Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Mind Body Problem

with 12 comments

Back during the election, before I started writing this blog, I was contributing on a regular basis to a Usenet newsgroup I still contribute to on and off, and I was keeping my mouth shut on at least one point.  I know, I’m n ot all that good at keeping my mouth shut.  But in this case a number of people had made me annoyed, and since I knew those same people would be heartily in favor of my opinions on at least one subject, there were a few things I didn’t say so that I didn’t get drafted onto a side I wasn’t interested in being on.

It occurs to me that that paragraph probably makes no sense.  Bear with me.

Mique says that intellectuals exhibited “ugly” behavior during the last election, especially in their behavior to the Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

I say that the single ugliest thing in American culture today is represented perfectly by  Sarah  Palin herself. 

Whether she is in fact what she chose to represent in public,  I have no way to know.  But what she chose to represent in public is the single worst thing about  American culture.

Note I said culture, not politics.  It’s not the politics I’m referring to.

God, yes, Michael Moore is a jerk.  I don’t know if he’s an intellectual–I’d say not–but he’s definitely unattractive.  On the other hand, what he does in his documentaries is neither better nor worse than what Ben Stein did in Expelled,  his movie about evolution, or what Michelle Bachman does every time she opens her mouth on national TV.

Palin, however, was the living, breathing embodiment of what George  W. Bush only pretended to be–yucka, yucka, yucka, looka me! I’m a stupid, ignorant hick and I’m proud of it! 

Republicans can be intellectuals, obviously.  There are a lot of Republican intellectuals out there.  The modern conservative movement was started by probably the most widely recognized public intellectual of his time, Willian F. Buckley, Jr. 

And you want to talk about “damn the audience?”  Buckley’s resonse to people who complained that he used too many big words was–look them up. 

I  don’t know how we got from William F. Buckley to  Sarah  Palin, but I’m not the only one unwilling to sign on to the latter.   Hell, during the election and after, a whole slew of very prominnent Republicans ditched support of the McCain ticket because they didn’t like what they saw in Palin–including Buckley’s own son, and such long-time party stalwarts as Regan speecwriter Peggy Noonan.  

The party of William F. Buckley, Jr, is one I could belong to–although I disagree with about half the platform; but then, I disagree with about half the platform for the Democrats, too.

The party of  Sarah  Palin has no room for me in it.  That “down home” “just folks” “don’t you just hate smart people, they’re all such snobs” attitude is a declaration of war against every single thing I think is valuable and important in an adult human life. 

And please remember, “just folks” is not the same thing as “ordinary people.”  There are plenty of ordinary people out there without that kind of attitude to life and learning and ambition.

Somebody here called what I’m talking about “anti-intellectualism,” and that’s certainly some of it.  But what I’m talking about goes far beyond anti-intellectualism. 

What this is is a mulish refusal to accept that there are any valid standards in the world that cannot be met by all us “just folks,” and when people say there are, well, they’re just being “elitists” and those aren’t real standards anyway, they’re just snobby pretentions.

I’m a dentist and you’re an evolutionary biologist with degrees in biology from MIT and Johns Hopkins and sixteen years of work in the field?   Well,  I don’t care–I know just as much about evolution as you do!

You’ve spent the last twenty years of your life living in England while I’ve been checking groceries here in Macawanee, Kansas all my life?  It doesn’t matter, I know just as much about the English National Health Service as you do!

This is “anti-intellectualism” only if you define the term to mean “opposition to anything that takes any thinking whatsoever.”

Yes, goodness knows, there are “intellectuals” who are jerks.

I’d still much rather have somebody erring on the side of jerky intellectualism than somebody witht the attitudes above.  Your intellectual pretentions might actually get you to read something someday that might kick start your brain into thinking better.  Wallowing in smug, self-satisfied ignorance is a potentially terminal condition.

I don’t care what Sarah  Palin’s political positions were–they could have been left or right, moderate or extreme–I could never vote for her, because in voting for her I would be voting to elevate that attitude to an almost official status.

Sarah Palin is a lot more dangerous, and destructive, than Michael Moore could be even if he were trying.

