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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Sarah Palin Has Come Out!

Sarah Palin has come out! She IS an intellectual. Well thank God that’s settled.

Now while you might think this puts paid to the question of whether she’s anti-intellectual, clearly it doesn’t. Why not? Simple logic.

A: Palin, Michele Bachmann, and the propagandists on Fox News have made it clear that they want to root out “anti-Americanism” in the US Congress and other dark corners of radical activity. (As Jon Stewart pointed out, this seems like a prefix away from a committee investing Un-Americanism. Great idea!) Palin has since back-pedaled for her related remarks , and apologized for implying that certain Americans are more patriotic than others, but I think the point still stands.

B: Those people are, in fact, Americans,  and this is considerably less a matter of opinion than Palin’s calling herself an intellectual. It’s also less relative.

Ergo: You can be both an American and an anti-American. Therefore by the power vested in me by the state of confusion, I hereby declare that Sarah Palin can be both intellectual and an anti-intellectual.

I wonder whether Sarah Palin would consider me an intellectual? I gather this isn’t a point she likes to concede but in my favor is the fact that I have an Ivy League PhD (in literature, no less) and am a paid-up, fully-fledged academic at an institute of higher education. From this I conclude that others might consider me an intellectual, although I hasten to add that in my experience the only people who call themselves intellectuals are also complete assholes.  I am sure there are some charming self-identified intellectuals out there. I’ve just never met any.

The issue, of course, and as ever, is definitions. Palin dismissed McCain’s slightly incorrect assertion that the fundamentals of the American economy were strong on the day that the global market meltdown began as a question of mere “verbage,” a neologism that I have adored ever since. (James Wood is quite contemptuous of it , saying it is like “garbage” but unlike “language” but I think this is unfair, for reasons I am going into in a piece for the Liberal. Watch this space!)

And the fact is that until the last few days I’ve found the discussion of “anti-intellectualism” in this campaign, already marked by its paucity, also revealingly, and emblematically, muddled. Commentators are slipping back and forth at will among class resentment, educational qualifications, intellectualism, and intelligence. These are all, of course, different things. And there is, of course, a reason why people are mixing them up. The Republicans are deliberately conflating them.

Thus in Slate a couple of weeks ago the XX factor blog  had an instructive debate, during which a conservative commentator named Rachael Larimore, whose thinking I normally admire, although I don’t usually agree with her conclusions, engaged in exactly the kind of slippage I’m talking about:

I don’t know anyone who feels a “nearly blood-thirsty anger against people who read books,” and I think it’s an unfair characterization. What makes people angry, and blood-thirsty, if we must go there, is when elites and intellectuals condescend to everyone else and belittle their views. … In this democracy of ours, we all get a vote. It doesn’t matter if you have read the complete works of James and Faulkner or if the highlight of your week is the latest issue of People magazine.

I think it also creates an us-vs.-them mentality that is neither accurate nor helpful. Me, I would love to be an “intellectual.” I would love to find eight layers of meaning in each novel I read and be able to sit down with studies on topics that interest me and just plow through them. But I’m not. My brain doesn’t work like that. But that doesn’t mean I’m unthinking or lack curiosity. I think the vast, vast majority of us live somewhere in the middle.

I don’t doubt that there are some people who proudly call themselves anti-intellectual (and I honestly don’t think that “governing from the gut,” as you write of President Bush, is the same thing at all). I think most people who fall into the category, whether they’d call themselves that are not, are too consumed by everyday concerns-working hard, paying the bills, maybe raising kids or taking care of elderly parents, and trying to squeeze it all in before collapsing in a heap at the end of the day-to worry about the same things that elites do. And when they’re tired or stressed out, they really don’t like being told their views are worth less than someone else’s.

What is useful about this piece, although it seems quite wrong-headed to me, is that it clarifies the moment of slippage, and the word required to make that slip, which is, of course “elite.”

