Smart as Paint

by on October 6, 2008 · 19 comments

I remark briefly on the commentary “how smart is Palin,” noting her mispronunciation of “verbiage” and “pundit.” I’d suggest that observers be wary of assessing qualifications based on this kind of thing. Example: one very well-educated person I know, whose IQ is high enough to qualify enough for Mensa, mispronounces several words because he was socially isolated for his formative years and formed the habit of saying them before he had the chance to hear others pronounce them correctly. I don’t mean he was shut in a closet, which wouldn’t be relevant as Palin clearly hasn’t been, but just that he lived in a rural area where most of his peers were relatively uneducated.

In any case, it is curious that the anxious analysis of Palin, stemming from the fact that she is relatively unknown, seems to turn on characteristics of social class rather than on information about her decision-making as an executive. What significant choices about things like taxes, education policy, resources, and so on was she faced with as governor? What did she do in those situations? Why? What were the alternatives? Many voters probably do elect candidates based on how someone talks or looks, but mightn’t it be nice for a change for the talking classes to assess a candidate on policy? Would she make a better political candidate if some professor had had a couple months to drill her on vocabulary and delivery, like the hapless flower seller Eliza whats-her-name?

A second curiousity is the very common assumption that IQ is relevant to the ability to be a decent President. I’ll have to explain what I mean by this at some length, as I’m aware this is heresy of sorts for intelligentsia. There seems to be some sort of hankering after rule by some of Plato’s philosopher-kings, natural or otherwise.

I have met a good many intelligent, educated people who would make spectacularly bad Presidents. An alarming number of them in fact make quite bad whatever it is that they are supposed to be, professors, for example, or parents. Some have marked neuroses–they are paranoid, dishonest, depressive, addicted, passive-aggressive, and so on. A good number are too immature or insecure to admit or identify other’s strong points as complements to their own weaknesses, or admit their own errors. Others can’t shut up to listen to someone else talk for two minutes together, and if they do happen to fall silent are busy thinking up what they are going to say next, rather than actually taking in new information. Then there are others who lack the moral courage to actually follow a line of reasoning or argument, if it would mean the disapproval of their peers or, worse, their students. Others are so accustomed to being praised for the cleverness and quickness of their reasoning that they do not stop to check the facts upon which that reasoning is based. A significant number are hide-bound-incapable of exercising their judgment to make an exception to a general rule, even when that means disaster.

Scholars whose work makes a real contribution (Bob Summers of Cornell is one example known to me; Richard Epstein is another) are as a general rule smart, but cleverness is *not* the most marked characteristic of their personalities. One characteristic is boundless curiousity that drives them to question their own views as well as others in order to get to the bottom of things, not minding that they might discover themselves to be wrong; their views as a result may shift over the course of a lifetime. Ego and impressing others is less important to them than knowing the answer. Another characteristic is an appetite for facts–historical, scientific, economic, and so on. Another is a sort of in-grained disinterest in attacking straw men–their response to a poorly worded challenge is not to take the opportunity to mock the challenger, it would be to rephrase the challenge cogently, giving the challenger the benefit of the doubt, and then to respond to that. I could go on, but I won’t. The point is just that even in an area where intelligence supposedly matters so much, academics, it isn’t everything and indeed all too often turns out to be not much of anything, with the brilliant head of this or that class whipping off an article or two, or dozens, that are frankly unreadable and that twenty years from now will be entirely forgotten.

Leadership, likewise, seems linked to qualities other than intelligence. One is confidence and maturity. Another is the ability to attract, tolerate, and mediate among advisors of differing opinions–including some dissenters and eccentrics. Being surrounded by yes-men or opportunists, consistently placing loyalty above ability, is a disaster for a leader. This has, however, little to do with intelligence. Personal charisma does play a role, associated with the ability of a leader to empathize with individuals or to appear to–a noted Bill Clinton trait. So does being good judge of character. So does guts.

Last but not least, it strikes me that the apparently endless analysis of Palin’s more superficial characteristics is likely to miss the mark because it misses an obvious clue. Palin’s political trajectory is rather out of the ordinary. There is, therefore, quite possibly some striking quality that she possesses that helps to explain this–one candidate quality being raw moral courage. For that matter, analysis of Barack Obama and his similarly unusual trajectory might benefit from a similar examination; what has he got that people want? I am skeptical that at the end of day intelligence matters to followers as much as other marks of character.

  • http://fluff.info/blog B

    Yes, intelligence is not sufficient to determine whether somebody is presidential material. But are you implying that it's not necessary either?

    It's hard to pin down what we're thinking when we say `that person is smart.' Some just go by credentials, which I'd say you're right to question. Diction is also a lousy means of measuring intelligence (though in another sense of `diction' that's what the SAT does). But other measures make more sense, like having quick responses to surprises, or offering new syntheses of old ideas, or generally being able to quickly thread things together to form a complex thought. I would say that these sorts of intelligence _are_ necessary for a president (but still not sufficient).

    Meanwhile, Gov. Palin refused to go off-script in the debate (“I'm not gonna answer that question”), and has famously fumbled when attempting to do so. I want a President who has the intelligence/reflexes/social wit/whatever to go off-script and present ideas apropos to the situation.

