Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Sam Harris on Sarah Palin

No, not literally (yeow, there’s an image I don’t need). Harris had some wonderful commentary in Newsweek on the Republican VP candidate. Of particular worth is the following comment regarding “elitism” in US politics:

Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth–in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated.

I never understood how people could see the “just a plain guy” image as a positive in situations such as this. I would never want a presidential candidate whose idea of a good time is having a beer with me. I want someone who would be stultifyingly bored by the concept. I certainly don’t want someone who’s just like the average citizen. I want someone who is way, way, way smarter than the average citizen. Otherwise, we might as well use a lottery system for the presidency. Are people really so threatened by the intelligence of others that they’d gladly forfeit their future for immediate emotional comfort?

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    September 21, 2008

    It’s particularly galling that the “who’d you rather have a beer with” concept was introduced by the Bush gang in 2000, and dutifully parroted by all the corporate-media bobbleheads.

    George. Dubious. Bush. For crysake.

    And nobody brought up the obvious problem with that idea applied to that person.

    You’d think none of them had ever seen what happens when a problem drunk falls off the wagon…

  2. #2 GrayGaffer
    September 21, 2008

    “I want someone who is way, way, way smarter than the average citizen” – yeah, right on, been saying that myself for years now. Only one other qualification – want a really really smart person who does not want the job, at least not for itself and its power, but for its service.

    The job for one person in 300 million should be the job for the best one person in three hundred million. What other employer hires the most popular instead of the best qualified? (I think I just answered that one – Hollywood)

  3. #3 Warren
    September 22, 2008

    Are people really so threatened by the intelligence of others that they’d gladly forfeit their future for immediate emotional comfort?

    Yes.

  4. #4 tony
    September 22, 2008

    Warren you beat me to it!!!

    I’m a consultant – typically all more or less elitist and expected to be (or so you would think).

    I’ve had clients ask for certain highly performing team members be removed from projects because… their staff feel threatened by them. They need consultants they ‘can have a beer with’. And this is in STRATEGY consulting – where else would an egghead consultant WORK ferchrissakes!

    Stoopid is infecting every avenue of life.

    I need to retire and live on an island.

  5. #5 Daryl McCullough
    September 22, 2008

    I mostly agree with you, but there is one point that needs clarification. There is a distinction between elitism in means and elitism in ends. If a government policy only benefits the elites, that is certainly not what ordinary people want. That isn’t as much of a concern with your other examples of the elites. What a pilot, or an athlete, or a doctor is attempting is (mostly, anyway) fixed, and the only variable is how well it is accomplished. In contrast, a politician may very well be an expert at accomplishing what he is trying to accomplish, but you still wouldn’t want him in power, because you don’t want what he’s trying to accomplish.

    Of course, whether a politician drinks beer or Dom Perignon is a poor indicator of the direction he would take the country.

  6. #6 chris y
    September 24, 2008

    Every so often I’m driven to tell people to go read this. It was published 57 years ago; it explains everything. (Also, it’s extremely funny.)

  7. #7 Aaron Durst
    September 28, 2008

    Wise people are foolish if they cannot adapt to foolish people.
    –Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

    A wise man is a man who knows how little he knows. Socrates.

    Generally, the American people do not reject “elites” because they are wise, they reject them because they are fools who have not learned to adapt nor recognize how little they know.

  8. #8 JimFiore
    September 28, 2008

    It sounds pretty, Aaron, but I see no evidence for that assertion.

  9. #9 Aaron Durst
    September 28, 2008

    Sam Harris has expressed the sentiment (and you endorsed that view) that Americans are rejecting intellectual elites because they can not relate to the “foolish” Americans who reject them and because they are so intellectually elite. Hence, if Sam Harris, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Socrates are all correct, does it not logically follow that these intellectual elites are being rejected because they are foolish and because they overemphasized the value of their own knowledge? It seems to me that the only way you can say that my logic is incorrect is by proving that 2 of the 3 aforemnetioned individuals are wrong. Which 2 are wrong? Good luck answering that question.

