Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

10/17/2008 (12:56 pm)

Sarah, Joe, and the Emperor’s Clothes

One of my regular readers who calls himself RM posted a comment to my deconstruction of an anti-Palin feminist screed, noting the hostility of the intellectual class towards Gov. Palin. They had a similar reaction to George W. Bush for similar reasons. RM asked me to comment, thus:

What has also become disturbing to me is the coldness and dislike toward Palin from some on the right. It seems to come at this point mainly from the salon-intellectual conservative crowd like Christopher Buckley, but it is seemingly becoming “hip” or “edgy” now for some conservatives to disdain her with sound bites like “What was he thinking about when he nominated the likes of HER?”

This kind of world weary, above it all, ad hominem dismissal without a shred of thoughtful, reasoned justification is to me contemptible. It smacks of the supercilious liberal “We know we’re right and anyone who disagrees is a moron not worthy of engagement” mindset. I have no problem taking a whack at our own when it is justified, but I’m very surprised at some of the potshots directed toward her from people who you would think would at least be somewhat in sync with her overall world view…

Would be interested if you turn your thoughts to this one day. I do not get it.

This is incredibly relevant. We’re being offered by the Democrats a candidate who is appealing to the subtle, intellectual patrician in us all, a seductive combination of ordinary person and extraordinary intellect. “As for Senator Obama: He has exhibited throughout ‘a first-class temperament,’” wrote Chris Buckley in his recent announcement of support for Obama. “I have read Obama’s books, and they are first-rate.” He offers intellectually patrician reasons for his vote for Senator Obama, despite his recognition that Obama is a leftist while he, Buckley, is a small-government conservative. The one, positive thing we can say about Obama is that he’s intellectually robust, and articulates his thoughts well. He even seems to be able to do it without the teleprompter these days.

It’s no accident, but rather comes with the sort of irony that signals a divinely-delivered choice, that the cracks in Obama’s veneer have been provided first by a PTA mom from Alaska, and more recently a plumber from Toledo, OH. Governor Palin lacks education, erudition, polish, reflection, intellectual curiosity, so much so that Chris Buckley called her “an embarrassment, and a dangerous one at that,” and David Brooks referred to her as “a cancer on the Republican Party.” She lacks everything, except for something of which Obama possesses not one whit: a resume that demonstrates that she knows how to get things done, and done in opposition to political cronies. He has the appealing message and the erudite appearance we value. She has integrity and courage, and nothing else. Choose.

And then an even unkinder cut: an ordinary plumber, selected at random out of a crowd, asks the one question that prompts the candidate to expose his Marxist impulses. It’s like a vignette out of a Hans Christian Andersen story, the child who blurts out “Why is the Emperor naked?” Joe the Plumber is no philosopher, nor a pundit, nor a politician. He’s just one of us trying to make a living. We can’t even pronounce his last name, for crying out loud. And it’s this — please pardon me, Joe, I really do respect both you and plumbers generally — this nobody who manages to accomplish what the rest of us have been trying to accomplish for almost 2 years, namely expose the real Obama.

It’s as though the Almighty is asking us: “Do you really want to end corruption? REALLY? or do you prefer the trappings of erudition instead?” We’re offered the thing we say we want, but entirely devoid of the trappings that make it appealing to our egos. This is the cruelty of divine justice, the fierce love that does not allow the slightest quarter to our vanity. We can have the cure, but only at the cost of every crumb of the sin that made us sick in the first place. He sent someone to save us, and it’s Mom, dammit. How characteristic of Him. How tragic if we refuse. How costly to accept. (Author adds after publication: this is what G.K. Chesterton was talking about when he quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it’s been found difficult and not tried.”)

CS Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about the difference between obtaining knowledge because you love to learn, and obtaining knowledge because you love the idea that you’re learned. The first is real learning, and exhibits the sort of curiosity with which children seem to be born. The second is the sin the church fathers call “vanity,” and when followed to its logical conclusion, makes devils of those who exhibit it.

Most of us, when we learn, do both at some level, but those who have been raised as patricians are more susceptible to vanity, and doubly so those who aspire to look or act like patricians, or to be accepted among them. There’s an arrogance of being educated, powerful, and known that is hard to avoid even if you know it’s a danger.

While there’s some positive correlation between vanity and liberalism, not all vain people are liberals, nor are all liberals vain. Anybody can fall victim, particularly anyone with an education, even if they understand the central importance of classical virtues, and even if they understand economics. Not surprisingly, a huge percentage of the most educated among us exhibit symptoms, some near fatal. (Did I hear somebody mention Paul Krugman?)