Elitism in this context has been elided with intellectualism which is in turn elided with intelligence. So let’s clarify a few things. In order of difficulty:

1. Sarah Palin is by any reasonable national standard reasonably intelligent, if intelligence is a measure of your ability to reason, to grasp complex concepts, to employ logic, and to outwit other people. The question of how intelligent she is remains far more open; whether she is intelligent enough, ie, has the intellectual capacity, to do the job of Vice President is another question still. So far, on the evidence I have, I’d say not, but this assessment could change because intelligence is partly measured through knowledge, experience, reasoning etc and some of that comes through age, experience, etc. Intelligence is partly your capacity to learn: that she has. It is also your willingness to learn: that is less clear. She’s certainly neither ready nor qualified, but again these are all different points.  I am among those who suspect that she isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is, or as McCain thinks she is, which gives me further reason to doubt his acumen as well. Her intelligence certainly seems limited so far: by her susceptibility to prejudice, bias, and pre-determined thinking; by her failure to ask critical questions; by her evidently limited (not to say non-existent) capacity for self-criticism; and by her evidently limited vocabulary.

Now before anyone starts writing impassioned screeds about the inarticulate geniuses the world has known, let me clarify the final point.  I believe that an advanced vocabulary is necessary-although certainly not sufficient-to exceptional intelligence, because the simple fact is that complex thoughts cannot be, well, thought (or, indeed, well thought) without the language to conceive of, and formulate, those thoughts. (I accept that there are non-verbal languages for thinking; if Palin demonstrated extreme dexterity in mathematics, semiotics, or what Dan Brown calls “symbology” I might withdraw this charge).

2. Whether someone is an intellectual is different from whether they’re intelligent. Palin says in the People interview that reading a lot makes you an intellectual. I’d say that it makes you informed (assuming what you’re reading is informative, of course), and it can certainly make you better educated. It is possible to get a terrific and complete education entirely out of books. However it does not make you an intellectual. According to the OED, an intellectual is “An intellectual being; a person possessing or supposed to possess superior powers of intellect.” This seems to me more an historical usage than a contemporary one: I would argue that today intellectual means something more like “cerebral,” which is to say one who prioritizes the processes of intellection over emotion. And on this basis I’m going to have to say that Palin has done little to convince me she’s an intellectual. She strikes me as someone very driven by emotional decisions, rather than analytical or theoretical ones.

I also think Andrew Sullivan is right on the money when he points out that little about Sarah Palin’s life or family suggests  someone who places a premium upon education. To repeat: I do not think educations can only be acquired from universities. But it is a good place to start, and it is hard to take anyone’s claims for the importance of intellection seriously who doesn’t encourage their own children to pursue higher education. Or even to attend high school, apparently.

3. Intellectualism is different from both intellectuals and intelligence. According to the OED again (and here is a definition more consonant with my own understanding of how we use the word in practice), intellectualism is “The exercise of the intellect alone; devotion to merely intellectual culture or pursuits.” This is the point: someone who primarily, or solely (not sure where the OED of all sources gets off with that “merely”!) uses their intellect. Intellectualism is partly what Larimore is talking about in her blog. Intellectualism is  a belief in, or practice or support of academic thinking, abstract, theoretical, conceptual, critical and/or analytical thinking.

There are those who think that this is a luxury, because it takes time. Some of us do it more automatically (and perhaps quickly) than others, it must be said. My sister once dated a guy who came to my family’s Christmas, and then announced on the drive home that he thought my family was over-analytical. My sister, who is nicer than I am, accepted this criticism. I told him it must be nice to know precisely the right amount of analysis to employ in any given situation, and how lucky for him that he naturally employed exactly that amount of analysis.

Intellectualism is surely not only reading Faulkner and James, and sitting around discussing them, but also thinking that is worthwhile, important, a reasonable way to spend your day and perhaps a reasonable way to earn a living–and arguing for its priority in our lives.

4. Elites are different yet again, and here is where the majority of the confusion comes in. (Intelligence and intellectualism are obviously quite easy to distinguish if people can just be bothered to make the effort.) Elites are those who are privileged; and they are those who excel at a given pursuit. It is this slippage that causes the mess. Access to education is, in America, not entirely egalitarian. But it is not entirely unegalitarian either. Some people access “elite” educations because they have “elite” intellectual abilities. Some people access “elite” educations because they have rich parents (W., take a bow). And then there are the elites who control politics, institutions, corporations: “elite” as not “excellent” but “powerful.”

