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.

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