Friday, September 19, 2008

US Presidential Contenders:Being an Intellectual or Being Stupid

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Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument is an exchange of ignorance” - Robert Quillen, Humorist & Journalist, 1887-1948

The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”- Albert Camus, 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”- Socrates, Ancient Greek Philosopher, 470-399 BCE


Why wouldn't we want an intellectual to be our president?
April 19, 2008

Years ago, at a dinner party on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I found myself in a shouting match about whether it was fair to make fun of intellectuals. The person with whom I was arguing, herself the daughter of prominent scholars, said she was offended by the work of Woody Allen because of his mocking portrayal of educated, urban elites.

Such derisiveness, she claimed, would never be tolerated if it were aimed at racial minorities, or poor people, or even plain old intelligent people who didn't stammer and flail their hands around quite so much when they talked. As a proud intellectual (and this is where the shouting began, not to mention some hand flailing), she was offended on behalf of herself and the entire community.

At the time, I was 25 and strenuously devoted to the cause of making my life resemble that of a Woody Allen character. (This was before he moved them to the Upper East Side.) Still, I couldn't see my dinner companion's grievance as anything but unintentional self-parody. Intellectuals, I argued, were made for poking fun at. Even I, a clueless suburban refugee who dreamed of rent-controlled apartments filled with house plants and volumes of Goethe, could see that.

never thought I'd say this, but I'm beginning to think she might have had a point. As dumb as things were back then, it's fair to suggest today's culture is even dumber. Granted, the police aren't raiding highbrow cultural events and arresting anyone who uses a three-syllable word, but something uncannily similar is playing out, minute by minute, on television and the Internet. With political discourse reduced to screaming contests and actual news eclipsed by exclusive and shocking footage of celebrities without makeup, we've become not only impatient with but downright opposed to the kinds of ideas that can't be reduced to a line on a screen crawl or a two-sentence blog entry.

What's more, a lot of people who harbor an intolerance for complexity see it not as a character flaw but a cognitive virtue. That's because they've fallen into the trap of believing that complicated ideas ("complicated" now constituting anything that requires reading, watching or listening to in its entirety) are the purview of the "elite."

The effect of that trap has been on a continuous loop in recent days, following Barack Obama's ill-chosen remarks about bitter rural Americans clinging to guns and religion. The takeaway, of course, is that this sentiment proves once and for all that Obama is an elitist fatally out of touch with the average American. But in deference to my onetime dinner companion, let me ask this: Is he vulnerable to the out-of-touch charge because he is an elitist, or because he is usually (even if not in this case) comfortable with and in command of nuanced ideas? Is he bashable because he's a snob or because he's an intellectual?

Given that "intellectual" is now far too open to interpretation to mean much (William F. Buckley was considered an intellectual, but these days so is anyone who wears those hipster-nerd glasses), I'm tempted to leave that question to the old master, Woody Allen (though, let's be honest, he traded intellectuals for boring rich people a while ago). But even if Obama is not an intellectual in the classic sense, there's no doubt that he's absorbed the trappings of erudite rhetoric. He offers up ideas that don't lend themselves to sound bites but require some sustained attention. And according to the media and the political spin machine, that's proof he's snobby and out of touch.

U.S. candidates for president can't seem to get elected unless they convince voters how ordinary they are (George W. Bush's oratory struggles actually endear him to some people). But as long as we're wringing our hands over how "just folks" these folks are, let's look at what really separates them from the rest of us: money.

The Obamas' tax returns, released this week, showed a 2006 income (they filed an extension for 2007) of more than $4.2 million, most of which came from book royalties. Bill and Hillary Clinton showed a combined income of more than $20 million last year. John McCain's 2007 tax return reflected an income of only around $400,000, but not to worry, his wife is worth about $100 million. As for Bush, the figure is about $20 million.

Yes, Obama's richer than most ordinary people, but in that pantheon, he's the guy most likely to know how much a can of tuna costs. As for his branding as an elite or an intellectual, why the jeers? Shouldn't they all fit that bill? "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart summed it up best: "Not only do I want an elite president," he said this week, "I want someone who is embarrassingly superior to me." As someone who still hasn't read Goethe amid all those celebrity makeover stories, I couldn't agree more.


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