“You who are so wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things. You will not therefore take it amiss if our ideas of the white man’s kind of education happens not to be the same as yours. We have had some experience of it.
Several of our young people were brought up in your colleges. They were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were all bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger. They didn’t know how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy. They spoke our language imperfectly.
They were therefore unfit to be hunters, warriors, or counselors; they were good for nothing.
We are, however, not the less obliged for your kind offer, though we decline accepting it. To show our gratefulness, if the gentlemen of Virginia shall send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care with their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.”
— Canassatego, Iroquois chief of the Onontagos (Onondagas), from minutes of the Treaty of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1744
A number of bloggers have linked to this superb essay on Sarah Palin written by Yuval Levin of Commentary Magazine. It’s definitely worth your time to read it all. It is probably the most thorough and even understanding of the phenomenon of Sarah Palin that has yet appeared in print. I found this observation particularly interesting:
Palin’s cultural populism put her at odds with the foe that did her the most serious damage: the nation’s intellectual elite, whose initial suspicion of her deepened into outright loathing as the campaign progressed. Her inability in interviews to offer coherent answers about the Bush Doctrine, regulatory reform, and the Supreme Court’s case history, together with her unexceptional academic record and the fact that she had spent almost no time abroad, were offered as evidence that Palin represented a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism on the Right.
She was, the Left-leaning Christopher Hitchens insisted, “a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus.” The Right-leaning David Brooks called Palin “a fatal cancer to the Republican party” because her inclination “is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely.”
Palin never actually boasted of ignorance or explicitly scorned learning or ideas. Rather, the implicit charge was that Palin’s failure to speak the language and to share the common points of reference of the educated upper tier of American society essentially rendered her unfit for high office.
Sarah Palin embodied a very different notion of politics, in which sound instincts and valuable life experiences are considered sources of knowledge at least the equal of book learning. She is the product of an America in which explicit displays of pride in intellect are considered unseemly, and where physical prowess and moral constancy are given a higher place than intellectual achievement. She was in the habit of stressing these faculties instead–a habit that struck many in Washington as brutishness.
This is why Palin was seen as anti-intellectual when, properly speaking, she was simply non-intellectual. What she lacked was not intelligence–she is, clearly, highly intelligent–but rather the particular set of assumptions, references, and attitudes inculcated by America’s top twenty universities and transmitted by the nation’s elite cultural organs.
The reaction of the intellectual elite to Sarah Palin was far more provincial than Palin herself ever has been, and those who reacted so viscerally against her evinced little or no appreciation for an essential premise of democracy: that practical wisdom matters at least as much as formal education, and that leadership can emerge from utterly unexpected places. The presumption that the only road to power passes through the Ivy League and its tributaries is neither democratic nor sensible, and is, moreover, a sharp and wrongheaded break from the American tradition of citizen governance.
Brilliant, no? Like I just said, go read it all.
Of course those of us who follow politics know that such a reaction certainly has not been limited to Sarah Palin. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are two other famous “anti-intellectuals” who rose to executive leadership positions and thus consigned panic-stricken elites to dissolve in a puddle of their own collective urine. (Okay, I stole that line from James Lileks.) Bush is actually an interesting case, a man who went to all of the right schools (Yale, Harvard) yet failed to consume a large enough portion of the Kool-Aid as to render himself a babbling practitioner of progressive post-modernism. Perhaps that is what made him so dangerous — he had a chance to become extraordinary, yet proved himself an utter failure in that pursuit.
After the 2008 election, I remain convinced that the Achilles heel of the modern Democratic party is its disdain for the culture of middle America. Liberal intellectual elites have effectively beaten the drum of advocacy for the poor, racial minorities, laborers, etc. for over forty years, yet behind closed doors they impugn and ridicule everything that non-intellectuals stand for ethically and culturally. As Mr. Levin explains, it is far more important to the intellectual crowd to be elected editor of the Harvard Law Review than to have risen from obscurity and be elected to the office of state Governor in little more than a decade.
While it is true that the economic policies of conservatives are directed mainly toward those who are able to fend for themselves, I believe that would be much easier for conservatives to take their message of self-reliance and hard work to poor Americans — if they listened to the poor and expressed a willingness to shape their policies into practical solutions for poverty — than it would be for liberals to have to explain to the working class why they believe that they are stupid, superstitious, uncouth, and unfit to lead.
That is the political strategy that Republicans should be pursuing. And Sarah Palin is someone who could help us pull it off.