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Sarah Palin and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

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In his article on the Quitta from Wasilla, Todd Purdum asks, "What does it say about the nature of modern American politics that a public official who often seems proud of what she does not know is not only accepted but applauded?" Is the intrepid Vanity Fair reporter shocked, shocked, to find that book larnin' is an electoral liability in God's country? He must be familiar with Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which was published in 1964, the year of Sarah Palin's birth. Hofstadter, an esteemed history professor at Columbia University, began work on this groundbreaking study after the defeat of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee whose willingness to speak in complex, allusive sentences made him a darling of academia and the literati. Stevenson's reluctance to dumb down was interpreted by many as evidence of a vacillating, elitist character. This was nothing new. Hofstadter shows the divide between intelligence and intellect that has existed on these shores since the time of the Puritans. Intelligence is deemed essential to practical problem-solving; it "seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust...[it] will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it." Whereas intellect "is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind...[it] evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meaning of situations as a whole."

Like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin fears self-evaluation and contemplation. They both prefer to be ruled by their gut instincts. Of course, they're too arrogant and insecure to acknowledge when these instincts lead them astray. Palin also shares a dangerous sense of unearned entitlement with the former president. She believes she's destined for greatness. So did every other White House aspirant last year. But as we saw yesterday, she won't crack the books and do her homework. Rather than tutor herself on foreign and domestic issues, she has decided to rely henceforward on personality and platitudes. If you haven't already, read her resignation statement, a jaw-dropping aria that should be entitled "Palin Agonistes" or "The Passion of Sarah." She must have composed it herself. (Ye shall know them by their poor writing skills!) Others have critiqued her rambling incoherency, grating informality, and overuse of capitals and exclamation marks. But what stood out for me was the seemingly boundless capacity for deception and delusion. She's not taking "a quitter's way out." Nah, she'll do more for her state by abandoning it in the middle of a recession to raise money in the lower 48 to pay off her legal bills. And who inspired such selflessness? Why, our troops -- or "Troops," as she puts it. "They're bold, they don't give up, they take a stand and know that LIFE is short so they choose NOT to waste time." Honey, if our "Troops" borrowed a page from you, they'd be going AWOL en masse. The low point, however, was the poll she took of her five kids. This is what she claims to have asked them: "Want me to make a positive difference and fight for ALL our children's future from OUTSIDE the Governor's office?" For the moment, let's accept the unlikelihood that she posed such a fatuous, egregiously slanted question to her brood. How did they answer? "It was four 'yes's' and one 'hell yeah!' The 'hell yeah' sealed it -- and someday I'll talk about the details of that." No, she won't. We'll never hear of it again. Because she's lying or twisting the truth. How could a 15-month-old Down's baby comprehend that question? And what about Piper? She's eight. What's she supposed to say? "I don't want you making a positive difference and fighting for kids?" Okay, boys and girls, repeat after me: Mommy is a passive-aggressive monster.

But what else should we expect? For the past year, Andrew Sullivan has kept a running tally of Palin's numerous prevarications. Clearly the woman has a problem. But a reader of Sullivan's blog suggested that many Christian fundamentalists are untroubled by her cognitive dissonance because they live in a state of constant denial themselves, about evolution, homosexuality, torture, etc. And as Purdum observed, Palin's lack of intellect wins her praise from right-wing Republicans, who listen daily to the wisdom and profundity of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity. In fact, all this talk by Limbaugh and Co. of principles is one reason why Palin may have a shot at the nomination in 2012. Anybody can espouse principles; policies require brains. So when you hear them go on ad nauseum (I mean you, Sean, you've really got to see somebody about that ideological Turette's) about principles, it's because they have no substantive ideas to propose. But liberals and independents must not let down their guard. Palin's resignation does not mean she's out of the picture. John McCain's unforgivably reckless act of choosing her for a running mate gave her one-hundred-percent name recognition, an invaluable commodity in politics. We must remind the public why that name should never be preceded by any title other than governor.