(Editor’s Note: Author and distinguished professor of literature Jack Matthews wrote this provocative essay in 2010 — publishing it first in the Athens News. Over his writing career Matthews rarely wrote about politics — although he certainly kept up with scandals and the news. He had always considered himself to be a conservative in the Teddy Roosevelt sense and admired Sarah Palin’s populist and anti-elitist rhetoric — critics be damned!)
No doubt that title will astonish most readers, and as nearly as such things can be measured, 82% of you will be so irritated that you’ll be tempted to forego whatever ensues. Nevertheless, you should be patient, for it is a real question and it opens up real possibilities, not confined to the obvious difficulty in clearly defining exactly what “intelligence” is, as used by rational people–which is to say, people who are … well, intelligent.
The greatest problem in recent political discourse, however, is the inability of the more rabid blue-state liberals, obsessed with feasting upon Sarah Palin’s image, to distinguish general intelligence from sophistication. Sophistication is a sort of intelligence, of course; but only a sort, and not the best, for it is superficial and of the moment; it is, in the old locution, simply being “with it.” It is epitomized by a recent New York Times piece on Scott Selby, a photographer whom the Times once labeled “an arbiter of cool”; then later we’re told that his website is “part who’s who of global hip” — I mean, how sophisticated can a mere human being be?
Much sophistication is of the east coast, but it is perhaps most vividly an Ivy League code, one that can be mastered by any quasi-intellectual capable of parroting the obligatory shibboleths and reciting them in the proper context and order, and doing so with the arrogance of surety. Being of the moment is essential to the cult of sophistication, and to deviate from whatever the latest latest might be is to be stigmatized as “so yesterday!” Even the sophisticates of yesterday couldn’t qualify — after all, how cool were Edith Wharton and Henry James, and what did they know about global hip?
Mastering the code is so easy because it requires little of what could be mistaken for actual thinking; rather, it is essentially an emotional salve, which is to say, it is communication at the feely-touchy level. Wild-eyed Liberals are the most emotional creatures on earth, and part of their ardency is expressed in their conviction that they are “intellectual”. For example, a recent polite-sneer job about Glenn Beck in The New Yorker was nothing but a sustained exercise in sophomoric rhetoric, without the least nod toward substance. Granted that Beck can be irritating; and granted that he is a clown . . . even so, a clown can sometimes be the smartest loony in the bin (e.g. the Fool in King Lear).
As for Obama: it is astonishing to witness the mindless ongoing worship of his mind. Everyone speaks of his intelligence, precisely as they either pity poor Sarah Palin’s lack thereof or pretend that her being one of the folks — a “populist” — excuses her from the need to rely upon anything in the way of complex problem solving, since common sense is all that’s needed for serving as the President of the United States (examples of presidents limited to some exiguous version of common sense are available to us all, according to our prejudices).
But exactly how intelligent is Obama? Must not intelligence be manifest at some level, and in some way, in action? Obviously; if it weren’t, it would be no more than a verbal ghost. And upon close examination, much of Obama’s intelligence dwindles into various poses of sophistication. He talks like a Harvard graduate and he seems to think like one, which isn’t very impressive, when you . . . well, think about it. Years ago, in a Dick Cavett interview, Anthony Burgess (the author of A Clockwork Orange and a real by-God intellectual) understood this, saying that any worthwhile literature coming out of the US would come from the hinterland, not the Ivy Leagues.
As for Obama’s actions: most simply will not pass disinterested scrutiny. His shoveling such great sums of money into the automobile industry, for example, was risky because neither he nor any of his advisors paused to ask themselves who was going to buy all of those cars being goosed into production. Like most of today’s markets, the car market is nearly surfeited, to a large extent because we’re victims of our own technology. Most cars today can be expected to run for 200,000 miles, rather than the 60 thousand that were a car’s limit only sixty years ago. Here, of course, Obama was simply reflecting the liberal/leftist assumption that the primary goal of industry is to provide jobs for workers rather than produce consumer goods.
Then not too long after the automobile bail-out, Obama began to talk about mass transit systems; but luckily for his reputation, even among his giddy followers, he hasn’t dwelt much upon that, conceivably because some spoil sport in his administration was bright-enough to understand what a negative effect a mass transit system would have on the auto industry.
One could go on and on, citing the gaudy mistakes of this administration in, for example, a foreign policy pretty much confined to Bushwhacking and confessions of our collective US guilt in creating all of the world’s grief. And then there are the grotesque specimens he’s chosen for his cabinet, such as Eric Holder as Attorney General, who wasted a lot of time trying to indict the CIA water-boarders, accusing them of subjecting the hoodlum terrorists to a torture that many of the CIA members themselves had voluntarily undergone. (Axiom: torture can be defined as that which no rational person would willingly endure. Logic, anyone?)
