American Culture

Since when are education and eloquence liabilities in a president?

Isn’t it ludicrous even to ask such a question? Apparently not, in the presidential race of 2008.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks absorbing and reflecting on the drama of the conventions. I got so whupped up alongside the head with the Palin pick, followed by incredulity at the delirious embrace by her party, that I’m only just now managing to mobilize some reactions. One of the strongest is that I don’t want – and we don’t need – “just a regular Joe – or Jane” – at the helm of this nation, whether as president or vice president.

Palin has been touted as a hockey mom normal folks can relate to, a small-town gal who somehow exudes virtue merely because of those roots, an NRA-backing good ol’ girl who can fish and hunt and dress her game alongside the boys – yet isn’t afraid to keep the boys in line in her state when they misbehave. Rah-rah, Sarah Barracuda.

Many of the contrasts drawn in the media barrage of late have been, interestingly, between Palin and Obama, not Palin and Biden. Perhaps it’s their similar age, and that each has been accused of an experience deficit. Obama’s detractors have further tried to frame him as a self-serving, offensively ambitious, liberal elitist, “out of touch” with regular folk like residents of Wasilla, Alaska — ergo, unfit to be president. (Oops – arrogant and presumptuous of me to resort to Latin; sorry.)

Apparently it’s a problem when a presidential candidate has an Ivy League education. Heaven forbid we’d want to put in office someone with a political science bachelor’s degree from Columbia with a specialization in international affairs, who then went on to Harvard Law School and became the first African-American to edit the Harvard Law Review. As good populists we are not going to make a distinction between Harvard and the University of Idaho.

Nor are we going to suggest that there is any difference in the value or quality of post-graduate experience in which one individual went on to a fellowship at the University of Chicago Law School while the other became a sports broadcaster for a local Anchorage TV station.

Obama, who chose to waste his time in community activism, directed the Illinois Project Vote from April to October 1992, a voter registration drive that marshaled 700 volunteers to achieve its goal of registering 150,000 of 400,000 unregistered African Americans in the state, leading Crain’s Chicago Business to name Obama to its 1993 list of “Forty under 40” powers to be. After being appointed as a Lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama joined a small law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development. From there to the Illinois state senate, then to Washington where he held assignments on the Senate Committees for Veterans’ Affairs and Homeland Security, and served as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on European Affairs. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he made official trips to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

Ms. Palin got her first passport in 2007.

How dare someone suggest that there are different degrees of “inexperience”?

(Footnote: thanks to a Sept. 3 Xtreme English blog post called “Experience? Let’s Compare,” for some of these details.)

There’s been a lot of banter, too, about Obama’s “pretty language” and smooth rhetoric, suggesting that it’s all just a lot of words, a showy veneer. However, rhetoric – the ability to use language effectively, the art of persuasive oratory — has held a venerable place in classical education. Originating in ancient Greece, it was also taught in the Roman Empire and as one of the three subjects of the trivium, or liberal arts, during the Middle Ages, alongside logic and grammar. To communicate well persuasively – to order one’s thoughts, to select and support powerful arguments, and to make a case through potent, moving prose, is – take it from a college professor in 2008 – a rare and dying art. Far from being verbal fluff, effective oration reflects effective thinking.

A president who can think: a no-brainer? Maybe not. I’ve heard Obama criticized because he is not black and white enough on some issues, particularly those involving moral dilemmas. The fact that Obama recognizes and grapples with complexity is, for some, a weak spot, rather than a hallmark of a sharp intellect. Better that we have a president who can make pat, simple judgments and act forcibly on them, than wrestle with the layers and oppositions and challenges to reason presented by dilemmas like how to help Israelis and Palestinians live together, or how best to reduce the number of abortions in America, or whether or not “clean coal” can ever really be clean when hundreds of square miles of Appalachian mountaintops have been blasted away to get at it.

John McCain said in his acceptance speech that access to education is the new civil rights movement in America. He was applauded for that statement by his supporters on the convention floor. Yet these are the same voices who deride an African-American candidate’s “elite” education, who suggest that Obama is ill-suited to serve as president precisely because of such an academic pedigree.

Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “What struck me … is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception – generally based on no evidence whatsoever – that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.”

What irony. The party of labor, the party of the downtrodden, the party of the peripheral, the party of the people? Hasn’t something gotten twisted around here?

I’m a Democrat, from a long line of FDR-style Democrats, and I’d say I’m one of those regular people. My grandfather was a miner, who later with my grandmother moved to Seattle to help build airplanes during WWII. My other grandmother raised three girls on her own and walked each day – they had no car – to her job as a department store clerk in a small town. My father was a suburban P.E. teacher, my mother a dental assistant, and I worked as a grocery checker at Safeway in blue-collar Everett, Washington, to put myself through college. That’s pretty ‘regular.’

But I also value education and opening myself up to the wider world. I have a master’s degree in journalism and a Ph.D. in media studies. I have been to 46 countries and all 50 states, some of that travel through jobs, the rest financed by work and not sheer privilege. (In fact, I worked in Alaska for nine summers, and I know well the insularity and renegade personality of the state’s culture – and I’m not sure it’s an asset for bipartisan effectiveness in Washington, D.C.).

My education has taught me we are on the back side of the earth’s oil reserves. It’s taught me that simple physics says we are heating our atmosphere through record levels of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve learned, through understanding science, that “Drill, baby, drill!” will only hurt us in the bigger scheme of things. I’ve learned that ecosystems matter, and it’s not in our self-interest to be cavalier about endangered species in order to suit our immediate political interests. My education has taught me how to do research, to find and critique data, to know, through an analysis of evidence, that trickle-down economics do not work. And that lasting democracy in Iraq or central Asia is a highly unlikely scenario, given millennia of tribal enmity and authoritarian regimes. My study of history, geography and culture suggests to me that if we vow to stay in Iraq till we achieve “victory,” we may never get out.