In reaction to this, America has always had an anti-intellectual streak to it, one that sometimes exhibits a truly ugly side. At its core, though, American anti-intellectualism is an expression of something fundamentally sound: the awareness that wisdom and the cultural standard of learning are not necessarily the same thing, and that of the two, wisdom is the only one that’s worthwhile. There’s a wrong version of this that eschews learning; the correct version, though, puts learning in its proper place, as a support to virtue and decency, but a substitute for neither.

This seems to be a feature of our universe, and God seems to take delight in making fools of the most educated among us, just as He ultimately makes weaklings of the most powerful and paupers of the wealthiest. As an Italian proverb notes, at the end of the game the king and the pawn go back into the same box. God designed that. At the same time, He elevates those who grasp the central things, and He makes their lives good. That video from CatholicVote.org that I posted a few days ago expresses this truth very well: the core of what makes us decent is something simple, homey, and uncomplicated, something even the profoundly retarded can grasp. The Catholics call this being “centered.” Protestants don’t really have a name for it, apart from the general “humility.” In praise of it, the Almighty, who created us and knows our needs, counsels thus through the prophet Jeremiah:

“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not a mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts, boast of this, that he understands and knows me, that I am Yahveh, who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares Yahveh.

Jeremiah 9:23

Ultimately, it’s he or she who grasps the author of life and His ways that does what is right; everyone else goes astray somewhere, despite their learning, riches, or power. To take a page from Citizen Kane, all of us, no matter how impressive or wealthy, find true contentment in our Rosebud, and if we spurn it because of its unpretentious crudeness or our love of wealth or recognition, we are fools, and lost.

It’s a fact that some of us were born with better brains than others; some of us understand more, and more easily, while others simply lack the equipment to produce correct logical syllogisms, grasp Einstein’s General Relativity, or explain in philosophical terms the meaning of life. However, I didn’t pick my brains, I was born with them; they’re on loan from God (no, I’m not quoting Rush Limbaugh, we’re both paraphrasing the same source.) I do logic damned well, but with a pipe wrench and a propane torch I’m about two notches north of retarded. Everybody’s got their own gifts, and if we all looked down on those who didn’t have what we have, none of us could ever stand each other. My brains don’t give me a reason to think myself better than others; they give me an obligation to help my fellow-man through what I can offer, something that turns out to be surprisingly humble — my logically accurate thoughts. To use my brain for anything else would constitute disobedience to my Maker, who gave them to me for the benefit of others. Certainly, to use them for self-aggrandizement would be blasphemy. It is my task to hone my thoughts, improve my learning, and become better and better at thinking and writing — for the purpose of elevating others, and making their lives better somehow.

This is one of the reasons I liked William F. Buckley so well. He was one of the best-educated men in the English-speaking world, but he never looked down on ordinary folks or simple pleasures; he was humble. I hold him as a model. It’s too bad his son has missed the source of his greatness.

I draw meaning from the thoughts of novelists. poets, playwrights and artists who understand the human condition and produce great art to communicate about it. Lots of folks who consider themselves intellectuals do likewise. It would be easy for me to regard someone who expresses no interest in such understanding as less human than I. It would also be sin. But it’s easy to forget that, and lots of people, even people who think correctly about liberty and economics, fall into that rut and have trouble getting out, or even seeing that they ought to.

It is the characteristic error of intellectuals to regard their own ability to reflect as the highest pinnacle of human achievement; it is also, sadly, characteristic of the Left to imagine that such ability is the central qualification to hold office. It’s the lack of bona fide membership in their intellectual club that leads them to uniformly regard conservatives as stupid. Ann Coulter has noted this habit, with some disdain and amusement; her book Slander contains a chapter taking the left to task for their complete lack of imagination in insulting the right, resorting more or less unthinkingly to a patrician version of “Yer dumm.” Anybody who regarded Ronald Reagan as unintelligent simply didn’t know what the word meant; and yet, Reagan lived by the inner wisdom of simplicity, not the outer trappings of erudition, and that’s what made Reagan seem so accessible, and at the same time so un-intellectual.