So given all of this, how did Obama get elected as President? Essentially, he got elected because of his mastery of the rhetorical short-jab, which is to say, his skill in segregating his speech into units of 5 to 15 words, each unit bound by a dramatic drop in his voice, suggestive of finality and conviction. . . which are in turn suggestive of a mastery of the subject in question. This rhetorical flair is the essence of his celebrated gift for being articulate.
Does all of this add up to an indictment of Obama’s intelligence? Does it turn out that he is, after all, actually stupid? Of course not. Much of the stupidity in his decisions derives from the essentially emotional bias of Liberals, which enables them to utilize logic sufficiently to maneuver through some of the treacherous channels of their political premises, but hardly achieve a lucidity and breadth compatible with profundity or wisdom. Of course Obama is intelligent; successfully running the campaign gauntlet is undeniably some measure of intelligence. Nevertheless, his intelligence is imprisoned within the confines of the gothic infatuations of a doctrinaire Liberalism.
On the other hand, just how bright is Sarah Palin? Where can she be placed on some scale of mental competence? Let us begin with, yes, “common sense” and point out that anyone who can manage the affairs of state — any state — is obviously above average on any conceivable scale of analytic capacity. No matter how loudly we might indulge ourselves by protesting the “stupidity” of executive decisions, we know that anyone (Palin as well as, yes, Obama) who has attained to a public office and then guided the affairs of state with a reasonable approach to competence has more than average brains. Our outcries against an office holder are more often than not emotional, whether we’re yelling from the left or the right. (Sure, I admit to being one of the yellers, only I do try to domesticate my passions with reason.)
Thus it is that we can understand that all of the snide comments about Sarah Palin’s stupidity are in themselves stupid, many of them made by talk-show hosts and comics. But could anyone seriously believe that most of those talk show luminaries are smarter than she? Come on! — they’ve simply mastered a certain glib familiarity with the sophistication code, which they .parrot with predictable success to their sophisticated groundlings sitting in open-mouthed infatuation at their incantations of nastiness.
Aside from her being beautiful, thus easily classified as an air-head by the crass media (no one seems to have mentioned the sexism behind all the viciousness directed at her), Sarah Palin’s greatest problem is simply her obvious lack of sophistication. Among the sophisticated, her religious orthodoxy (especially despised because it is fundamentalist Christian rather than an “exotic” faith) is superannuated, quaint, dangerous. It is immediately and unthinkingly dismissed as a long-discredited infatuation, best forgotten in this brave new world of infinite license, immediate gratification, and moral entropy disguised as tolerance.
And yet, is it impossible for a truly intelligent person to be a fundamentalist Christian? It is easy, as well as sophisticated, to assume that it is; but such an assumption is philosophically naïve, in that it is a judgement (like many of our judgements, alas!) made from some assumed vantage point of absolute, capital-T Truth. By implication it implies that those who arrive at such a posture of contempt are themselves free of the confinement in any sort of premise that is philosophically, epistemologically fallible; whereas even a sophomore course in philosophy should relieve one of such a grotesque folly — providing, of course, that philosophy course is not offered at Harvard. As a physicist once remarked with profane accuracy: “There are no immaculate perceptions.”
Human intelligence is always to some extent in thrall to the premises of our thinking, and those premises are essentially emotional, often rooted in the dark soil of our early years. Think of all the people who are well-trained, at least — if not “educated” in the most honorific sense — who subscribe to utterly irrational belief systems. Are they stupid? Of course not; many of them are doctors, lawyers and engineers, therefore obviously intelligent in simply being able to operate effectively within their disciplines; and while much of their thinking is by definition rigidly confined in somewhat narrow semantic structures, we do not dishonor them by calling them “stupid”—nor should any reasonable person who is emancipated from the insidious bias of sophistication, fail to understand that, in her way, Sarah Palin is a bright woman.
Can it be inferred that my defense of Sarah Palin’s intelligence means that I personally subscribe to everything she believes? Of course not (I can’t even subscribe to what I myself believe at different times and in different situations). But not agreeing with her one-hundred percent does not entitle me to call her stupid, any more than my not agreeing with President Obama endows me with such a privilege. These two people are both intelligent, but they do it in different ways — which is, after all, how intelligence works, all the way from a fundamentalist religious faith to the contemporary glitz of Ivy League sophistication. Within both of these two strikingly different matrices, intelligence can happen, and that is a fact that should never be forgotten by decent and, well, intelligent people.
Jack Matthews (1925-2013) is an Ohio-based author who taught literature at Ohio University for 40+ years. He has published over 25 books of nonfiction and fiction. Since 2010 Personville Press has been publishing some Matthews titles as low-priced ebooks.