Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is it Smart to Vote Dumb?

Since when is being smart a bad thing?

To hear the Republicans talk, the last thing we want is someone who is "professorial" or "academic" running the country. Instead, we should have someone who is as average as Joe the Plumber, someone "real" Americans (i.e., not those who do notoriously well in school like the Jews and the Asians) can relate to because he isn't smarter than we are. In fact, he's not too smart at all. And his VP pick is dumber than a post but supposedly someone you'd want to have a beer with. Personally, I'd rather have a beer with someone really bright who would have farther to fall if he or she ended up drunk. Then at least the conversation would still be average, rather than stupid.

As best I can tell, this anti-intellectualism spate seems to dovetail with the general GOP fear-mongering. It can't be that they really think McCain, with his houses and cars and spousal millions isn't "elite." The argument seems to be: at least McCain isn't threatening. We don't have to worry that he'll do something that's too hard for us to understand. That he'll pull a fast one on us because we can't keep up. That he'll trick us, and take advantage of us -- that we have to listen carefully to his words because he's so smart we can be assured he'll choose his carefully and we might be being lied to without even realizing it.

Tell you what. I'm with Jon Stewart on this one. I won't vote for someone for President unless I think he or she is as smart as I am or smarter, or if that's not possible, at least pretty close. Why would doing otherwise be a good idea? Although Forrest Gump and Chauncey Gardner may be able to muddle through and come out on top, why would it make sense in anything other than fiction and satire to take such a risk? We had a President for the last eight years to whom Paul Begala referred as a "high functioning moron" on national television. And look where it got us.

It's unfortunate that people of "average" intelligence aren't as wowed by intellectual brilliance as people of average looks are of exceptional physical beauty. It just isn't valued in the same way, even though it is arguably more important to the survival of the species. By a lot. It's sad and more than a little disturbing to think that being an intellectual, i.e., someone who has a high degree of intelligence and uses it, is something so many people in this country consider a negative.

I admit I may have been in denial about how strong the tradition of anti-intellectualism is in this country, and not only on a political level. I have put Richard Hoftstadter's book on this subject on my reading list; just reading the reviews is enlightening. I've come across in my own career a belief that where you go to school isn't important, that how smart you are isn't important, it's how practical you are and how well you solve problems and interact with people that is important. This seems to me a false dichotomy: either someone is smart and well-educated or a practical thinking problem solver and has people skills, but not both. In reality, it simply serves the purpose of organizations not to have critical thinkers doing that critical thinking thing they do that sets the boat a'rocking, so intellectualism becomes devalued.

I accept that there are many kinds of intelligence and that all have value. A President of the United States requires multiple types of intelligence to be effective. It's rare, though, in my experience, to find an exceptionally smart and well educated-person who, on balance, doesn't have better ability to think practically and to solve problems than someone who isn't smart and well-educated. I also think a curious, open mind is more likely to be an understanding and empathetic mind. Since the President's job is to represent all of the people, not just those who voted for him or her, understanding and empathy should not be underestimated.

It's no wonder that public education in this country is in a shambles when our leaders don't value intellectualism. If Obama wins, at least there's a hope that being smart will be cool.

And I'll go out and buy some new shades.


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