The thing that’s uncomfortable about Sarah Palin, and about George W. Bush, is that externally, they seem uninterested in the sorts of mental processing that intellectuals value. The folks you’re hearing are expressing their disdain for this — and sadly, exhibiting a sort of pride that reflects a lot more poorly on them than on those they’re belittling. Neither Palin nor Bush are unintelligent, they simply attach no value to the trappings of intellect that some others value. To a certain extent, I find that’s characteristic of certain types of very successful people; they’re focused like a laser on specific achievement, and truly don’t care much about things outside their field of vision, particularly about grappling with difficult ideas about the condition of man. David Brooks considers that a cancer; I consider it a testimony to the glory of God, who creates each of us with different talents that we can use for the common good. Reflection on the meaning of life is a wonderful thing, but some of the most useful humans in history never bothered with it; they simply did what they were created to do, which, ultimately, is all any of us ought to be doing.

It’s important to value learning, but it’s more important to recognize the inherent dignity of any person who performs well his task in life. John Gardner reminds us that the true standard is not how much one learns, but how much one applies oneself to excellence, regardless of the arena, whether learning, governing, hockey, or construction:

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

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October 17, 2008 @ 2:11 pm #

Buckley reveals his true colors when he notes, among the first of his reasons that Obama is “a Harvard man”. How elitist! Thanks for your reasoned commentary; keep me coming back each week.

(Author’s note: Dern! I meant to use that quote! Exactly, Tom — Buckley’s whole argument for supporting Obama boiled down to “He’s a Harvard man, like me.” This is not what his father worked for.)

October 20, 2008 @ 12:01 am #


Thanks very much for the well thought out commentary. I believe you have hit it pretty much on the head. I do have some observations.

-The MSM seem positively gleeful as Obama continues to pick up endorsements from (allegedly?) conservative figures. In addition to Buckley, two more names have come in: Colin Powell and Michael Smerconish (a moderate and fair talk show host from Philly who has a wide audience). Both cited McCain’s lack of judgement in choosing Palin as a factor in their decision.

For what it is worth, Powell has always seemed to me to be as uncomfortable in his association with Republicans and conservatism as a man in a strait jacket. I don’t know if you are familiar with Smerconish but he is a former conservative who now seemingly takes pride in “not drinking the conservative kool-aid”, “looking for a political party”, and moving leftward. But still…

-These endorsements all contain many if not all of the elements you discussed. However, neither the Powell or Smerconish endorsements are sneering belittlements or dismissals of Palin. I believe they truly think she does not have what it takes.

-I confess that Obama has proved to be quite capable of debating without a teleprompter. I also give him some credit for, thus far, recognizing his weak points and neutralizing them (albeit with the help of the media). Michelle’s nasty comments, Rev. Wright, some of his own gaffes, etc. have all vanished down the memory hole for the time being. He is offering positive, well made campaign ads portraying himself as one of the common folk. He’s no dummy.

-There is something deeper taking place in terms of this desire for a so-called elite to lead us. Specifically, the double standard that is consistently applied. For example, Al Gore, while certainly a figure of the left wing elite, was wooden, almost inarticulate at times, prone to gaffes and endless repitition, and to me at least, did not seem a particularly bright bulb. Yet W is and always has been portrayed as the “dumb one”.

Joe Biden is an earnest, lifelong Democrat who has carved out a career in politics through hard work and has an impressive list of committees to his name. But this is the man whose response to 9-11 was “Let’s send $200M to Iran.” Whose gaffes in public speaking (including plagiarism) are legendary. And who told several readily verifiable whoppers in his debate with Palin. A solid politician? OK. But a shining beacon of intellect? Come on.

-And what is truly sad to me about this is the conservative purchase of the emporer’s clothes. I would expect Democrats and the media to give Biden a full pass. But one would hope the likes of Christopher Buckley, Colin Powell, Michael Smerconish et al would ask themselves some of these questions. Instead, Joe gets a shout out and Palin is thrown under the bus for, a month after being nominated, not playing ‘Gotcha’ well with Katie Couric? I still don’t get it. Is our side really that weak?

I can understand how someone would feel, after 8 years of Pres. Bush, that Obama’s glibness and ability to articulate is desirable and appealing. But again, Biden?
It’s fine for a liberal to define Al Gore as “deciding to get out of politics and be a God”. But why on earth would anyone with a conservative bone in his or her body buy into this claptrap? But many of our supposed best and brightest seem to have.

-People are always saying, “I don’t want political spin and double talk. Give me someone who tells me, in plain English, what they think and what they will do.” Well, I’m not saying she is the perfect candidate, but there you basically have Sarah Palin. And many on OUR OWN SIDE can’t seem to handle it.