  10. #10 JimFiore
    September 28, 2008

    “(the American people) reject them because (the elites) are fools who have not learned to adapt nor recognize how little they know”

    Kindly show proof of this statement instead of a deflection. Thank you.

  11. #11 Aaron Durst
    September 30, 2008

    Sam Harris claims that “we … want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth–in fact…”
    Sam Harris’ claim is the logical equivalent of Americans are rejecting wise people because the wise people cannot relate to the foolish Americans.
    Montaigne claims “Wise people are foolish if they cannot adapt to foolish people.”
    If Montaigne is correct, then the wise people that Sam Harris speaks of are foolish because they cannot relate to the foolish Americans.
    Furthermore, Sam Harris’ claim is that these foolish people are being rejected exactly for the reason that makes them foolish.
    Hence, Sam Harris’ claim becomes the logical equivalent of “Americans are rejecting the elites because they are foolish”.

    Sam Harris claims that “we … want someone…, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated”.
    Sam Harris’ claim is the logical equivalent of the American people reject elites who seem too intelligent or well educated.
    Socrates claims A wise man is a man who knows how little he knows.
    If Socrates is correct, a wise man knows he knows very little.
    A wise man that knows he knows very little will acknowledge that he knows very little.
    A wise man that acknowledges that he knows very little will not seem too intelligent or [too] well educated.
    Hence, if a person seems too intelligent or well educated, they must not have acknowledge how little they know.
    Hence, Sam Harris’ claim becomes the logical equivalent of “Americans are rejecting elites because they do not acknowledge how little they know”.

  12. #12 JimFiore
    September 30, 2008

    Nope. Sorry, those are not logical equivalents.

  13. #13 Aaron Durst
    September 30, 2008

    “we … want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth–in fact…”
    Americans are rejecting wise people because the wise people cannot relate to the foolish Americans.
    Are these 2 statements logically equivalent?
    If they are not logical equivalents, why?
    If they are logical equivalents, why doesn’t the line of reasoning provided prove the conclusion.

    “we … want someone…, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated”.
    American people reject elites who seem too intelligent or well educated.
    Are these 2 statements logically equivalent?
    If not, why?
    If so, why doesn’t this line of reasoning I provided prove the conclusion I provided?

  14. #14 hopper3011
    October 1, 2008

    “we … want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth–in fact…”
    Americans are rejecting wise people because the wise people cannot relate to the foolish Americans.
    Are these 2 statements logically equivalent?

    I would say that they are logically equivalent, but that you are mis-stating the argument. In my view, Sam Harris’s argument is not that the average voter is rejecting candidates that appear to him/her to be “elite”, since it is obvious that they are, rather he is evincing surprise that this criterion of “relateability” – that you have to be like someone in order to properly represent him/her – is considered a necessary criterion for candidate selection at all. Is it not more important to have the ability to empathise?
    Your response explains to a certain extent how the criterion works, but doesn’t actually explain WHY being able to claim common roots/experience with the average voter should be considered a necessary qualification for a candidate.
    I tend to agree with Sam Harris; “eliteism” (I won’t go into whether or not the people branded with this neo-epithet are actually “elite” or not) is not actually a bar to empathy.
    I lived in South Africa during the period when apartheid was overthrown, and I can tell you that not one single black politician voted to end the system, because there weren’t any, just white politicians with empathy.
    The abolishment of slavery; women’s sufferage; the end of apartheid – all of these things were legislated on by people who were very different (“elite”) from the people who were directly affected, but this difference did not prove to be a bar to empathy.
    In order for you to claim that your Montaigne and Socrates “quotations” (I put the word “quotations” in brackets since neither are sourced and I know that, at least, the Socrates “quote” is a fake) are germane to the discussed fallacy (that only a person like you can empathise with you) you will need to demonstrate HOW the “elites” are failing to represent their constituencies – concrete examples of a lack of empathy. In my view your quotes and accusations are a red herring and your argument is ill-founded and specious.