Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sam Harris on Sarah Palin and elitism

Sam Harris has a great op-ed piece at Newsweek:

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter's microphone, saying things like, "I'm voting for Sarah because she's a mom. She knows what it's like to be a mom." Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.


What doesn't she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin's ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.


What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."

"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."

"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."

Read the rest at Newsweek.

UPDATE: A letter written to The Economist (September 20, 2008, p. 26) from Sue Crane of Johns Creek, Georgia, expresses the anti-elitist pride in ignorance Harris condemns, when she writes:

Sir - Lexington (September 6) lapsed into the same mode of thinking that exists in the powdered-wig political salons and among the media twitterati in his assessment of Sarah Palin, which stopped him from understanding why she strikes a chord with America's heartland. Mrs. Palin connects with voters because she is one of us, not some elite politician entrenched in Washington's ways. John McCain had a problem with energising the Republican base, hence his choice of Mrs. Palin. I, along with many other Republicans, was prepared to sit this contest out had he chosen either Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

This contrasts with a letter on the same page from Michael Golay, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, who writes:

Sir - Alaska is very different from the rest of the United States, and this difference affects the fitness of Mrs Palin to be vice-president. Fundamentally, Alaska is a pre-modern welfare state, where the economy is almost purely extractive (with the exception of defense and tourism). If you don't kill it, dig it or cut it down you don't get it. From that perspective "bridges to nowhere" are simply further extractions, or tokens for transfer payments from the rest of us, as are the annual payments to residents from North Slope oil revenues.

Not surprisingly Alaska is largely an innovation-free zone. It is also the only world that Mrs Palin has known. Along with her chronological and career inexperience this background renders her unprepared to lead the country.

In the same issue of The Economist, the Lexington column, "Richard Milhous McCain," points out that the McCain strategy in selecting Palin "is perfectly designed to create a cycle of accusation and counter-accusation. The 'liberal media' cannot do its job without questioning Mrs Palin's qualifications, which are astonishingly thin; but they cannot question her qualifications without confirming the Republican suspicion that they are looking down on ordinary Americans." It attributes this strategy to Richard Nixon, who "recognised that the Republicans stood to gain from 'positive polarisation': dividing the electorate over values."


Ktisophilos said...

"The 'liberal media' cannot do its job without questioning Mrs Palin's qualifications, which are astonishingly thin ..."

That was probably one of McCain's points in selecting her. When the liberal media rail in on her thin resume, it draws attention to Obama's even thinner one, and might make people wonder why the liberal media gave him such a free pass.

Jim Lippard said...

I don't think Obama's qualifications are thinner than Palin's by any reasonable measure.

Ktisophilos said...

Palin: Mayor and Governor and others. She has actually had executive experience.

What has Obama done? A first term senator who spent most of his time campaining for president? An Illinois senator whose favorite vote was "present", not good practice for presidential decision making? Receiving the second highest senatorial contributions from Fannie Mae, and selecting their CEO to head his VP selection committee? Community organizing with unrepentant terrorist bomber William Ayers, and launching his political career from his home?

Also, Palin would be in training right away to take over as President. Obama would be President right away.

Jim Lippard said...

Palin: 4 years on the city council and 6 years mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. 1.5 years governor of Alaska. She has a record of putting people into positions on the basis of friendship rather than competence. She seems to be incredibly ignorant to the point that she's painful to listen to speak. I think she'd be about as good a president as George W. Bush, for the same reasons.

Obama: 8 years in the Illinois state legislature (Senate), 3.5 years in U.S. legislature (also Senate). And he has worked as a constitutional law professor and financial analyst, and is intelligent and well-spoken. Even as I disagree with him as president, I won't have to cringe in embarrassment at his idiocy every time he speaks, as I do for our current president.

Ktisophilos said...

Appointing friends is a political trait, unfortunately. Look at Janet Reno, and Clinton firing all 93 US attorneys and the White House travel staff. And although Bush appointed some Democrats, like the head of the TSA Norm Mineta who presided over airport security becoming the neo-Gestapo, what thanks did Bush get?

For sure, Obama is a great speaker — if you like listening to "hope", "change", and of course turning back the waves and healing the planet. But Americans are supposed to be electing Commander in Chief not Orator in Chief.

That the lacklustre McCain and Obama are the candidates shows the huge flaws in the first-past-the-post system in the Primaries. The inadequate VP choices of both were pretty much forced on them by politics.

Jim Lippard said...

"Look at Janet Reno, and Clinton firing all 93 US attorneys and the White House travel staff."

It's customary for a newly elected president to remove the entire slate of U.S. attorneys appointed by his predecessor and replace them with new appointees--Reagan did it when first elected, George H.W. Bush did it, and Clinton did it. Those who suggest that George W. Bush was treated unfairly on this issue haven't actually looked at the details.

The travel staff issue was unusual, which was why it caused a scandal at the time.

George W. Bush's mid-term removal of 9 U.S. attorneys--all his own appointees--was also highly unusual. The reasons given for firing them ("performance") appear unfounded, and there is evidence that they were actually fired for resisting political pressure and interference with their work, or for taking prosecutions in directions the administration didn't want to occur, which is why Bush's new AG has just appointed a special prosecutor to look into the matter.

Ktisophilos said...

Hmmm, Palin is so ignorant, but Biden for his debate apparently needs a moderator who is blatantly in his corner. This is Gwen Ifill, who recently wrote the adulatory The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, due to emerge on inauguration Day. Her sales would be far greater if Obama won.

The pro-Dem mass media would be howling piteously if the mod were Joe Hilley, author of the to-be-released Sarah Palin: A New Kind of Leader, and rightly so.

Even if such mods were totally balanced on the night, the conflict of interest is still there.

Ktisophilos said...

Oh, and Palin presumably knows that FDR wasn't president during the 1929 crash, and that Americans didn't have TVs then, unlike Biden:

“When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed. He said, ‘look, here’s what happened.’”

It wouldn't be too difficult to play “gotcha” ping pong with Obama either, with his “57 states” gaffe.

But when Dem gaffes are allegedly honest slips, while GOP gaffes are repeated all over the airwaves and print, claims of media neutrality don't wash.

Jim Lippard said...

Some have argued that Biden was referring to when FDR was Gov. of New York, but he could also have mean "during the Great Depression" instead of "when the stock market crashed." But I call it a dumb error.

When Obama said 57 states, he clearly meant 47, which was the number of states he actually visited. Again, a gaffe, but one on the level of a typographical error, mispronunciation, or Spoonerism.

Ktisophilos said...

Going on TV was certainly a dumb error, and even dumber if he meant when FDR was NY Governor.

I agree that Obama made a slip of the tongue and really does know how many states are united. But I can't help thinking that the Leftmedia would have been all over McPalin if they had said the same thing.

Look at the way the Leftmedia hammered Dan Quayle over misspelling "potatoe", and they ignored the fact that this was from a teacher's flash card. Thus the episode reflected more on the state of the government school system than on the VP, given that it's the teacher's job to teach not the VP's. In any case, the boy who spelled "potato" would later become a 16yo father and highschool dropout working low-paying jobs, while Quayle became a successful businessman.

donna said...

"I'm voting for SP because she's a mom" -- Weird, I initially read that as "moron"... ;^)

I'm really fed up with people being proud of being stupid.