Maybe more to come if I have time. I think there is a lot here. I took a tour of a legendary old mansion. The docent told us of how rooms were decorated to have a European flavor because in the earlier days, many Americans, even prominent ones, were intimidated and wanted to seem “sophisticated and European” in their taste. I think many of us have not changed from that, even some of our leaders.

October 20, 2008 @ 2:53 am #


I spent 13 years in Philly, from 1993 through 2006, and my kids all live there (I was also born there, but left when I was an infant). So, yes, I’m familiar with Mike Smerconish, and I don’t regard anything he does as vain. I agree, his repudiation of Palin is probably sincere. Smerconish has always been a moderate in my mind, not a conservative.

Obama obviously spent many hours working out his speaking style because of the trouble he caused himself early on. We’ve mostly forgotten how he avoided interviews for the first year of his campaign because he so frequently embarrassed himself when forced to speak off-the-cuff (so did Hillary Clinton). The “Joe the Plumber” incident reminds us of what that was like. He probably hired a speech pro to improve his technique. It works. This is a matter of technique and practice, and anybody intelligent can do it. Biden is a good example; he made astounding errors in that debate against Palin, but he sounded confident and professional while making them. Good technique makes you sound good, but doesn’t help you to think any more clearly.

If you have not read Ann Coulter’s book Slander, you should. She addresses this Democratic conceit of superior intellect with her usual, forceful sarcasm, in a manner you’ll probably find enlightening.

I grew up in a family of liberal Democrats and possessed the same conceit, that nobody intelligent could possibly be conservative without serious character defects and that all intellectuals were liberal (Buckley being an obvious exception, which was difficult to explain.) My siblings still represent the farthest-left reaches of the party. It was after I became Christian that two things happened: 1) I gradually learned to apply reason to my own positions, and 2) I drifted to the right politically, based on my new-found and growing recognition that the “injustices” I suffered were almost all the result of my own sin, not some imagined oppression. Today, I can easily recognize the absolute lunacy of my siblings’ positions, but they cannot.

Many liberals, like me, are intelligent and have the test scores to prove it, but they lack several things. 1) They are not able to view themselves objectively at all. Ironically, they think they can; they’ve acquired just enough self-awareness to inoculate them against the real thing. 2) They don’t understand human frailty in the least, and their assessments of what make people tick are uniformly silly. Again, they’ve learned enough of the nomenclature of psychology to pretend to understand, but lacking the ability to know themselves, they screw up understanding others as well.

I think the difference between good conservatives and average liberals is honest self-knowledge, and the ability to understand the feelings and thoughts of others arising from that self-knowledge (obviously, there are some reflexive conservatives, and they can be pretty scary). The intellectualism of the Left is a Red Herring, a substitute for truly humanizing understanding. It’s easy for the intelligent to obtain a veneer of erudition without having to face the excruciating challenge of character change and obtaining genuine virtue.

However, these are things of degree, not binary switches, and every one of us is blind in some way no matter how self-aware and humble we’ve become. That’s why there can be debilitating vanity on both sides of the aisle. Vanity is not a liberal disease, it’s a human disease.

October 20, 2008 @ 8:22 am #


Thanks for the response. Your comments are always well thought out and provide new thinking fodder. I did read Slander when it came out; it may be time for a refresher.

Didn’t know you were a Philly guy (13 years certainly qualifies you). This should be a great week coming up!

October 20, 2008 @ 10:35 am #


Definitely looking forward to this week. And I thought Shane Victorino deserved more credit for the NLCS win than he received.

Aren’t you near Philly somewhere? Whereabouts? I lived in the Havertown area pretty much the whole time I was there.

October 20, 2008 @ 3:40 pm #


Could not agree more with you on Victorino. I also monitor a Phillies blog with extremely knowledgeable (and critical/cynical) Phillies fans and believe me, the die-hard fans know and appreciate what Vic brought to the party.

I’m a Wilmington, Delaware guy who has been in the right place at the right time to have suffered through the Phils’ 1964 collapse (my dad had 64 Series tickets), and also to have been able to observe first hand Joe Biden as my State’s Senator for over 30 years.

February 7, 2010 @ 11:05 pm #

[...] the intellectual elite in America back in October of 2008. If you want my serious examination, go ahead and look backwards. Over this current flap, though… I genuinely feel sad for the Democrats. Discuss [0] | var [...]

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