At every angle, Barack Obama seems to me a man who is fit to lead the most influential country in the world, in large part because he has the educational and cultural capital to do so. They are not sufficient alone – but they are essential. While my own academic credentials are nowhere close to Obama’s, I am absolutely certain that I am more capable – as a citizen, as a leader, and as a professional – by virtue of my education. To call me an elitist because I’m well educated is, well, just plain ignorant.

My concern is not whether a candidate ‘looks like me’ or has my background, or owns just a single house – but can the candidate understand and relate to and work for me, and my interests? A president needs to represent regular folks – but to best do so, he or she had best be a cut above in competence.

44 replies »

  1. Excellent post, Ms. Redal, thank you.

    I will quibble, slightly, with this: The party of labor, the party of the downtrodden, the party of the peripheral, the party of the people? Hasn’t something gotten twisted around here? I’m not sure that the Democratic Party can lay claim to this any longer. That is a shame, because it leaves those (me) people without any political champion.

    While i’m educated and fairly well traveled myself, i’ve mostly chosen work wherein the collar color is blue…or brown from dirt and sweat. I like seeing a tangible, finished product, and i need the exercise/fresh air (not so much the tendinitis). Consequently, i’ve known a lot of “regular Joes/Janes”. I’ve also found a great deal of commonsense (expected) and wisdom (somewhat unexpected) among these people.

    What irks me about the Republican brand narrative is that these people (Bush, Palin, etc.) are not really regular Joes and Janes at all. Being a C student at Yale is not being regular…it’s being a dumbfuck with connections.

    I would think about voting for an actual, regular Joe. I will never vote for someone who is simply a failure that paints himself as a regular Joe because that’s all that they have left. Likewise, i won’t vote for someone who got into Annapolis through family connections and would probably have flunked out without those same family connections, and then went on to never work an honest day’s labor in his life.

    I am amazed at the ability of the Republican marketing machine to brand these people as “regular”…though i’m undecided on whether this is a product of Republican prowess or American gullibility. It may well be the latter because it would seem logical that most would want their President to be smarter, not dumber, than us.

    In short, the lowest common denominator has become the highest pinnacle of achievement…nothing bodes more ill for the future of our nation.

  2. “it would seem logical that most would want their President to be smarter, not dumber, than us.”

    You would think so, wouldn’t you? But if that were truly the case, I’m not sure that the anti-elite, faux-regular-Joe message of the Republicans would sell at all. Which is stronger, I wonder – the rational desire for competent leadership or the visceral jealousy of those who somehow have “more?”

  3. Well, Wendy, I’d put the roots for this tendency among Americans at around 1607, so here’s a LOOOOONNNNGGGG answer to the question in your title. That year, 1607, was the year that the Jamestown Colony — essentially a mining colony for a large corporation — was established in Virginia. The colony was peopled with a few artisans, but fully half were gentlemen which, in that day and place, generally meant barely lettered, indolent, non-first-born sons who could not be seen to be doing manual labor without losing their place in society. Daddy bought them a share in the Virginia Company, which was supposed to make them rich. Almost all of them died and took the artisans along with them.

    Eventually, the Virginia Company figured it out and started sending people who actually had a few survival skills, and at the very least, could wield an axe, farm, fish, and produce exports that never quite made the company profitable, so it went under before soaring tobacco usage in England could save it. Desperate for manpower, the Virginia Colony imported anyone it could to clear land and work the fields. Some of these were slaves, but slaves were expensive. Many were deported criminals, which set the model for the future of Australia. Most were indentured servants.

    Needless to say, almost no one in this crowd could read. But a few other new arrivals could. Once Virginia became a bit less deadly in the mid-17th century, landed English aristocrats began to arrive, and since they were self-selected, they had both energy and education. They built large plantations, accumulated a great deal of wealth (none of which they passed on to me, BTW), and imported even larger numbers of unlettered folks to fill the insatiable demand for labor.

    Eventually, there were those who did things, and those who lounged around the big house discussing the latest French philosophers. Those who did things quite naturally began to think themselves the important ones, even though they didn’t have the money and education. And then the Scots-Irish started to come in waves, and they not only had no education but hated the English with a passion, and equated education with classist oppression. Many of them hated the very idea of education. This group expanded westwards, defying the British edict to stay east of the Appalachian Mountains, and made their livings by harvesting the wealth gyring and gimboling all around them.

    As the British Empire expanded, some of its influence could be felt in America. In England, education became a means of recognizing those from one’s own class. A casual quote from Cicero, a vocal inflection betraying one’s attendance at an elite school, etc. became a ticket to wealth for those possessing a fine education and a barrier to those who did not. This influence was felt most heavily in New England, where most immigration had been driven by the English Civil War and its aftermath, so that most immigrants were of yeoman stock, had paid their own way over, and still had strong ties to England. Since the immigrants were largely breakaway Protestants of one sort or another, and since literacy was a prerequisite to reading the Bible and becoming a good Protestant, education was highly valued there.

    I believe that the American Civil War wasn’t just about slavery and economic tension, but was largely a product of ancient antagonisms between the illiterate descendants of unlettered Scots-Irish immigrants in the South and the educated descendants of English stock dominating the North. There’s a reason that a stunningly disproportionate number of the country’s most selective and prestigious schools are found in New England and the mid-Atlantic states to this day, and there’s a reason why where one goes to college counts for much on the prestige meter in those states and for practically nothing in most of the states where one made one’s living based on muscle instead of brain power.