And if you’re going to ask me how a country founded by intellectuals–because Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin and even Hamilton were the intellectuals of their time–got to just this place, I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Written by janeh

July 31st, 2009 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'The Mind Body Problem'

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  1. I don’t get it. I never have. Sure, Sarah Palin has a more checkered and less successful background in media, business and politics than one might expect from a candidate for VP of the US, even though that position, ‘one breath away from the presidency’ is often filled to ‘balance the ticket’, not to get the best potential president). Palin was probably chosen to play to the cultural divide in the US because of her lifestyle, not because of her record or her education. I don’t really know whether she is intelligent or not, or if she has in fact ‘wallowed in smug, self-satisfied ignorance’ rather than simply saying the things she figures her audience wants to hear, as politicians tend to do.

    But neither her political and work experience, nor the ethical questions nor her educational, family and religious background explain the vituperation launched at her when her nomination was announced. Even by political standards it was astonishing – she was cut down in the most personal way, treated as not a woman because she didn’t have the ‘right’ views on ‘women’s issues’. (I had a URL to some article on that at one point, but I’ve lost it.).

    Sure, she represents Americans who belong to a thread in American culture – the rural uneducated, I guess? – whose ideas many disagree with, and some of whose ideas might, should they ever get someone in power, be dangerous. But there are a lot of other Americans from a lot of other bits of society with minority and possibly dangerous ideas that don’t get people nearly as worked up as Palin did. Perhaps because people think Palin and her supporters might actually GET power, and are therefore more dangerous than the other groups? But she didn’t come close, and in any case, surely in a democracy, even dangerous minority ideas get to battle it out in the political arena with the others.

    Like I said, I don’t get it.

    And to show where I’m coming from – I grew up in a tiny isolated town that I left without regrets as soon as I could. I know small town life, I know life in a place with resource-based industry and a conviction that the powerful far away either ignored our problems or (worse) increased them. I don’t say that I would have voted for Palin, had I been American, but I wouldn’t have attacked her so viciously as so many people did. I don’t think that’s because I have a small-town background – but because I do, I noticed that a LOT of the stuff about Palin wasn’t about her record in office, or even her educational level or intelligence. It seemed to me to be because she wasn’t ‘one of us’. She hunts. She has a large family. Neither she nor her daughter aborted children many women would have. She doesn’t have the right ideas about development (not, you note, criticism of the ideas themselves, just a conviction that they aren’t right because they aren’t ours – generally from people who have probably never been near Alaska).

    I could have left off all the typing, and just written ‘I don’t get it’, because that’s what it all comes down to!


    31 Jul 09 at 9:46 am

  2. A lot of the stuff said in public about Palin was less substantive than what Jane wrote, yes. But the idea that this woman who seemed to positively revel in her own ignorance was qualified to be Vice-President was abhorrent.


    31 Jul 09 at 10:00 am

  3. Well, you had a president who used to put on that kind of persona. He had an accent that really grated on me too.

    But did she revel in her own ignorance? I am not inclined to dig through all the stuff on the net to try to find out, so I can’t expect anyone else to, but I don’t remember anything like that. Putting a better-than-justified face on a lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience by claiming familiarity with Russia because she could see it (or something like that), yes.

    And you don’t really *have* high requirements for VP, as far as I can see. It’s basically ‘put someone there from a region where we’re a bit weak otherwise, and make sure he doesn’t have any potential embarrassing scandals lurking in his life’.


    31 Jul 09 at 10:27 am

  4. I usually just read, but feel compelled to jump in.
    Cheryl, the vice president is an odd position, but that person is the second in line to run the country and a very public figure. Palin didn’t know even the basic outline of the state structure (what I learned in 4th grade). She didn’t know the names of the countries in Europe, leave alone their leaders. She couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. It became clear that she was running Alaska as if she were the class president of a high school, not following laws and procedures if they inconvenienced her. If that’s the kind of person she is — and there are millions of people like that — well, fine. I don’t admire people like that, but they certainly have a right to live the way they want to. But I thought it was outrageous that a person like that thought she could be vice president. I was personally offended by it. It wasn’t just a matter of accent, it was, as JH wrote, her shocking belief that you could be an ignorant hick who didn’t know what the Speaker of the House was (leave alone who the Speaker was) and run for vice president. And that that was okay, in fact, it was better than okay. It was the way things should be, because knowing how our government works is just elitist snobbery.

