of the worries of anti-intellecutalism and the foul cries of elitism that would come from the Republicans. But it's not -- or doesn't have to be. Traveling abroad is a bit of a luxury for many Americans and simply not on the radar of many others that could afford it -- a discussion for another time. But I could plausibly give you "She hasn't been abroad" -- I could grant someone that -- if she was obviously some sort of student of history. If she'd shown mastery of a subject besides political craftsmanship (her "skills" in which are actually whithering under national attention now), being a working mother, and outdoorsiness. All of those are valuable skills -- just utterly irrelevant ones for national office.

The thing is, in a certain way, the cries of elitism from "the masses" are valid. Getting into top US universities takes ability, LUCK, and, on average, big money. And these top schools are still entrée into elite circles like politics and the top of the business world. We do have terrible problems with class in the US, and our politicians are mostly Patricians who have made their fortune, or are making it from legal and illegal graft in the national government, and the rich and Ivy League educated do dominate the upper echelons of power in the US. Liberals -- and recently, conservatives berating the lack of a deal for the bailout going through -- decrying the idiocy of the common American does nothing to change things for the better. The problem is, when you don't have access to the abilities to better yourself -- good schools for your children, job retraining, and say, free tuition to higher education (see, i.e., a number other countries) -- psychologically, what can you do except belittle the need for them, if only to stay a bit more sane and able to live your day-to-day without never-ending angst? I'm being a bit melodramatic here, but it's true that getting ahead, the "American Dream" is the American exception; most poor stay that way. Many, if not most of the rich are born into privelege. Can you blame people for hatred against the elites? It's the same anger that Edwards was stirring up -- among these same types of people we now berate as "dumb."

The problem is, somehow the Republicans have the corner on a large segment of this class anger, and channel it into counter-productive reactionism. (Another tie to the Southern Strategy, perhaps?) What we need is to stop, as it were, blaming the victim of those Americans in poor schools that are utterly failing to teach critical thinking, and give people the credit for the agency they have. (This is a longer conversation, but I've been against the "people are dumb" meme since I read the excellent "Trust Us, We're Experts" on how that meme started and continues to be used to betray public interest, like in asserting GM foods are fine.) With both the Media and the Schools failing people, well -- garbage in, garbage out. Without adequate training (i.e. GOOD EDUCATION) and good information (which, as I've said, requires me to read an hour+ of news every day, hardly possible for every American), it's not as simple as dumbness.

Nevertheless -- back on topic -- Obama is intellectually curious, well-read, well-traveled. People, for I think not outrageous resasons, want a president that understands them, that is not in the self-sustaining elite class. The fact that there aren't, percentage-wise, that many people who are both well-educated and from humble background (and not sold out to corporate greed) is a failure of the system and not just the individuals. But we need to understand that before we make the argument that Palin is dumb and ill-read -- which she is. That judgement comes from education both from books AND "from the street" -- where Obama also worked, if they'll recall. (Of course, he'll never be "just one of the guys," because most of "the guys" in the US aren't, you know, black.) It's not a judgement of Palin as a person to say that she is not well-read enough to be Vice. And it's not just that she lacks executive experience, which they point out, to some extent accurately, that Obama lacks, too. It's the will and desire to learn about issues outside of herself, that challenge her and her world, that she lacks and Obama has. And we need to find a way to say that that at the same time is not accusatory to the thousands, millions of Americans who, for no fault of their own, were not able to succeed as Obama did, from humble origins. If we forget that it is not just skill that got him where he is, but no small amount of luck, then we are guilty of that elitism, and we're telling people the same tired and wrong message as the Republicans: if you didn't get ahead and get the American dream, it's all your own fault.

We know better.


kilgore said...

I wonder if Obama had selected someone with 2 X chromosomes as his running mate, whether John would have combed the GOP for a 'conservative' [i.e., reactionary bible-thumper] with an extra dose of melanin.

Palin is probably smart enough to be VP, since she probably can attend state funerals with the best of them. However the thought of her in the oval office makes me wonder if this country can stand its worst 2 presidents in quick succession. 25% of VP's have inherited their boss's job. And I believe John will be the oldest POTUS.

Palin's intellectual credentials: She switched college 5 times in 6 years to earn her journalism degree from the U of Idaho. The list of colleges reads like...well, like GW Bush reads: 2 in Alaska; 1 a community college.

I am inspired to hear Obama addressing plans and unity in his ads. But I'm scared that John's campaign seems to be taken from Rove's playbook: just repeat lies until enough people begin to believe them.

I pray that the dems have strong tactics [or is it strategy?] for the 4th quarter.

J.R. Bernard said...

This post is pretty spot on and I couldn't have agreed more.