    For instance, once the cotton gin was invented, it wasn’t hard to become rich in the Deep South. Capital to acquire slaves and grow cotton was easy to come by. It took energy and ambition and hard work. Brains weren’t required, and were substantially undervalued. And those who didn’t have energy and ambition in the Deep South became “poor white trash,” unable to find work because they couldn’t compete with slaves, and unable even to sell food grown on their land to the plantations because of abysmal roads and a riverine transportation system that made it cheaper to ship in grain from the more productive northern states than to buy local foodstuffs.

    I also believe that it’s no accident that the North developed industry, foreign trade for finished goods, the mechanisms of finance, and the like. Education produces wealth made by one’s wits. When the Civil War broke out, only Virginia, the state where the wealthy Southern families sent their children to finishing schools and one or two actual schools, had any industry to speak of, and that was anemic compared to its Northern brethren.

    Waves of immigration in the 19th century brought in millions of people who were fully or functionally illiterate. They were badly exploited and, naturally, they also equated education with their own exploitation. And it was around this time that the uneducated, self-made-man legend was born.

    The really great thing about the late 19th century was that the US economy was expanding so swiftly and western expansion was going so well, that one could get rich in any number of ways that required little or no education. You could discover gold, build a herd of cows and drive it to market at new railheads in places like Dodge City and Ogallala, dig in the Rockies for silver, lead, molybdenum, and even potash, and get it to market on the rails, cut down first-growth trees and ship them to sawmills and builders back east, and dig in the ground for oil to lubricate all the new machines. You had to pick up some seat-of-the-pants engineering skills to do some of these things. You often had to be smart, but you didn’t have to be educated.

    So, many, many Americans now had their deep-seated antipathy towards educational achievement bolstered by an observation that formal education was nearly useless for producing personal wealth, and was probably just a way for the educated class to exclude the non-educated class from the best clubs. And wealth itself became the common measure of success. It was wealth that mattered, and not know-how. For a while, Americans were very concerned that wealth be generated by one’s own efforts instead of by birth, and I think it’s still largely that way and that there’s a strong populist strain in this country, but many disagree with me.

    Of course, the days when the poorly educated carved out empires from resources growing on or buried under the ground is nearly over. It’s not impossible to build a business empire while knowing little or nothing about business. I’ve met at least one man who’s done just that. But it has become an increasingly rare thing. The myth, though, that education is of little value lives on with us in words and phrases such as “egghead,” “overeducated,” “pointy-headed,” “wonk,” “nerd,” “geek,” “he has lots of book learning but no common sense,” etc. And if one looks at the electoral map, one finds that the states with the best educational systems tend to vote for educated candidates, and vice versa. And not much has changed about that. The northern and mid-Atlantic states still value education and well-educated candidates. The old Confederacy (minus certain elements in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) would rather not be bothered with them. The wheat farming and mining states vote with the Old Confederacy. The states on the West Coast, which have developed high-tech industry and foreign trade ties with the East, vote with New England. The Midwestern states fluctuate, with the blue-collar and heavily agricultural states more likely to vote with the South than the white- and gold-collar, high-tech and industrial states (perhaps with Iowa as an exception).

    US cultural norms are throwbacks to the days when vast natural resources and explosive population growth provided the raw materials for accumulating great wealth. Those days are largely gone, replaced by a society in which education is the key to building wealth. Unfortunately, norms of thought and behavior have not caught up with realities. Americans still distrust the well-educated, and often still feel, in their heart of hearts, that education is vastly overrated.

    That’s why, I think, it’s still considered a bad thing by many Americans to be well-educated, accomplished, well-spoken, or show any of the other trappings of intelligence and intellectual achievement.

  4. Whoa, that was a freakin’ dissertation, J.S.! On the original post, seriously, amen. What totally chaps me is that the people who promote themselves as “regular folks” like Bush and McCain are from incredibly privileged backgrounds and have built most of their success on the connections and financial resources those make possible, but because they take pride in not being very bright or eloquent, they are “regular guys.” Palin, at least, does genuinely seem to be from a modest background, and is at least as bright as either of those boys (not that that’s saying much).

    Although I know they made a lot of the same attacks on John Kerry as a “liberal elitist,” I do think the attacks on Obama as “elitist” are ultimately pretty racist–as the whole “uppity” melodrama makes pretty clear. A classic double bind–a black man as evidently stupid and inarticulate and with as much dirt in his background as either Bush or McCain would have been ripped to shreds long before he made it anywhere near the Senate, let alone the presidential nomination. Even a brilliant black man who performed “folksiness” (like Bill Clinton) would get flack because the kind of folksiness the American electorate goes for is WHITE folksiness. But having done virtually everything possible to prove himself capable, responsible, respectable, and highly qualified, Obama is therefore seen as a humorless elitist who must not care about regular people, despite all evidence of his actual efforts on behalf of regular people. (NB: if John McCain is taken as an example of “humor”, what with the rape jokes and insulting his own wife and 12 year old girls, I’m fine with humorless.)

  5. I’ve thought of producing a yard sign or bumper sticker that reads “Please – let’s try the smart one this time!” To me, the entire difference between McCain and Obama was summed up by their responses to Rick Warren’s most inane question during the Saddleback TV event. Warren asked did the candidate believe in evil, and was the best way to deal with evil to appease it, negotiate with it, or defeat it. McCain answered “DEFEAT IT” in a stern, aggressive tone, repeating his answer. Obama also answered that evil must be defeated, of course, but he added that great care must be taken not to commit evil or add to the chaos in the response to evil. That is the contrast between the parties. Republicans have a black and white world view (with no blacks in it). Dems see the grays between the spectral ends. The world is full of grays, and we need a president who understands this.