    I think the trouncing was just what she deserved.


    31 Jul 09 at 11:16 am

  5. Well, to tell you the truth, I’m a bit inclined, personally, to regard creationists as reveling in what they don’t know as a group. That bit about being able to see Russia from her backyard was way more than an exaggeration. I’ve been to Wasilla – it’s about as next-door to Russia as I am.

    As for the requirements for VP – yes, you’re right, the position of VP doesn’t, of itself, require much. But given McCain’s age and health, the odds seemed higher than usual that his VP may end up President, and the idea of Palin in the Oval Office was, to me, even scarier than Cheney, though for different reasons.


    31 Jul 09 at 11:18 am

  6. Thanks for the examples.

    I suppose I tend to think that even underqualified or unqualified people can believe they can do a job and even, if they can persuade someone to let them, try to do it. And she tried, and she failed. That’s the way things should work, which is why I don’t see why there is all the emotion over this particular example.

    Oh, I just thought – of course, there are jobs that require certification or training – surgeon, pilot, driver etc. – but I don’t think political leadership in a democracy should follow that pattern. It’s all very well to say, to paraphrase an old local saying, ‘Party A has lawyers and merchants and Party B has merchants and lawyers in the House’, but once you say ‘Party A can only try to send a lawyer or a merchant to the House’ (or ‘people with a certain level of education and/or intelligence’) you don’t have a democracy. Because you have a democracy, Parties A & B can try sending the local dogcatcher to the House (or the Presidency, in your system) if they want to. They won’t succeed unless they can get a lot of other people to agree it’s a good idea, but that’s politics.


    31 Jul 09 at 11:25 am

  7. I think the “average joe knows just as much about X as Xperts” meme is a warped extension of the American concept that “anyone can be President/ be a millionaire/ be CEO/ be anything they want to”.

    For if anyone *could* be President, then surely the person who *is* President currently can’t be any more extraordinary than average joe. Thus if a person in an elevated position shows those characteristics we think of as identifying an average joe, they win points with the real average joes out there as being truthful, trustworthy and not “stuck up,” which is the worst sin there can be, apparently. Average folks suspect people in power who are evidently intellectuals of either faking it (being stuck up) or not faking it and being actually superior, which is intolerable.

    That equating of powerful and average then reinforces the belief that the average is capable of anything. (my husband always says “Anything? Try flapping your arms and flying.”) Knowing as much as an expert. Governing the state, or the country. Of course deep down, we all know there are people who are smarter then we are, or better than we are in almost any area. Few of us are best in the world at anything.

    And the most insecure and aggressively average among us get really fearful and thus hostile when that mindset is threatened by reality. They *must* knock down the above average, otherwise they feel invalidated, and the deeply reassuring feeling that they *could* do anything if only they wanted will go away.

    American culture is schizophrenic in many ways. The general culture is allegedly anti-classist in encouraging people to accomplish great things, while at the same time the wealthy and the middle-class/poor, the intellectual and the average, the Dems and the Repubs, the scientists and religious are contemptuous of each other.

    That feeling of contempt is really destructive to genuine empathy and respect for other viewpoints. That’s a problem I don’t have any idea how to solve.