  • mwendy

    Did I miss something in these last couple of weeks. Sarah Palin's not running for President. This may be off topic here, but so is the “I want a President” line in the above comment. It's purposely muddy.

    Regardless, she can probably do the job at least as well as as JM, BO and JB. In fact, she's the only one in the bunch with “executive” experience.

  • BD

    Counting the number of weaknesses an intelligent person can have does not indicate that it is not (or less) useful to a candidate. Surely there many other characteristics that a candidate should have, but this isn't a professorship or a middle management position. This is a Unique job within this government.

    As for Palin's political trajectory. To me it seems circumstantial, and not related to here experience or abilities, other that to rouse a far-right republican base to get to the voting booth.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Aside from her inability to form coherent English sentences, Palin is disturbing for her intellectually incurious nature. We've had some recent experience with persons of that sort, and it hasn't been good.

    Her rise to power seems to be predicated on her ability to rouse the passions of the religious conservative base and her willingness to stick the knife into her benefactors. Alaska is strewn with the corpses of politicians who helped Palin along her way. She's already doing it to McCain, publicly disagreeing with him on campaign tactics and strategy.

  • mwendy

    Richard, methinks you're not of her political persuasion, so I wonder how you can come to such a quick conclusion on the passions she stirs. How would you know?

    I like her not for what you say (which I think is wrong anyway), but rather because I feel she represents a fresh face and change for a party that needs to reconnect with (or at least better communicate its worth to) average Americans.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Are you kidding? I was ready to vote for McCain before he tapped Palin, and wrote favorably about his tech policy vs. Obama's. There's much about Obama that disturbs me, especially his unsavory associations. Did you know he pals around with Larry Lessig, America's Greatest Living Charlatan?

    But Palin is such an extremely unsavory, reckless, opportunistic mess that I've been forced to set ideology aside to oppose any move that would bring her closer to the Oval Office.

    And I could not care less about the opinions of Average Americans. I realize they have a say in who governs them, but that doesn't mean that we need one a heartbeat away from the nucular codes.

    And it's hardly a “quick conclusion” after 6 weeks of watching her interviews and seeing how she gets the Faithul aroused at her rallies. She's lately been as much as urging people to assassinate Obama, which is way over the line, needless to say.

    Is she a conservative? No, she raised taxes on oil companies. Is she a libertarian? No, she wants “vigorous overseeing” of the financial sector. Is she a sensible person? Well, she's been freed of witchcraft influences, so that's a start.

    I understand the president doesn't need to be a genius, FDR wasn't one. But lacking that, she needs to have some character and a sane temperament, and I don't see that from the Republican side this year.

  • mwendy

    Richard, I think the ad hominem makes cheap what you say. It makes me think of the BO San Fran speech about religion, guns and antipathy. Even after the NY Times/liberal media “interpreted” it, there's nothing positive there. When you trot out the religion lines, they're emotional, not designed to be anything more but pokes in the eye.

  • http://thevitaminkid.blogspot.com autodidact

    Camille Paglia expresses roughly similar sentiments about Palin in her latest Slate column, though her enthusiasm is also related to what Palin means for feminism.

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/paglia/2008/10/08/

    And Paglia is confirmed in her support for Obama, BTW.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I didn't make an ad hominem argument (or even an ad feminam one,) mwendy, I directly addressed the person's character. You made an ad hominem argument when you tried to dismiss my critique of Palin on the grounds of my supposed Democratic Party membership.

    Literacy is fundamental.

  • Sneeje

    Well, regardless, her point is still valid. Your arguments boil down to subjective, unsubstantiated, and vitriolic opinions. I agree with mwendy. As I read your comments, I cannot help picturing the commercial about the spot remover where the spot on the guy's shirt talks gibberish and drowns out whatever the guy is trying to say in his job interview. As I read pointlessly ignorant words like “charlatan, unsavory, reckless, and opportunistic mess” I just ignore any point you try to make.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    It seems to me that judgments about politicians always boil down to subjective analysis, Sneeje, as we don't have a fact-checking authority to keep the unqualified off the ballot. Some millions of Democrats and Republicans nominated the heads of their respective tickets, and these men made subjective and personal judgments about who their seconds should be.

    I hope you don't mean to say that I don't have the freedom to dislike Sarah Palin or to doubt her preparation and temperament to hold high office, as that would be objectively anti-democratic.

    It's my judgment that she should not be on major party ticket, and I don't see anything like a coherent policy framework emanating from the various speeches, interviews, and debates that she's engaged in. Rather, I see a person who is skilled at manipulating the passions of certain crowds, and a person whose ambition is apparently boundless.

    I don't care for her.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    It seems to me that judgments about politicians always boil down to subjective analysis, Sneeje, as we don't have a fact-checking authority to keep the unqualified off the ballot. Some millions of Democrats and Republicans nominated the heads of their respective tickets, and these men made subjective and personal judgments about who their seconds should be.

    I hope you don't mean to say that I don't have the freedom to dislike Sarah Palin or to doubt her preparation and temperament to hold high office, as that would be objectively anti-democratic.

    It's my judgment that she should not be on major party ticket, and I don't see anything like a coherent policy framework emanating from the various speeches, interviews, and debates that she's engaged in. Rather, I see a person who is skilled at manipulating the passions of certain crowds, and a person whose ambition is apparently boundless.

    I don't care for her.

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