  6. that lasting democracy in Iraq or central Asia is a highly unlikely scenario, given millennia of tribal enmity and authoritarian regimes.

    Um, that’s a rather ignorant and elitest statement. Are you saying Iraqis and central Asians are unable to embrace democracy because of your Orientalist concepts of Arab tribalism, or because Western nations insist on propping up authoritarian regimes in that part of the world to secure their natural resources for our own use?

    Do you see a problem with the above?

  7. Abraham:

    Why must you mistake realism for “ignorance and elitism”? It would be realism to state something like, “it is unlikely that the neolithic tribes of the Amazon rainforest cam staff, manage, fund, and sustain a biotech research lab should we locate one there,” wouldn’t it? It’s not that they’re stupid. In fact, I suspect it takes a helluva lot more smarts to survive in their environment than it does in ours. It’s that they’re not technologically nor culturally ready, yet, for that particular facility.

    There is nothing — absolutely nothing — I can find in any anthropological or sociological study that suggests that all cutures, encompassing all cultural behavioral norms, can build and maintain a society with widespread suffrage. Have you read such a study?

  8. Perhaps we are being vainly arrogant to think that the rest of the world should have “democracy”…whether they want it or not. And if we mean “pretty much just like America” when we say “democracy”, then we are certainly being vainly arrogant.

    The people of Central Asia, the Middle East, etc. have had functioning societies for quite some time. In most cases, longer than here in God’s country. Maybe we should let them make their own way as they see fit…so long as it doesn’t include invading your neighbors or perceived enemies. (that, of course, would mean that we didn’t go around doing exactly what we tell others that they may not do)

  9. Lex:

    That all sounds really good, until you see the refugees and orphans, the dead the maimed and wounded, that come from letting them “make their own way.” Some places in the world are hellholes that affect the rest of the world. Afghanistan is one of those places. When Afghanistan is broken, it screws up a lot of the rest of the world through opium and the Taliban’s sheltering and supplying guerrillas who would attack the US and others. Should we have let the Balkans make their own way, and let the Serbs “ethnically cleanse” their way to even more mass graves?

    It’s not always so easy.

  10. Whatever O’Brien. It’s ignorant and elitest people like you that fuck up these countries in the first place with your White Man’s Burden syndrome. There’s a name for people with your ideology: it’s called NEOCONSERVATISM.

  11. I was going to join JS in an attempt at a thoughtful response to Abraham, something along the lines of “of course Iraqis — and any people — are CAPABLE of embracing democracy, but the historical record would seem to mitigate against efforts to do so given centuries of other forms of more authoritarian government.” My point was that what U.S. war-backers such as McCain deem a “victory” — the institution of stable, working democracy in Iraq — is likely to be a long time in coming. But when a debate descends to profanity and invectives, I will abstain from any further participation. By the way, how do you know J.S. O’Brien is a white man?

  12. Thank you Wendy, but I will freely admit to being a white man. But, for those of you who know me, whaddaya think about my being a NEOCONSERVATIVE?

    Abraham, nothing I could possibly say could get through to you. Unfortunately, both the right and the left have too many people who get some sort of bizarre concept in their heads about how the world works, and then are entirely unable to adjust based on how the world really is. I tend to lean left because I think the progressives are right more often than the conservatives. But that hardly means they’re always right, and the ones on the far left (and far right) are almost never correct.

  13. Ah, the dismissive “whatever”… always an invitation to further thoughtful debate.

    In the interest of full disclosure, however, JS is a WHITE MAN and I’ve seen him wearing a TIE and a SPORTCOAT. Whether that makes him a NEOCONSERVATIVE I couldn’t say.

  14. Abraham: As the exec editor, let me serve notice. If you have something productive to contribute, please do so. If all you have is uninformed, vitriolic name-calling, move along. We hold ourselves to a fairly high standard at S&R and we expect the same of our commenters.


    Also, “neoconservatism” is a word with an actual, known meaning. If you’re going to try and tag someone with it, you should first acquaint yourself with that definition and then make sure you have at least a vague grasp of the positions the person you’re insulting has actually taken on related issues.

    Otherwise, you wind up looking pretty silly.

  15. J.S. O’Brien
    Thank you for that interesting post. What a rush to put my baby down, and with a brief hour to hopefully find something stimulating to read, come across THIS website for the first time, and read Wendy Redal’s excellent post and then yours. As for Ms. Redal, I come from a family that is split among “elitists” and “regular Joe’s”. You’ve expressed well what I have been personally experiencing, thinking and frustrated by for years. JS O’Brien, Abraham is a flame-thrower. He wants to roil you and he wants a response. Nothing you can say will satisfy him.

  16. I finally had time to read JS’ compelling cultural, geographic and political analysis of Americans’ ambivalence toward education (yet their near unanimous valuation of wealth) and am pretty wowed — are you sure you aren’t also a history teacher along with all that management consulting?

