Politics & Policy

Palin Populism

Sarah Palin takes on the pathology of the elites.

BILL O’REILLY: Do you believe that you are smart enough, incisive enough, intellectual enough to handle the most powerful job in the world?

SARAH PALIN: I believe that I am because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of spinelessness, that perhaps is made up for with some kind of elite Ivy League education . . .

The O’Reilly Factor, Nov. 21, 2009

No sooner had I lighted on this exchange than the familiar words of Faust — familiar, at any rate, to us Ivy Leaguers, for whom he is something of a patron saint — were on my tongue:

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,

Juristerei und Medizin . . .

I have, alas, studied philosophy,

Jurisprudence and medicine, too,

And worst of all theology

With keen endeavor, through and through —

And here I am, for all my lore,

The wretched fool I was before.

I was, as I say, trilling Goethe when it occurred to me that Governor Palin had a point. Perhaps the Ivy League business has been a little overrated.

Everyone knows that many stupid people possess degrees from fancy schools. Many smart people don’t have them. But in a big country, it isn’t easy to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. We are obliged to rely on things like academic degrees — and on the relative prestige of the institutions that grant them — to a much greater degree than was the case in the past.

This was evident in the comparisons that were drawn between President Obama and Governor Palin in the summer of 2008. His intelligence was never questioned. Hers was, repeatedly. Undoubtedly his two Ivy League degrees (from Columbia and Harvard) helped him. Her want of prestigious education hurt her: It made it easier for those who didn’t like her to say she was stupid. This presumption of stupidity was in the air before the interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. Those interviews resembled ambushes, orchestrated by people who were already convinced that she was a moron. Had Obama — who cherishes his teleprompter — been ambushed in this way, his intelligence would have been questioned too.

Degree fetish might be a necessary evil in a big country where there are lots of candidates for jobs and no easy way to rank them. But if in the future the only means of obtaining intellectual credibility in America should be through an accumulation of degrees, the country will almost certainly become stupider.

Degree fetish fosters a standardization of the intellect: Everyone is obliged to jump over the same hurdles to get their intellectual passports. If standardization has its virtues, particularly in the hard sciences, its promise in the humanities is much less obvious; Edmund Wilson was probably right when he said that literae humaniores have suffered from the Ph.D. fetish.

But the greatest evil of degree fetish is the arrogance it nourishes, an intellectual snobbishness that stifles nonconformity and homespun intelligence. Whitman suffered this condescension. So did Lincoln, and so did Reagan. Emerson, the Harvard man, said that Lincoln was a “clown.” Clark Clifford, speaking ex cathedra for the Washington establishment, called Reagan an “amiable dunce.”

To question degree fetish is not to question the value of learning. A good liberal-arts education — an apprenticeship in “the best which has been thought and said in the world” — is a fine thing. But few even Ivy League schools today offer an education of this sort. And as valuable as this sort of education is, it is doubtful whether it equips future statesmen to make better choices.

Consider the case of William Ewart Gladstone. He was consummately learned. At Christ Church, Oxford, he outshone myriads though bright. His activities during the very vacations of the university, duly recorded in his diary, must be the despair of lesser scholars:

July 6 [1830] . . . — Up after 6. Began my Harmony of Greek Testament. Differential calculus, etc. Mathematics good while, but in a rambling way. Began Odyssey. Papers. Walk with Anstice and Hamilton. Turned a little bit of Livy into Greek. Conversation on ethics and metaphysics at night. July 8. — Greek Testament. Bible with Anstice. Mathematics, long but did little. Translated some Phædo. Butler. Construed some Thucydides at night. Making hay, etc., with S., H., and A. Great fun. Shelley.

Yet Mr. Gladstone got two of the most momentous questions of his age wrong. He thought “Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South” had “made a nation.” And he thought Bismarck was a nice guy who, if he defeated France, would usher in a new era of peace under humane German leadership. Oops.

Sarah Palin is right to question the degree fetish that leads us too casually to associate a prestigious education with intelligence and statesmanlike perception — and too readily to suppose that the lack of such an education signifies a want of brain-power. But her larger point is more important.

Palin Populism is not an expression of the resentment that stupid people sometimes feel toward the more intelligent, the antipathy of Swift’s Yahoo for his Houyhnhnm. Much less is it a form of conventional class warfare or share-the-wealth envy.

Palin supposes that our degree fetish has bred an arrogance she calls “elitism.” Lionel Trilling thought much the same thing. He pointed to the dangers of the ideals of our “educated class,” a class that had forsaken the habits of what he called the “moral imagination” for those of the social imagination — the imagination that seeks, not merely to understand society, but even to save it.

“Some paradox of our nature leads us,” Trilling wrote, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination.”

Trilling showed how easily an enlightened pity can be made to serve the ends of an enlightened coercion. The modern will, he said, “hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue.” The spiritual progeny of Faust cannot admit to themselves the nature of their desire, as Faust himself could: I suppose it is too dark. And so they cloak it in a philosophy of social altruism, one in which they figure as agents of salvation armed with a benign social technic.

This social philosophy is today the preferred costume of power. Those who come forth from the most prestigious seminaries eager to follow President Obama’s advice and go into government are conscious only of a magnificent generosity of intention. This is the pathology of the elites.

It is characteristic of the more ardent champions of the social imagination that they seek to use the state to dominate not merely the economy of a nation but its culture as well. Where they succeed in dominating the economy, the result is fewer material goods. Where they succeed in dominating the culture, the result is fewer cultural goods.

The culture wars that have lifted Sarah Palin to prominence are best understood as an expression of popular frustration with a dwindling supply of cultural goods. The social state has banished a variety of these goods from places (such as schools) where they once traded briskly. Education in the West has traditionally been the process by which grown-ups civilize the young by introducing them to their moral and cultural heritage. America’s public schools have abdicated this role; traditional methods of cultural initiation have been replaced by vapid forms of “social” study. Social education, Paul Goodman said, is founded on the belief that children are “human social animals” who must be “socialized” and “adjusted to the social group.” The Faustian disavowal of the moral imagination, together with an embrace of a barren philosophy of acultural socialization, has resulted in ever more culturally vacuous public schools.

Ordinary people resent the elite classes not simply because they associate these classes with the development and imposition of these new social techniques, but also because they know that these classes are much less likely to suffer from the resulting cultural privations. The elite classes avoid the cultural problem by sending their children to private schools where humane traditions of culture (with roots in the old grammar and Latin schools) are carried on much more faithfully than in the universities. Ordinary people can’t afford to do that; they must either put up with the social curriculum or home-school their children.

Governor Palin, in contrasting “American values” with the aspirations of “elite education,” warns us of the arrogance — and the moral “spinelessness” — that today’s higher learning too often fosters. Knowledge divorced from what Trilling and Gertrude Himmelfarb (following Burke) call the “moral imagination” is a dangerous thing.

As for me, I today announce the formation of the Ivy Leaguers for Palin Committee, J. G. Faustus, honorary chairman. Interested parties may reach the committee at ivyforpalin@aol.com.

– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871, among other books.

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