In the Arena


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As Jay Newton-Small notes below, Sarah Palin inked some crib notes on her hand in preparation for her “big” speech to the Tea Party soiree. This has caused glee and derision in the left-wing blogosphere (as has her rather, well, unsubtle wearing of a joint US-Israeli flag pin). I have no problem with either gesture. Karl Eikenberry, our Ambassador in Kabul, has been known to wear a joint US-Afghanistan pin; Christopher Hitchens, perpetual provocateur, wears a US-Kurdistan pin; I’ve been known to wear a green tie when discussing Iran on television. As for the crib notes, all politicians use bullet points. Some use teleprompters. It doesn’t matter what you crib. It matters what you say.

And that’s where I have a problem with Palin: what she said was drivel. No, let me amend that: it was anti-intellectual drivel. Obama is a bad Commander-in-Chief because he’s a…law professor. No matter that this bad Commander-in-Chief has taken more concerted and aggressive action against Al Qaeda–more drones, more covert actions in Yemen and Somalia, more support for Pakistani military campaigns agains the Taliban, more troops for Afghanistan–than the baseball team owner who proceeded him in office. He’s a law professor. He’s a member of the elite. Which has come to be a term of opprobrium among the nitwit populists of the right–unquestioned, increasingly, by would-be conservative intellectuals like Bill Kristol and assorted Podhoretzs. I’m sure there’s an aphorism somewhere–readers, please help–about the fate of great nations that celebrate ignorance and denigrate contemplative thought.

Yesterday, a commenter asked if there was any form of populism that I could support. The answer is yes: democracy. But populism, as a movement, has a sorry history–it emanates from anger and often ignorance, and quickly devolves into bigotry and hatred. Occasionally, populism will produce some good ideas: the populist movement of the 1890’s gave birth to many of the progressive reforms–the income tax, the federal reserve system, women’s suffrage–that were enacted in the first 20 years of the last century. Ross Perot’s fiscal hissy-fits led to the balanced budgets that Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress produced in the 1990s. The current populist movement could provoke badly needed financial regulatory adjustments.

But the excellent policies that populism sometimes produces almost always come accompanied by social abominations. The populism of the 1890s was accompanied by fierce anti-semitism and racism–and the legislative idiocy of Prohibition. The right-wing populism of the past thirty years has been accompanied by a celebration of ignorance, a nativist anti-immigrant fury and, more recently, among some evangelicals, by the undue celebration of Israeli expansionism (as a prophetic prelude to the Rapture–which may have had something to do with flag pin Palin was wearing).

Anti-elitism is as American as apple pie, and a good thing, too, in most cases. This is a democracy; the more democratic it has become, the better. Anti-intellectualism is something else again, as is the celebration of some nonexistent “real” America, populated inevitably by melanin-deprived pickup truck owners. Those who celebrate Sarah Palin’s lack of knowledge as a form of “authenticity” superior to Barack Obama’s gloriously American mongrel ethnicity and self-made intellectuality are representatives of a long-standing American theme–the celebration of sameness, and mediocrity, in a country that has succeeded brilliantly because of its diversity and restlessly eccentric genius . Happily, it has almost always been a losing theme. And, indeed, in the truest sense, it can be called anti-American.