    Ironically, much of my heritage is Scots-Irish. Guess when they move far enough west and my bloodline was diluted enough by other Euro influences (including English and those damned philosophical French), I absorbed a different view on education. I guess I am a schizophrenic, or a hybrid of sorts, still: I am politically progressive, yet I gravitate to Arnold and Eliot. I hate the classist use of education to draw barriers and promote privilege, yet I still believe, ideally, in education as a tide that can raise all boats. Rather than take the crudely populist view that education is not important (unless it has some instrumental effect in achieving more wealth), I believe that all people should have greater access to the benefits of education, and not just for purposive ends. Rather than think we should settle for the least common denominator, whether in school curricula or candidates, I’d like to see us do more to promote a so-called ‘elite education’ for all. But I guess if we can get rich or powerful without, then what’s the point, huh? That seems to be the position that an awful lot of Americans take. I’m getting more depressed today by the minute (just read the latest polls on the Republican ‘bounce.’)

    Before I sign off here, I’ll include an anecdote that supports some of your observations. I got a reply this morning to an e-mail I sent in which I took issue with a conservative “joke” making the Internet rounds that I felt was demeaning to poor people who were being accused of sponging off the government while Democrats were happy to subsidize their laziness and irresponsibility. My uncle, whom I’ve always had a warm relationship with despite our political differences, addressed me as “Dr. Redal” in his rejoinder. I’ve never been one for titles; I find them pretentious, and anyone who knows me knows I hate pretension (goes with my ‘regular’ roots). Calling me that in this circumstance had a barb to it: it seemed to suggest somehow that because I have a few extra letters after my name, I put myself on a pedestal or something — or maybe it just reveals some latent discomfort with my efforts to craft a serious argument against the joke’s intent. At any rate, the education element was part of the conversation, even though I never intended it to be so, and I respect my uncle’s intelligence greatly.

  17. I think a lot of it is if you’re educated, you tend to have facts and figures on your side. You tend to have a bigger picture in mind when forming your policies. When you start talking with someone that’s not educated, they get lots of questions brought up that they never thought about (education helps with critical thinking skills, right?). This means you’re questioning their core beliefs, in a lot of cases. Asking questions is bad because it makes you think, not feel. A lot of people I’ve met “feel strongly” about things, but often can’t “explain why”.

    Basic psychology says that if someone tells you you’re wrong, you’ll be offended or hurt or slighted. That’s the Ego, right? People have to learn that you can be wrong and still be a good person. You can “change your mind” and that doesn’t diminish who you are when you end up with a new view. Replacing bad information with good information is a mechanic of learning, but some people don’t see it that way. They never learned how to accept criticism and so your telling them that they are “wrong” (supported by your facts and figures and education) elicits another knee jerk reaction. It becomes a vicious cycle pretty fast.

    With so many people in America who are Dysfunctional, it seems to be the underlying cause, to me. Raising kids to understand that they don’t need to get defensive when they do something wrong, to accept that they did something wrong and suck up that sting to the Ego and learn instead of react.. I think that would go a long way toward removing the bias toward education we see today. At least, that’s what I’m trying to teach my daughter when I explain “why” what she did wasn’t acceptable. I’m not belaboring the issue, I’m trying to educate her (like a 16 year old kid wants to be educated).

    Nice catch-22. Educate people as to why education is a better way to handle life when simply trying to explain it comes across as “looking down your nose”.

    Knowing “why” doesn’t seem to offer a ready solution. The only thing I can think of is to incorporate some basic psychology and understanding of the Ego early on in High School (or maybe sooner?). Try to let kids know that being wrong isn’t the end of the world, it’s just an opportunity for growth. If kids don’t have that before they get in their late teens, I don’t know how you get that idea to sink in. Once they grow up enough to “have all the answers”, you can’t tell them it’s ok to be wrong because just that act is telling them their wrong for thinking they have to be right all the time.

    I’m getting dizzy.. /sigh

  18. A president needs to represent regular folks – but to best do so, he or she had best be a cut above in competence.

    Exactly! I am utterly mystified by the notion that Sarah Palin’s record demonstrates she is fit for either the presidency or the vice presidency!

  19. Azadeh,

    I’m so glad you found us! I think I speak for all the scrogues when I say we’re glad you’re here, we hope you’ll visit often (when not trying to grab some sleep new parents so desperately need), and contribute.

  20. The premise of the article is false. The alleged buffoons that keep getting elected, and those who promote them on teevee, are neither uneducated nor ignorant. They are sophisticated enough to be able to pretend to be idiots when needed. This should tell you that being more capable does not mean being a “better” leader.

    Think you are smarter? Try getting elected the next time around. If you feel that could only be feasible if everyone were to turn into a deep thinker, well then your leadership would be redundant anyway would it not?

    In the meantime, let’s get back to calling everyone “uninformed”.

  21. Great read Wendy.

    Workin’ Joe

    “Please – let’s try the smart one this time!”
    You make that t-shirt I’ll buy it.


    “Whatever O’Brien”
    What’s next the “so’s your face defense”?

  22. Are you folks done administering congratulatory masturbation to each other? Really? Good, then try to pay attention and understand the point I’m making rather than relying on your own self-righteousness to win your argument.

    Whether Iraq can or cannot become a lasting democracy (it can) is besides the point. What you said can and has been said about any group all around the world by racists and bigots who, for lack of a cogent argument, will simply resort to making silly blanket statements about a people or region or culture that is based wholly on ignorance and their own (apparently unrealized) prejudices.

    A Democracy forming in Iraq NOW and in this current situation is impossible because of the way the US government has attempted to impose one. The same can be said of any country onto which Democracy is forced. Iraq and the Iraqi people are fully capable of adopting Democracy for themselves. I don’t imagine we disagree on this. But that’s not what you said. You said:

    …lasting democracy in Iraq or central Asia is a highly unlikely scenario, given millennia of tribal enmity and authoritarian regimes.

