Sam Harris on Sarah Palin

As of 1700 UT on Sept. 4, 2008, Sam "The End of Faith" Harris had attracted 986 comments to a piece on Sarah Palin he wrote for the LA Times. I guess I need to write a bestseller attacking religion if I want to draw that kind of traffic. And imagine how long ago ScienceBlogs would have celebrated our millionth comment if Sam were writing for us.... But I digress. it was a good little essay, one that has more to say of note about the political zeitgeist in the U.S. than it does Palin, actually. Here's the nub of his argument:

Americans have an unhealthy desire to see average people promoted to positions of great authority. No one wants an average neurosurgeon or even an average carpenter, but when it comes time to vest a man or woman with more power and responsibility than any person has held in human history, Americans say they want a regular guy, someone just like themselves. President Bush kept his edge on the "Who would you like to have a beer with?" poll question in 2004, and won reelection.

This is one of the many points at which narcissism becomes indistinguishable from masochism. Let me put it plainly: If you want someone just like you to be president of the United States, or even vice president, you deserve whatever dysfunctional society you get. You deserve to be poor, to see the environment despoiled, to watch your children receive a fourth-rate education and to suffer as this country wages -- and loses -- both necessary and unnecessary wars.

I couldn't have said it better myself. But I'll try. When did this country begin loathing the intelligent and the above-average? Haven't the last eight years taught us anything about the folly of that approach?

A heck, let's run with the theme a bit longer. Imagine choosing the gym teacher from a middle-ranked high school to coach an Olympic basketball team instead of one of the best coaches from a professional basketball league. Would you hire a lawyer who graduated in the bottom 25th percentile from his class to represent you against a murder charge instead of the best you could find at the same hourly rate?

[Memo to Sarah Palin fans: Don't answer. They're all rhetorical questions.]

Harris wrote an update to his LA Times column on the Richard Dawkins website, where it was reproduced and attracted another 755 comments. The coda to that update, which responded to silly accusations of sexism, is worth reproducing:

So, let me simply declare that I would be overjoyed to have a qualified woman in the White House. I would, likewise, be overjoyed to have a qualified African American in the White House. In fact, I would be overjoyed to have a qualified WASP man in the White House. I will be guardedly optimistic to have a very smart (and somewhat qualified) Barack Obama in the White House. And I would be frankly terrified to have a religious bumpkin like Sarah Palin in the White House. I think you should share this last conviction. Hence my latest opinion piece.


More like this

The following announcement regarding Sarah Palin is from Move On Dot Org. This is about McCain's running mate. Obviously, in my earlier post I was too quick to judge this woman. It turns out that she is not a bad choice, not a person with less than ideal experience, not a person unsympathetic…
I love it when other people say exactly what I’m thinking, but in better words. Take Gloria Steinem on Sarah Palin for instance: Women have become so politically powerful that even the anti-feminist right wing--the folks with a headlock on the Republican Party--are trying to appease the gender gap…
Under the fold: Ex-Cheney aide: Bush won't hit Iran: US President George W. Bush will not attack Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program before his term ends in January, David Wurmser, a key national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney up until last year, has told The Jerusalem Post.…
Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science. In an op-ed published in today's Washington Post, he excoriates Sarah Palin for her illterate essay, published earlier this week, on the topic of…

Penn Jillette (not that I think he's the world's greatest political commentator, but as a minor celebrity with some influence) just penned an article for CNN, entitled "Last thing we need now is a great leader".

In it, he claims that we really should NOT have a "smart" president, because

I'm worried about someone smarter than Bush taking over that tremendous power. Charisma and ambition increase my fear exponentially, and a great leader scares me to death.

His point is that we need someone in office who will do little, if anything, because any problem solving necessarily requires the goverment to take away our freedoms and watch over us. This, he does not like.

I think, unfortunately, that his opinion resonates with a lot of people...

And no, I couldn't resist the pun above :-)

I highly recommend the book "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" by Richard Hofstadter, which deals with the history of the trend. Note that it was written in 1963.

I kinda understand where Penn is coming from, since I loathe government interference, but he's mistaken in this case. There are periods in history when a strong, charismatic leader really IS needed. Where would we be without MLK? Without suffragettes? Enough damage has been wrought in the last 8 years that it may very well be time for another. Not every strong leader who can inspire crowds is Adolf Hitler...

Harris's analysis is dead-one and I'm glad it's getting so many comments. McCain's reckless decision is basically giving independents and moderates the finger. I have lost all respect for him.

Keep in mind that Penn is a die-hard libertarian, truly believes in the smallest government possible, etc etc. I don't believe he's a supporter of Bush on that basis.

Granted as much as I like him I think a lot of his political views are woefully uninformed, but at least he's honest about the fact that his ideology of libertarianism will cause him to favor data that supports his beliefs and ignore that which counters them.

Penn can be a extremely funny man but his take on politics is sub-par. I wish he'd stfu about politics entirely, it can make it difficult to laugh at his work with Teller

The end of a larger Menken quote from 1920: "As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." H. L. Menken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920. Go read the whole thing. rb


Penn's comments sound completely idiotic

I agree... At first, I couldn't decide if it was satire or truth, but in the end I chose truth...


I kinda understand where Penn is coming from, since I loathe government interference

Me too ... I'm a small-government person myself, but as you said, we still need a leader ... There are problems to solve, and in this ever-conflicted world, we need a leader who can absorb information, synthesize solutions, and have a super-sensitive B.S. detector (for insiders as well as outsiders). All of that, in my view, requires intelligence.

This kind of goes along with the "cult of personality", where people vote for the funniest, most-outgoing person, instead of the one who will get the job done. I don't care if my President is as boring as a tree stump, as long as she has a brain. Sure, it may hurt diplomatically a bit, but we have more important things to solve here before we worry about the rest of the world...

With the challenges in climate change and energy supply we can not have anyone in the Whitehouse that is not intelligent enough to understand and accept evolution. Sara Palin does not. This is sufficient to disqualify her.

By dogheaven (not verified) on 08 Sep 2008 #permalink