Monday, October 6, 2008


I was wondering how to broach this subject of experience without a) being overly political or b) without rehashing things all of you have heard a million times in the last 6 months. I think it might help if I mention that Sarah Palin, although the impetus for this post, is not the only reason I'm writing this. As I am in the process of gaining deep specific knowledge for the first time in my life, and grappling with fears that I may never get into medical school, issues of knowledge, expertise, and training have become increasingly pertinent for me.

I'll just come out and say it: I am scared to death that someone as unapologetically average as Sarah Palin could possibly become our next president.

Sure, I've whined a lot in the past 8 years about George W. Bush not being as bright as some sixth-graders I've known, but at least he'd gone through the motions; he pretended that he was competant. Ms. Palin hasn't gone to college. More than that, she seems to demean the importance of intelligence and experience, relying on the innate goodness that supposedly comes from being normal.

For these last two weeks I have been going to a graduate-level Principles of Neuroscience class. During the course of the three-hour class, Dr. Singer seamlessly switches between complex physics concepts, math I've never seen, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology. Although I'm not expected to have as deep of mastery on all those subjects as he has, it's becoming clear to me that it is simply not possible to understand the human nervous system without having a pretty substantial chunk of other branches of science down pat.

I'll admit that it can be uncomfortable (read: humbling) to listen to Dr. Singer lecture. His brilliance adds a layer of seperation between himself and anyone who hasn't done the preparatory work to understand his lectures. It's not that he can't explain difficult concepts simply, it's that difficult concepts need to be understood within their natural context if they are going to be of any use; "Shia=good, Sunni=bad" might get you through a high-school history test if it's multiple choice, but would-be presidents require a slightly more nuanced understanding.

Palin has proven that she can be charismatic, but I worry deeply about her ability--in the same way that would worry about any other Joe six-pack--to understand the world in complex enough ways to lead our country.

I recognize that I am in no position to pass judgement. Ms. Palin has had a lot of success and some real-world experience in governance. Furthermore, she is probably much more intelligent than the Couric interview would lead us to believe; heaven knows that I stumbled over arguments all the time in debate.

I guess what finally gets me angry in the end is that I am struggling so hard to gain expertise, only to have the very concept mocked by national politics. Since when was being average a virtue? What self-respecting company would hire the most middling applicant they could, simply because they were unexceptional? Do you go to the most average mechanic you can find? The most average dentist? So for those of you Republicans out there (and I know that some of you read this blog), when you vote for McCain/Palin, please do so because you think they will be the best suited to run the country, not just because you can relate to them better.

Note: I stand corrected about Palin attending college. I misinterpreted her statement in her interview with Katie Couric in which she said: "I’m not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world.No, I’ve worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life until I had kids. I was not a part of, I guess, that culture. The way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world."
Thanks to Charles for pointing that out to me.


Petra said...

Precisely. If I got up in a class presentation and said, "Well, I haven't done any of the preparatory work, and I don't speak this language, but look how cute I am" and then winked, trust me, I would not ascend to the second highest office in the nation. Nor would I pass the class.

Where did I read the other day that anti-intellectualism is as American as violence and apple pie? Was that your gchat status?

Charles said...

I agree that being average is not enough.

It is ridiculous the way politicians ham up one single quality, ie McCain and his military experience or Obama and change/hope. It seems to be a fairly effective diversion tactic to cover up inadequacies.

As an FBI (full-blooded-Idahoan), I must correct your information on Palin's education. She graduated from The University of Idaho in Communications-Journalism. I'm not sure if that really adds anything to her credibility, though.

direfloyd said...

LOL, if you replace every "Palin" with Obama it still makes perfect sense... How a hate all polititions!

As one of those "R" people reading your blog my friend, don't worry, I've thought and I'm likely going to vote for either myself or GW again just so I can tell A2 I voted for GW again =)

ke said...

(Got a little carried away...wink.)
I haven't come to any conclusions yet, but some things I've been thinking about:
a) the apochryphal William F. Buckley quote, "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." (I found like 6 versions of this online). My ultra-conservative brother-in-law quoted this to me in context of a similar disussion. I don't know Buckley well enough to vouch for his credibility (he seems like the kind of figure some could dismiss offhand), and I'm not sure if he's arguing against intellectualism or liberal politics, but to me it seems to apply.
This is the thing: Intelligence, the acquisition of knowledge in general does allow us to appreciate the nuances of a situation, but is that heightened sensitivity always essential, or even desirable? Isn't there a point where understanding all sides of a thing more destructive/overwhelming than good?
b) Is it a politician's job (particularly one so high ranking as president) to represent the people and their wishes or to lead them to want something better? If the first, if we want someone who would do what we would do if we were in whichever situation I think that Palin might fit the bill. If not, then of course the criteria are different, but also we may be in danger of both condescension and alienation. I don't think that people (individually) are as dumb as they (collectively) like to pretend. I think it's very likely that the founders were condescending and didn't mind a bit.
c) What makes a good president anyway? Is raw intelligence the key? Should we compare LSAT scores? Is it decision making skills, and how do we gauge that? I heard a commentator on NPR suggest that administrative skills (such as how effectively a person runs a staff meeting) is a good indicator. I'm not sure.
d) I think you and I have discussed this and agreed to disagree (maybe. I still think I'm right): I don't know if average is a condemnation. I don't think we should shoot for average (and part of me melts and twitters in the presence of excellence/perfection), but is it a fault? Grounds for condemnation?

Moral of the story: good question friend. I'm not sure.

John said...

I mainly find it irritating that McCain, for political reasons, chose Palin over the large number of more qualified Republicans available. I miss the old McCain that I really, really wanted to vote for in 2000. Now that he's 10 points behind Obama in some polls and has resorted to associating his opponent with terrorists in his attack ads (while apparently not being willing to do so personally), his VP choice looks even more like a desperate stunt to keep his campaign afloat. Boo, BOO I say!

I've got nothing against Palin's lack of education or her spunky unwillingness to answer debate questions per se, but I do not want her to be president. Ever. I'm sure she's perfectly intelligent, despite the way her awkward interviews make her seem, but I don't think she has the intellectual disposition (as separate from knowledge, experience, and education) to potentially take over for McCain if he were to kick the bucket or be incapacitated (God forbid).

Carl said...

I think you're right about her, but I've got other reason. I think experience isn't necessary, and I'd take someone with character over someone who relies solely on their intelligence (aka an arrogant intellect). In sports, I've heard the argument luck over skill and tend to agree the best players are more lucky than skillful, even though some skill is required.

I don't like Palin at all, mostly because I think she'll get walked all over in Washington and accomplish nothing. Just like the McCain campaign has walked all over her. oh yeah, and her stance on most things.

I like Obama not for lack of experience, but for his ability to organize and motivate. I've never seen such a well run campaign.

Love the blog. Good to hear from you.