    Could you please tell us what you mean by “millennia of tribal enmity and authoritarian regimes”? Can you elucidate on your qualifications for making such a statement? Are you implying that Saddam or men like him ruled Iraq for “millennia”? On what historical facts do you base this statement?

    Your statement is ridiculous on the face of it. It’s the result of intellectual laziness; someone simply trying to fill copy for a blog posting. You are trying to make political points at the expense of Iraqis who are stuck in this mess that your tax dollars paid for, and that the governments YOU voted into power over the past several decades made.

    You think George W. Bush started this fiasco? Oh sure, he FUBAR’d it but good, but do you remember that it was the Clinton admin that imposed the sanctions and bombed Iraq every week for nearly his entire 8 year term in office? Do you remember that it was George H.W. Bush who invaded Iraq? Do you remember Reagan sending Rumsfeld to shake Saddam’s hand and give him all the chemical weapons he could lob at Iranians and Kurds?

    What history do you claim to have studied here? You know nothing of these people and their region other than what you need to make a larger partisan attack at their expense.

    Then we get some joker trying to conflate this argument to that of teaching biotech to rainforest inhabitants, who then follows up with his masterpiece in comment #11 whereby he exhibits beautifully the White Man’s Burden syndrome I previously mentioned. Ostensibly, letting these brown people “make their own way” results in refugees and orphans. No, there is never any catalyst for this, it all happens in a vacuum in which only brown people exist. And THEIR wars always affect us. It’s never OUR wars that affect them. It’s OK when we warmonger and create refugees and orphans, but when those browns do it they only confirm what we already know, that they are barbarians and are incapable of governing themselves and they need US to show them the path to enlightenment, notwithstanding the fact that most of the strife of the 20th and now 21st century was initiated by Western powers.

    Now that you have no room to complain about “naughty” language, please reply.

    P.S. The reason I labeled you a “neoconservative” is because you use the same language as they do, whether you’re aware of this or not. We can argue over this after you’ve provided a response to the above.

  23. Abraham, I’m aware of the long-standing and highly insulting connotations of the word “tribalism,” particularly in the context of European and American cultural imperialism. I understand why it triggers such a strong response, as well it should.

    But are you aware that “tribalism” can also refer to a field of anthropological and ethnographic study which suggests that tribal living is probably hard-wired into primate brains, is not a “primitive” social construct but a natural one, and that this preference for life in small groups is a universal human characteristic, not limited to any race or region? “Tribalism” isn’t the best name for these studies – for one thing, it’s got that awful prior meaning – but it seems to be the generally accepted term in popular media. In this sense, it’s simply a descriptor of what may well be the original and most natural state of human social organization. It is not meant as a pejorative, nor does it imply that a democracy is an inherently superior or more “advanced” society.

    I can’t speak for JS or for you, but I have a feeling that there are two conflicting usages of a very complex term going on here.

  24. Avram:

    I don’t know who it is you want to reply. You seem to be talking to one person, but quoting more than one.

    Still, I’ll try to explain to you why most people on this blog will probably ignore you.

    1. You cannot come here expecting to obtain a free history, anthropology, and sociology lesson from one of us without providing some expertise of your own. The way this works is that you cite specific evidence in refutation, then someone else comes back in rebuttal — or agrees with you. You appear to want us to do all the work. Most of us aren’t suckers (at least in that way).

    2. The way you write and the things you say reveal very wide gaps in your education. For instance, you fail to recognize a reductio ad absurdum argument and its usefulness in revealing false Korzybskian “allness” statements and narrowing definitions of terms and concepts. Instead of using it for its intent, you attack it an an entirely unhelpful way. What you have revealed to all of us is that you’ve probably read no Plato, failed to study even the rudiments of logic and rhetoric, and reveal no desire to do so.

    3. Your arguments are wholly based on ad hominem attacks. Since good teachers don’t allow their students to get away with that in their classrooms, it suggests that you have not been well-served by the educational institutions you have attended. I’m sorry about that. It’s not fair to you. But it is what it is. Very few are going to want to engage in discourse with someone who knows how shouting works, but doesn’t know how reasoned discourse works.

    4. You make good points about the antecedents of the situation in Iraq, but you do so in a way that suggests you are refuting someone else. In fact, you are doing nothing of the sort. When introducing new information, don’t pitch it as an attack on others who never made the statements you seem to be refuting.

    5. You have revealed a deep ignorance of cultural anthropology, mass motivational psychology, and Mesopotamian history. No one is going to want to engage in conversation with you if they have to laboriously build all that from scratch for you. It’s just not worth it, even if your writing style were not so ridiculously confrontational and laced with ad hominem attacks.

    All is not lost. You may start over and I, for one, will engage with you. But if you insist on drafting copy heavy on vitriol and light on useful content, you’ll be banned from the site. I’d hate to see that.

  25. Ann,

    I believe Avram is quoting Wendy, not me. I didn’t use the word “tribalism,” but you’re right, of course. In an anthropological sense, “tribalism” in conflict describes the Hatfields and McCoys, the Earps and Clantons, and the behavior of chimpanzees (our close cousins) that murder chimps from other “tribes” because of what is certainly a built in chimp/human trait. It explains ten Cates’ studies on the high anxiety caused by “the familiar in unfamiliar guise.”

  26. Oh, you mean my calling him “Avram”? It’s just a shorter, and Hebrew, version.

    The Hebrew seemed more fitting, somehow.

  27. Fine. I’ll call you Mick.

    Mick, with regards to the pabulum you posted in comment #26, allow me to reply to each point:

    1. You’re a douchebag.
    2. You’re a douchebag.
    3. You’re a douchebag.
    4. You’re a douchebag.
    5. You’re a douchebag.

