Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sometimes David Brooks Makes No Sense

These two comments come from the same interview:

"Brooks praised Palin's natural political talent, but said she is 'absolutely not' ready to be president or vice president. He explained, 'The more I follow politicians, the more I think experience matters, the ability to have a template of things in your mind that you can refer to on the spot, because believe me, once in office there's no time to think or make decisions.'"

However, Brooks also described John McCain and Barack Obama as "the two best candidates we've had in a long time." He later said of Obama, "he was such a mediocre senator..."

Now, if you believe that Barack Obama's 4 years as a senator (half of which have been spent on the campaign trail) and 7 years as a "mediocre" state senator are vastly more impressive than Sarah Palin's 2 years as a governor, 1 year on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, 6 years as a mayor, and 4 years on the city council member, fine. We can argue the point, but for the moment, let's concede that his experience tops hers. It doesn't exactly make him highly qualified based on resume alone, now does it?

If instead you believe, as Brooks seems to, that Obama's tremendous intellect trumps his lack of experience, fine and good. I think the point is arguable, but will put it on hold for a few paragraphs. What I don't see is how, in the same interview, you can argue that Palin's limited experience makes her unprepared to be VP, while Obama's limited experience is a complete non-issue in his readiness to take the top job due to his intellect, especially when your whole reason for valuing experience is the argument that presidents don't always get the luxury of time to stop and THINK.

It looks to me like Brooks is so impressed with Barack's intellectual gifts that he's willing to forgive any other shortcomings. Brooks, a history major, should know better. Some of the brightest presidents America has produced this century include Nixon, Clinton, Wilson, and Taft. Yet, I'm fairly sure that if Brooks were putting together a list of his top presidents, this particular group wouldn't be the first ones to jump to his mind. FDR, whose brains earned him the nickname "Feather Duster" (for being a lightweight) among his school chums and was described as a "second rate intellect" by one of his own justices, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan as a collective group probably share far fewer total IQ points (although none of them are by any means dumb men), but I don't think there's a person on the planet who wouldn't argue that they are a far more illustrious group of leaders.

I am by no means anti-intellectual. I enjoy reading well written works of history, philosophy, and science. In fact, I'll wager that I was reading far more complex books at a young age than Brooks himself (I was pretty much the only 10 year-old that I recall reading Hemmingway at recess). But the idea that exposure to, or understanding of, the great ideas of history, is sufficient, or even one of the major prerequisites for political greatness, is simply not borne out by history. John Quincy Adams was acting as a translator for America's ambassador to Russia while in his early teens and using his spare time to translate Cicero, but no one considers him to have been equal to George Washington, a man whose formal schooling can be measured in months.

Alright, one more annoyance to discuss, and then I'll shut up. Why does Brooks, or anyone else for that matter, assume that George Bush or Sarah Palin are anti-intellectual? What have they ever said to indicate that this is the case? When have either been dismissive of history's great thinkers? Is it simply because they are not great speakers? I roomed with engineers in college, so I can assure you that the ability to communicate effectively is not an accurate measure of intellect or intellectual curiosity. Is it because of poor grades? Also a pretty poor indicator, since that probably has more to do with the fact that the president apparently spent his college years in a drunken haze. He is, by all reports, an avid reader. But of course, when you mention this fact, people simply laugh and dismiss it. After all, the man mispronounces "nuclear", so he must be dumb, right? Sarah Palin has a track record of being a dynamic and forceful politician, with many political successes, and plenty of excellent debate performances and interviews under her belt. But the fact that she was thrust into national politics at the last minute, and chocked up in a couple of interviews, is somehow supposed to be positive proof that she is anti-intellectual? Sorry, I just don't buy it, and I won't until someone shows me a REAL reason to do so.