Sunday, September 21, 2008

Palin, Elitism, and Incompetence

It appears as if secularists are (accidentally) giving a united message on Governor Palin's nomination as Vice President, and it is a message that we need to strengthen.

This morning, I read an online article by Sam Harris in Newsweek explaining not only why Palin is unfit to be President, but why we need to rethink the standards for evaluating political candidates.

(See: Newsweek, When Atheists Attack)

I have an objection to the headline. And I think this headline is worthy of significant protest. Sam Harris is an atheist, not atheists. I have identified this type of inference from a member within a group to the group as a whole to be one of the purest forms of bigotry.

Harris' remarks have nothing to do with being an atheist, and could have been written by a liberal Christian, who sees just as much reason to worry about having a President who gets her instructions from God and believes the end days are here, as an Atheist.

However, putting that objection aside, Harris makes some valuable points about how we go about selecting political leaders - particularly on the charge of "elitism".

We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence.

Palin is not unqualified to be President because she lacks experience. She is unqualified because she lacks knowledge.

Is it hypocritical to condemn Palin on these grounds but not to condemn Obama?

Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago from 1992 to 2004. This requires a significant engagement with many of the issues that the President will have to deal with. It meant a requirement to understand both (all) sides of those issues - opinions, concurring opinions, dissenting opinions - on issues ranging from privacy to interstate commerce to the power to declare war.

Another source giving a similar message about Palin that I ran across yesterday was a section of Bill Maher's "Real Time".

Maher: It's about her being not very bright, and not very knowledgeable. Forget inexperience.

(See: PoliGazette, Andrew Sullivan Clashes with Bill Maher over Religion)

One of Maher's guests, Naomi Klein, described the nature of the problem in more detail.

Palin is much closer to four more years of Bush. I mean, you have all of these traits in common. A fear of blinking, for instance . . . a certainty that is completely incommensurate with any knowledge or experience, secrecy and unwillingness to cooperate with inquiries, a belief that foreign policy is dictated by God, I mean, she's basically Bush in drag.

Some of Klein's statements are derogatory and irrelevent in a sense that I would consider worthy of condemnation. But this does not eliminate the part that is relevant for this post.

And Andrew Sullivan was absolutely livid about Palin's nomination.

We have to talk about Palin. . . She is a farce. The nomination of this person to be potentially President of the United States next January . . . is a joke. It is absurd. It is something that should be dismissed out of hand as the most irresponsible act that any candidate has ever made.

Sullivan later clashes with Maher on the issue of criticism of religion. His branding of McCain's act as irresponsible has nothing to do with religion.

And this is a point that needs to be stressed. McCain made this mistake. However, McCain did not make it because he was following scripture or because he even shares Palin's religious views. McCain performed this irresponsible act for purely secular reasons - because he wants to be President and he is willing to put the country at risk to get that title.

McCain is gambling that Palin will help him get elected and then, as President, he can keep Palin silent in the Vice President's office while he runs the country. But, he has to realize that there is a terrible risk that his plan will go terribly wrong. Still, McCain's error is not religious. It is secular.

There are, then, two points that can be stressed with respect to the Palin nomination.

The first message is that competence matters. There is a virtue in knowing what was in talking about. Harris has an excellent example in which Palin addresses her certainty and competence in her ability to perform brain surgery on a child because she is, after all, a mother and because the country wants a change in how neurosurgical decisions are made in this country - a shift from "elite" neurosurgeons to mothers untrained in any medical practice.

The second message is that this is not an atheist objection to Palin. The McCain camp will try to disarm this objection by linking it with atheism. In fact, we can expect that the McCain camp will try to disarm these objections by branding them atheist - because a majority of the population has been taught (by our government) to think that anything an atheist says is worthy only of being dismissed. The point is to counter these objections by claiming how they are insulting to many people who are not atheists, but who still value competence in our political leaders. These critics are the ones who are saying that only atheists can value competence.

These two messages must be delivered in the same package. If they are, they will not only have a positive effect on this election, but on future elections as well.

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