    Now, you may think that each of these statements is the same, but note that the emphasis on certain syllables is different in each response.

    At this point I’m waiting for you to ask, “Now, how do you like them apples?”

    If you would cease with the textual vomit and actually respond to any of my points then I might be bothered to engage in a debate with you, but until you pull that sausage out of your ass I am just going to have to ignore you.

    As far as “banning” me? Well, go ahead and try.

  28. Ann, I think I get it. I guess then the US is basically a tribal society with two main tribes: the Democrats and the Republicans. No wonder our society seems so backwards at times.

    Perhaps if we adopted the Code of Hammurabi we might be more civilized?

  29. Avram:

    You’ve provided no point to which anyone can respond cogently. You know, I’ve visited your blog. I actually agree (partially and provisionally) with some of what I saw there.

    You don’t even know who your friends are.

  30. Abraham,

    Nope, too many people in each group for a working tribe, according to Dunbar and company. Actually, there’s a big debate over whether “ideal tribalism” is even possible in today’s world (groups too big, population too mobile, cultures too fluid). So from the original theory, you get philosophical factions like the Neo-Tribalists, the Modern Primitivists, the New Tribalists… well, tribes, I guess.

    Funny how that seems to happen over and over again.

    I have no idea what will make us more civilized, or even what that really means, but I know that intelligent discussion in good faith gives me hope for better things.

  31. Honestly, “you’re a douchebag?” Even my mouthy 14-year-old son can do better than that. Ick. If people of opposing views can’t engage in civil discussion, then truly, what IS the point? Unfortunately, I don’t quite have Sarah Palin’s capacity for juggling kids and professional life, so I’ve not been able to respond till now to this silly set of exchanges, but I will note two things:

    1) For the record, the sense in which Ann suggested the word “tribal” may have been used, by me, in my post was correct: it was not meant as an imperialist judgment but as an impartial (in intent, anyway) descriptor of a social condition, and

    2) And, as far as Abraham not knowing who is friends are… I also visited his blog and was disgusted — just sickened — by the vile comments spewed at him by one of his detractors, so heinous and hate-filled and foul that I wouldn’t deign to suggest here what they said. For some reason, I was able to hit “delete” and make them go away, so I did: about five of them, from a poster called “Some Random Guy.” I don’t know if you read them before, Abraham, but they were worse than emanating from a toilet — they were from the pit of a human being’s capacity for evil thought. However harsh you come across, you do not deserve those invectives — but neither do we, here at S&R, even in your milder yet still uncivil and dismissive, mean-spirited version. This will thus be my last effort to engage you.

  32. Yeah Wendy. I saw those to. You see that kind of stuff all over the Internet. Doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always been around people who said one thing in public and quite another when alone with people they thought would agree with them.

    Now, they get to be anonymous, so they say what the really think to everyone.

  33. This argument can go on forever, but using some nations – such as Iraq – just won’t work for the argument. “Iraq” was never a nation until a western “democracy” decided to make it one. How can we debate whether or not Iraq can be a “democracy” considering its tribalism, etc. if we don’t start by taking its history into account?

    And let’s face the fact that many (if not most) of the serious trouble spots on the planet are leftover muddle from previous, imperial projects. That would include the better part of Africa to start with. We have no idea what Afghanistan is capable of on its own; it has been meddled with by great powers for so long that the nation hardly knows anything else.

    J.S., the rest of the world allowed the United States to figure it out for ourselves. We had a civil war with plenty of death and destruction. No one came in and forced us to give up our apartheid system that lasted into the second half of the 20th century.

    And i wasn’t suggesting isolationism. We can promote peaceful self-determination and the institutions that it requires…and we should. But we should also realize that how we do things is not the only right way to do things. We should try recognize the right to self-determination even when it doesn’t line up with our foreign policy desires. We should not spread “democracy” at the point of a gun. And we most certainly should not prop up tin-pot dictators and pawn it off as “democracy”.

    Finally, i’m not so sure that Americans are capable of getting democracy right…at least i’ve seen very little evidence of it in my lifetime. The system that we do have is not of our own making; it was an inheritance. The question is: have we invested it wisely so that we might pass it on to our children or squandered it? I’m inclined to think it is the latter, partly because i cannot imagine any of the men who founded the system being remotely electable today.

  34. Lex:

    We talked about this issue before on this blog. First off, history matters, but current conditions matter more. I have never, never, never argued or disputed the fact, in any way, that many of the messes around the world were caused by, or heavily influenced by, Western colonialism. Nor do I think it’s relevant except in determining how to solve the current mess.

    You would have been perfectly OK letting Hitler and the Jews work out there little differences all by themselves with no interference from the rest of the world, wouldn’t you?

  35. No, JS, i wouldn’t have been perfectly ok with letting Hitler and the Jews work out their little differences. But let’s not forget that the world was pretty well ignoring what was happening to the Jews until Hitler started invading other countries. It took the United States 8 full years to declare war on Germany after Hitler’s rise (and his doings with the Jews came right after that).

    There is a time when the world (or nations) must step in and put a stop to behavior that is beyond the pale. That isn’t questioned by me. But you’re not going to seriously try to equate anything Saddam Hussein or the Taliban did with Hitler, are you?

    And i will return to the point that you always avoid when we debate this…what of all our friends/allies/clients that do terrible things and we look the other way? Saddam was a murderous brute and a tyrant when Rumsfeld was shaking his hand. The Taliban enforced extremist religious practices without a peep from the United States when Chevron thought that they could build a pipeline. That list goes on and on, way far back.

