Be Very Afraid

While I might have found, prior to the national conventions, reasonable arguments for and against electing either of the candidates now before us, the prospect of the blithely ignorant Pentecostalist “hockey mom” Sarah Palin succeeding Mr. McCain as President of the United States should he die in office is so appalling that, as I mentioned in a recent post, the GOP ticket almost certainly will not be getting my vote.

Now Sam Harris, writing in Newsweek, offers a long and pungent essay making the same point, and decrying the anti-elitism of all those “just plain folks” who see in Ms. Palin the chance for one of their own to get — if I may paraphrase Mencken — her thumb in the eye of their betters.

We read:

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 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.”

The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated.

Read the whole thing here.

Related content from Sphere

15 Comments

  1. Eric says

    Isn’t Sam implicitly arguing for an end to democracy and the institution of an explicit aristocracy?

    I mean, I’ve always believed that the East Coast elites thought of themselves as a class above, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen the mask slip and saw someone actually _assert_ their superiority.

    I suppose we need an Andrew Jackson every century or so to shake things up & remind the so-called elites that the United States is indeed a democracy, and not their personal fiefdom.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    If H. L. Mencken were alive today, he would be rolling around in his grave. Of course, referring to people as Boobus Americanus might get them a little steamed, which doesn’t help to win elections.

    I would love to meet the person who will vote for Sarah Palin “because she’s a Mom.” Like Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi is also a mother of five. Unlike Sarah Palin, she knows how the government works. Presumably the person who admires Palin for her mothering skills will be completely enamored of Pelosi. Or perhaps not.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Pete,

    Well, Nancy Pelosi is another matter altogether, and I’ll stay off that topic for now.

    It would certainly be enjoyable to have Mencken alive and writing here in 2008. It would be nice to have Russert back too, for that matter.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Eric, and thanks for dropping by.

    I don’t think Harris is advocating any constitutional revisions; he is simply making an appeal for voters to consider some badly neglected criteria when making their choice.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  5. But what, exactly, are the criteria required for a statesman? In a totally tedious and rambling effort over at my place I tried to list some of them but there were so many exceptions to my rules of thumb that in the end I more or less gave up. The fact is that there are no set rules to define who would or would not make a good president. One thinks of that Rhodes Scholar-trained poltroon, Bill Clinton, and then compares him with that bankrupt haberdasher, Harry Truman. Closer to (my) home, I also think of that old, died-in-the-wool trade unionist, Ernest Bevin, who had barely two years of formal education but who rose to become a minister in Churchill’s war-time coalition cabinet and then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs after the war and who was shrewd enough to see the Russian communist menace for what it was and who helped form NATO.

    I say again, there are no qualifications for the top job, you’ve either got it, or you ain’t; and you (and everyone else) only find out when your arse is in the presidential chair!.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  6. JK says

    Actually Eric,

    I once attended a class where we (students) were asked to rate our “top-ten” Presidents. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, ol’ Andy led the pack. I can say he headed the top of my list of six (I couldn’t think of four others I felt deserving to be on my list).

    But comparing Palin to Jackson is a bit of a reach. Jackson had a lifetime of experience not least of which consisted in his personally leading and directing large groups of people and in that leading came to a sort of education that leading the Alaskan National Guard simply does not come close to. That is unless General Palin did invade Saskatchawan which I admit I could have missed.

    Nowhere in Schlesinger’s book, “The Age of Jackson” do I recall reading that Andy arose before some Pentecostal congregation and made the case that he [Andy J.] was, in his scuffle with the Brits (apologies Mr. Duff) acting on behalf of God.

    But times were different somewhat, and it’s a good thing for Mr. Duff (as well as me-for I enjoy reading his “Nonsense”) had Andy had the codes for a nuclear arsenal, as well as the means of delivery: I doubt England would be capable of trying to point out to the American audience, the finer points of cricket.

    And really, if “a good shake-up” is all you require, just wait, our elected Government is about to rescue Wall Street.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  7. JK says

    Oh Peter?

    Were HL to be alive today, why would he be in his grave at all?

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    That’s a Sam Goldwyn blooper, I think, JK.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  9. “I doubt England would be capable of trying to point out to the American audience, the finer points of cricket.”

    Fat chance – we can’t even get you to understand the basics!

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    While it’s true that there doesn’t seem to be a strudy set of guidelines for determining who will turn out to be a good president, surely there are some criteria for making guesses about who might be a very bad one.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  11. the one eyed man says

    Actually, it’s a paraphrase of Gerald Ford (“If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave.”)

    However, it does sound like something Samuel Goldwyn would say — he famously said that “an oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    “If Roosevelt were alive today, he’d turn over in his grave.” -Samuel Goldwyn.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  13. the one eyed man says

    So Gerald Ford was channelling Samuel Goldwyn? Who knew?

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  14. JK says

    Well, I had in mind your recent piece on Mr. Stengal’s Congressional testimony.

    But I readily admit, here on Waka, I’m outta my league.

    Posted September 22, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  15. Eric says

    My apologies for the late reply.

    JK –
    I feel quite certain that Andrew Jackson, like Abraham Lincoln, and a host of Presidents before and since, prayed that he was doing the Lord’s work before any particularly difficult situation. Alas, I do not have an exact citation available, as I am at work, away from my books.

    Similarly, Mrs. Palin prayed that “our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God, that’s what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan”. Not _quite_ what the media (Charles Gibson, in particular) said she said.

    The primary point of my analogy is that the East Coast elites were _horrified_ at the concept of a Jacksonian presidency, and did everything they could, including spreading vile rumors, in order to prevent it. In much the same way, the East Coast elites today are spreading every vile rumor in order to prevent a Palin vice-presidency.

    Posted September 25, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Permalink