I’ve been having an argument today with my friend JJ about whether Sarah Palin is, as Jeeves says of his employer, “mentally negligible.” JJ (who btw is a hardcore libertarian who is voting for McCain on a lesser of two evils basis) watched the latest clips from the Katie Couric interview and decided she was. I hadn’t watched the clips, but in classic academic fashion I argued with him about it anyway, reasoning that while she is obviously a profoundly ignorant person in regard to the sorts of things a person who could become POTUS needs to know (like, um, various stuff about the US political and economic and social system), she surely isn’t stupid in the she has an IQ of 88 sense.
So I finally watched the clips and, well . . . let’s say my faith was shaken a bit. The best part are the cutaways to Katie Couric’s face, which betrays a truly priceless incredulity at what she’s hearing. What she’s hearing are long strings of semi-literate English sentences that are both profoundly unresponsive to Couric’s questions and seem to make little sense even as context-free linguistic gobbets.
Still, I don’t think Palin is an actual idiot. I think it’s extremely difficult for a person who knows almost nothing about a subject to fake her way through an interview on that subject, even if she’s got a cheat sheet (which Palin glances at several times) and has had her head crammed full of catch phrases and stock responses that for the last month she’s been coached to repeat.
Consider, for example, somebody who knows almost nothing about baseball having to fake a way through a conversation about baseball. Unless the person has a photographic memory and a gift for pathological lying, even a month of cramming on the subject isn’t going to create a knowledge base sufficient to fool any baseball fan into thinking this person really knows anything substantial about baseball.
Contemporary U.S. politics and its institutions comprise a much more complicated subject. People who have spent their lives learning about, arguing about, participating in, etc. national politics will find it easy to underestimate what a fantastic amount of knowledge they’ve accumulated over the years on these matters.
OK, I’m sipping a latte as I type this, so I’m going to be blunt: Sarah Palin is a completely uneducated hick from a nowhere town in the deepest backwoods. She has spent her life surrounded by 4,999 other people who have very similar backgrounds to herself. I’m sure she knows a great deal about all sorts of things that have come in handy in the context of her particular social circumstances, involving field dressing moose, fixing snowmobiles with tools assembled completely out of dryer lint, etc. But she doesn’t know ANYTHING about the sorts of things a person who might become POTUS needs to know. This is almost literally true. It’s like taking somebody whose knowledge of baseball is pretty much limited to being able to identify Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, and that a batter gets three strikes and that there are four bases on the field, and then naming them general manager of a major league club. It’s preposterous. It’s insane.
It’s also the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of populist politics — the idea that literally anybody can be a competent and effective president of the United States if she has the right values and is an ordinary hardworking salt of the earth real American, even if she knows nothing whatsoever about almost any of the stuff that you, ideally, would want someone to know something about before she got within hailing distance of the most powerful and important political office in the world.