    And, again, it is not about isolationism. I believe that we should be deeply engaged with every nation on Earth…i just don’t think that the engagement should involve killing them unless they start killing first.

    And i’ve been to enough places to know that how the “West” looks down ours nose at every way of doing things that isn’t ours is utter bullshit. We are not the greatest thing since sliced bread; we do not have some stranglehold on truth and justice.

    We don’t know if Iraq can make a stable nation of itself because we will only let them determine their own future if that future suits our desires. The SOFA issue is a perfect example. You can have “sovereignty” so long as you let our military do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, without fear of punishment. You can be your own nation, so long as you do what we say. That’s not democracy anyhow.

  36. Damn, Lex, you wrote my post… at least your first paragraph. All I’d like to add is a reminder that the US was well aware from at least 1934 on what was happening to “undesirables” in Germany, and beginning in 1939 received undisputed, detailed reports of what was happening in concentration camps. We did nothing.

    And I agree in principle that the internal affairs of sovereign countries should, in most cases, be their own to resolve. I wonder what would happen in Georgia, for example, if the US and Russia weren’t pulling the strings. Would South Ossetia and Abkhazia just break off and try to fend for themselves? Would the rest of Georgia, without Russian and American factions at work, really care? If a people are oppressed, shouldn’t they rise up when they reach the tipping point and throw off their oppressors, without the big boys feeding the rivalries and picking at the bones? This is a purely rhetorical series of questions, I know, since history can’t be erased…

  37. Lex:

    I’m absolutely not equating Hitler with Hussein, and have gone on record many, many times refuting that argument when made by others. I used the Hitler example because I finally wanted to get a handle on whether you thought intervention could ever, ever, ever be justified. Now that I know that you believe it can be justified, we can have a useful conversation about when. Until now, none of our conversations have enlightened neither of us.

    I haven’t been avoiding the question of “what of all our friends/allies/clients that do terrible things and we look the other way?” I haven’t found it relevant to any of our conversations so far.

    Have you ever played backgammon, Lex? I’m a middling backgammon player, at best, because I don’t adjust as well as I should to the changing board. Poor backgammon players pick an initial strategy and stick with it. Good backgammon players look at the board each time they roll the dice as a snapshot. They change their strategies based on how the board looks now, this minute, when they roll, and how best to apply that roll to the current board conditions and probabilities. I think US intervention should be the same way.

    When the first Gulf War came around, there were many people who insisted that we shouldn’t recapture Kuwait from Hussein because we had made a mistake in diplomacy, causing him to think he had a green light to invade. That may be true, but I found it irrelevant and still do. The fact at the time was that we had a dangerous man astride a good chunk of the world’s oil output and reserves, and poised to bite off even more, which would allow him to finance and recruit an even larger military establishment while holding the oil dagger at the world’s throat. Bush 1 screwed up, but that wasn’t the point. We needed to play the board the way the board looked at the time.

    The US definitely SHOULD learn some hard-earned lessons from supporting people like Hussein and financing mujahadeen. You’ll get full agreement from me on that. But if a situation is badly broken, even if we broke it, it still needs to be fixed.

    The Taliban most certainly did hear a peep for the US, from both Hillary Clinton and Madelein Albright, when they discovered what the Taliban were doing to women. The US also didn’t recognize the Taliban as the legitmate government of Afghanistan. And it wasn’t Chevron that wanted to build a pipeline. It was Unocal. And Unocal pipline — always a pipe dream — had limited involvement with the US government other than the usual offer to help persuade the Pakistani government to buy any gas actually shipped over said pipeline. (Still, Unocal’s HQ in Kandahar was right next to bin Laden’s compound.)

    The US screwed up in Afghanistan in a big way, but the biggest screw up was in walking away from the place after Najibullah fell (and we never should have worked to overthrow him in the first place), losing all our intelligence assets there, allowing the Pakistani ISI free rein so that they developed the Taliban as potential Kashmiri Islamic guerrillas, believing Bhutto’s lies when she told us that Pakistan had little to do with the Taliban, and letting Massoud die on the vine. All of that came, essentially, from neglect that began during the Bush 1 administration, continued through the Clinton one, and the Bush 2 one until 9/11. We simply didn’t think Afghanistan was important and, well, we thought they should work things out on their own (not making that up).

    I’m like you in that I don’t think the West has a stranglehold on truth and justice. The West has exploited and bumbled around so much that many of today’s problems are just chickens coming home to roost. But we still have to deal with the chickens, and there are people who need our help in those countries.

    For instance, if we were to walk away from Afghanistan now, the Taliban would take control. They would massacre the Hazara and there would be renewed fighting with other factions, particularly the Tajiks of the Panjshir. Once again, girls and women would be unable to obtain an education or even leave the house without a male escort.

    As for Iraq, what we have there is a Mahdi Army that’s gone dormant because it’s important for the US to leave so that they can manipulate a friendly government to their own ends. Or some other faction will do it to the detriment of the other factions. The warlords are being paid off … for now. The Kurds have their very own country … they think. Iraq can be a stable nation. It has been in the past. It can be stable the way Yugoslavia was stable under Tito.

  38. Ann:

    It’s easy to say that a people should rise up without help, but that’s a rarity in history. We Americans couldn’t have done it without French help. When the French did their own rising, they botched it so badly that they set back the cause of widespread suffrage for half a century.

    As I said to Lex, history is relevant in that it should help us not make the same mistakes again — theoretically of course. For that reason, we Americans should know a helluva lot more of it than we do. But when it comes to intervening in, say, Afghanistan, the fact that we helped make the damn mess is not a reason not to help clean it up.