So here’s the point. In our country (and indeed in the UK where I live) the idea that intellectuals are ipso facto elite is frankly a joke. I am an intellectual, by the definitions I give above (well, not the superior intellect part, unless you’re comparing me to stupid people, which you might be). I am paid to discuss James and Faulkner. I am well-educated: I went to an Ivy League university for my PhD. In some ways,  I was very privileged: I come from a well-educated professional background, without deprivation, and was raised by a family that stresses the value of education and intellectual attainment. I may be “intellectually” elite. (I hope that I am intellectually excellent, but that is for others to judge. I fear I’m not, but I try my best.) I am not institutionally elite. I don’t have power. I don’t have money. I don’t have luxury. (Again unless you compare me to the poor or deprived, in which case I do; it’s all comparative.)

Larimore and the people she speaks for don’t want an “us vs them mentality” but at the end of the day, believe me, I’m too tired to argue about James and Faulkner too. Not least because I spent the day arguing about them, as an underpaid and often thankless task. And then I too come home and worry about how I’m going to pay my bills, and care for those who need my help, and all of the above.

The idea that spending some of your time arguing about James and Faulkner somehow liberates you from the concerns of ordinary existence is one of the silliest things I’ve heard in a long time.  At the end of the day it’s still hard work, and it still has lots of misery attached. Just like “real life.” After which I get attacked and told that I don’t understand ordinary people, although I am told those ordinary people also read, they just don’t read the same books. So the question of whether you’re an elite comes down to which novelists you read?

Elites have either inherited privilege, like a certain occupant of the White House, which may or may not give them access to elite educations. As that same occupant has so amply proved, having access to an elite education does not an intellectual make. Or elites have acquired their wealth and privilege, either by earning it (Barack Obama) or not (yeah, I just can’t bring myself to think that Palin has earned her current privilege.) Being elite is about access to power, wealth, and the luxury it affords.

So: elites don’t need to work. In principle, this gives them the time to sit around arguing about James and Faulkner. Most of them don’t avail themselves of this opportunity, needless to say. Intellectuals, if we’re talking about academics who read James and Faulkner, do need to work, they just have a job that some people consider a luxury.

It is true that there is an occasional correlation between the two. But they are not the same thing and while defending “ordinary” people against sneering by “intellectuals” these guys are doing some powerful sneering, based on just as reductive categorical thinking, as the people they think they’re arguing against.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, bleating about the concerns of the common woman, is decked out in $150,000 suits. Believe me, that looks like being a member of an elite from where I sit.


  1. I agree that there are different type of intelligence; those who study education know Gardner’s model, and attempt to recognize these in those they teach.  Being intelligent does not necessarily mean excellence at “book learning.”  It does, however, mean the expression of one’s self through a particular brand of “smart” (for lack of a better word.)  Granted, if Palin is perhaps “Picture Smart,” (i.e., she’s a great artist,) then it’s possible we haven’t seen that because of the media through which we have observed her.  That being said, there is an “Interpersonal Intelligence” that is commonly attributed to actors and politicians.  It involves being sensitive to “moods and feelings of others”, as well as the ability to deal with multiple perspectives.  From what we have seen, I’d say that Palin scores a big “no” on that front.

    The major thing that has consistently bothered me since I’ve apparently become a member of the intellectual educated elite is that there seems to be an underlying assumption that those with college degrees “look down” on those that don’t.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Personally, I equivocate an electrician’s training with a college degree in the sense that it prepares them for a career.  Bluntly: I am not trained as an electrician.  If I tried to rewire my house, it quite possibly would be deadly.  They are a professional, and I therefore don’t regard them as any less of one just because they don’t have a college degree.  


  2. DeniseVelez

    as well.  And grew up with intellectual parents (dad’s PhD thesis was on the Elizabethan spectacle, mom’s MA – compartive consumer economics)

    I think however, in Palin-speak that would also make me a terrorist-leaning urban un-American socialist.

    Fine. I’ll cop to it.

    Off to school to teach a whole new batch of future inteleectuals.

    Have a good day.


  3. spacemanspiff

    I’d love to add my 0.02 cents but this is a bit “above my pay grade”.



    Not much I can add to it.

    Great analysis.

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