    31 Jul 09 at 2:06 pm

  8. There are plenty of average Joe/Jane types in Congress — someone who had a used car dealership and then decided to run for office. And there are always a group of Congressmen and Senators who make a schtick out of their humble roots. “Ah may just be an ole pig farmer from Alabamy, but Ah can tell you this bill ain’t gonna fly.” And the procedures are arcane and weird; I think they run a training program for the newbies because no amount of reading or watching CSPAN quite prepares you for how to address so-and-so and the appropriate way to introduce a bill or whatever. That’s fine, and I think that’s what you’re talking about, Cheryl. Some of them drive me nuts, but some are smart and bring a different, essential perspective.
    But that wasn’t Palin. It was as if she thought the whole history and tradition didn’t matter, wasn’t interesting, and was just a silly, annoying inconvenience. It was clear she didn’t have a clue what the vice president’s role in Congress was. It was clear she thought she could just bone up on a few foreign place names and that was sufficient for dealing, as the representative of the United States, with foreign leaders abroad. I think of Biden’s trip to Georgia and Ukraine, the tense discussions with the leaders, the problems with Russia, the history of the last 100 years in Russia, the Soviet Union, and Russia again, the recent problems with Russia, the minute-by-minute chronology of the war with Georgia, the separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the split in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the gas battle and gas deals, the requests for specific kinds of military and economic and developmental support… Not every vice president does that kind of trip (nor is every president — thank heavens — like Cheney). But they do have responsibilities, and they need to have about 20 years of knowledge and experience behind them and not think your press guy can give you some talking points and tips and you can just wing it.

    That’s why I’m that kind of person who just went ballistic over Palin. It was as if she was making a mockery of government leadership. It’s hard, it’s really, really hard, and I think you should be humbled by the task. She wasn’t at all. Her standard reply was something like Yup, I can do this.


    31 Jul 09 at 5:07 pm

  9. Some of you are giving reasons why Palin was not qualified for Vice President. I won’t comment on that. But that wasn’t what I saw during the election.

    What I was seeing was “She hunts! She has a large family! She has a teenage daughter who is pregnant! She didn’t go to a one of the Ivory League or Big 10 universities! Her Husband is a blue collar worker!”

    I’m with Cheryl. I don’t get it!


    31 Jul 09 at 6:25 pm

  10. Just to be clear, it wasn’t the fact that people criticised Palin, or the reasons for that criticism, that startled me. I certainly couldn’t disagree with the evident fact that she was not a good candidate. It was simply the virtually unprecedented (in my experience) lynch mob ferocity with which she was attacked.

    In plain English, if Palin (presumably as a candidate) was, as Jane puts it, “… a lot more dangerous, and destructive, than Michael Moore could be even if he were trying”, then the vicious response to her candidature clearly demonstrated that there’s an even worse side of America than anyone seems ready to confront.


    1 Aug 09 at 3:06 am

  11. I think Lymaree has a point. There does seem to be a conviction that everyone can do anything, probably an odd offspring of the desire to discourage discouragement, so to speak, and a conviction that you have to be overwhelmingly positive about everything, which I tend to attribute to the more extreme reaches of the self-esteem movement. Or, as someone told me as a child ‘There’s no such word as ‘can’t”, which baffled literal-minded me at the time. I still think there’s a better way of encouraging children! There might be a relationship to something I’ve noticed in a couple of TV shows lately. The characters are in dire peril. It is clear that they have a good chance of dying (well, except that it’s a serial, of course, but I’m assuming some suspension of disbelief). And the adult or the man looks at the terrified child or woman, and responds to their terror with “We’re going to get out of this alive. I promise you that.”. If I’d been there quaking in terror, I’d say ‘Don’t promise what you can’t perform’, and we’d probably all die fighting about it.

    And it must surely be better to say to a child ‘You can be President. Of course, you have to work really hard to do that, and get good marks in school’ than ‘You can be President’.

    We really need a re-injection of the ideas that No Honest Work is Shameful and Doing a Job Well Matters More Than What the Job is and It’s Better to be a Good Plumber than a Bad Philosopher (or President).


    1 Aug 09 at 5:42 am

  12. Mique, I think you don’t see the full range of what goes on in the US. There are unbelievably virulent, lynch mob attacks on *everyone* from every side! What Sarah Palin got hit with was not unprecedented. And MOST of it was based in her unpreparedness for the job. The parts about “she hunts!” are no worse than the “he likes Grey Poupon”–that shit comes from both sides.


    1 Aug 09 at 5:54 pm

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