18

Intellectual dishonesty


 

Jacob Weisberg on why Barack Obama should put Smart People in his cabinet:

But it makes sense for Obama to give greater weight to intellectual acumen and subject-specific knowledge than his recent predecessors have, both because of the depth of the problems he faces and because of his own style as a thinker and a decision-maker … Among the intangible tasks Obama faces is vanquishing the anti-intellectualism of the past eight years, the prejudice that serious policy discussion is too effete for the Cabinet Room or the Oval Office. If he really wants to bring change to Washington, the new president should start by putting a sign in his window: No hacks.

A hypothetical question. Ignoring his actual merits and speaking only in theory and never minding whether he should be prime minister, to what extent would Michael Ignatieff’s election as prime minister encourage capital-S, capital-P Smart People to participate in Canadian politics?

Now, of course, the guy who is presently prime minister is not an unintelligent man. He has a Master’s degree in Economics. He plays the piano (and chess). He was once on Reach for the Top. But save for a brief stretch during the last campaign when he was promoted as an “economist” (and therefore best suited to manage the economy), his intelligence is generally under-played. Indeed, during the campaign, his staff was explicit about portraying him as unrivaled in his averageness (Joe the Suburban Minivan-Driving Hockey Dad) while his primary opponent was slurred as an elitist, effete academic (“Professor Dion”).

There is probably something to be said for the differences between academia and the “real world”—something Ignatieff has acknowledged—but there’s obviously something wrong with the suggestion that intellectual achievement is synonymous with being an elitist. For that matter, as Jon Stewart argued when Barack Obama was being accused of elitism, there’s something to be said for elitism—for the idea that a leader should be better than the rest of us.

Whether or not Ignatieff is capable of such, it’s surely possible to be smarter than most and academic in nature, but receptive to the needs and demands of the “common man.” And it’d be nice to think those of particular intelligence would be involved in managing the complicated matters of national governance. For that matter, it’d be nice to think that Smart People would feel eager, or at least free, to pursue politics.

But that’s not obviously the case at the moment. Never mind Dion. Witness the agonizing over Ignatieff’s every inflection. He will now be required now to under-play his intelligence, to prove he’s the sort of guy you’d want to have a beer with (because that barometer worked out so well in picking the sitting U.S. president). Without, mind you, completely undermining the intellectual aspects of his personality that amount to his basic appeal. He has to seem both smart and decidedly average. Because democracy is an endless series of maddening contradictions.

Nonetheless, victory by an even vaguely dulled Smart Person might break-up the present anti-intellectual convention. At least until we decided he was out of touch and went back to looking for someone who did a better job of pretending to drive a minivan.


 

Intellectual dishonesty

  1. I know there are many who disagree with me but I think Ignatieff’s intellectual qualifications are blown a bit out of proportion. Just because he was a well known academic doesn’t necessarily make him a particularly smart academic. He picked some notable topics (like “rights”) at a time when it was the sexy topic of the moment and he got noticed for it. I’m not saying he is stupid (clearly he is intelligent) but painting him as some sort of great thinker is a bit much. I’ve read some of his work and I was quite thoroughly unimpressed.

    All of that being said, even if he is less of a braniac than some people think, the perception of electing an intellectual (valid or not) is important. If he could win while being percieved in those terms it would demonstrate a change in people’s attitudes towards politicians and an acceptance of a particular style that has been out of fashion lately.

  2. It’s not so much that Iggy should worry about being “elitist.” People understand and want to be better than their competition, which is what “elitist” means.

    The worry is that of intellectual blindness — the idea of “I am smarter than you, therefore my viewpoint is stronger than yours.” It’s what afflicted Stephane Dion during the way he ran the last election campaign, and given Iggy’s nurturing in the ivory tower environment of academia, it’s a real danger for him as well.

  3. If Liberals wanted a truly remarkable person to lead their party, they would draft Marc Garneau. The man is smart, well-spoken, and he was an astronaut for crying out loud! He earned a doctorate, he was an engineer in the Navy, he has management experience and he is the most impeccably bilingual politician in Ottawa. Has there ever been an MP with a more impressive background?

  4. “for the idea that a leader should be better than the rest of us”

    The quote ties in with what PhantomO talks about. The problem with Smart People is that most of them think they are better than the hoi polloi and it leads to big problems. Smart People are often attracted to abstract social theories that always seem to lead them to embracing some form of Marxism because they believe they know best and if they could just control the rest of us, everything would be sweetness and light in the world.

    It is plain snobbery to think Bush, and his advisers, aren’t smart. Bush academic record is just as good as Obama’s and is better than Kerry’s or Gore’s. And I don’t care who you are, if you can get yourself elected President of the USA, in no way are you dumb. I like pols who are smarter than average but aren’t brainiacs. I will take common sense over abstract social theories any day.

    What I find weird is that many on the left seem to think this all boils down to iq. We can just stop having elections and have the potential candidates write an iq test and whoever is highest gets to lead.

  5. “I know there are many who disagree with me but I think Ignatieff’s intellectual qualifications are blown a bit out of proportion. Just because he was a well known academic doesn’t necessarily make him a particularly smart academic.”

    RyanD, I happen to completely agree with you on that one.

  6. “victory by an even vaguely dulled Smart Person might break-up the present anti-intellectual convention”

    Who in particular is the anti-intellectual? Harper (Master’s), Layton (PhD), Bush (MBA from Harvard)? Or MPs/Congressmen in general, since many of them are just doctors and lawyers? Or perhaps just lawyers with cowboy hats? On the other hand, there are people like Bill Gates, graduate of …noplace. Village idiot, I suppose?

    I have a couple of degrees and have been privileged to be taught by and work with people who, by all measures, were geniuses. Some of them couldn’t balance a chequebook.

    The Liberals picked a “smart” guy, and he proved incapable of doing the job he was hired to do. Clearly “intellectual achievement” is not the only skill set required, nor should it be the only consideration.

  7. JWL- I agree with you that it is ridiculous to say that Bush et al are stupid, they made some stupid mistakes, but the idea they are all dumb is a bit overblown.
    That being said, I think the rest of your comment is a bit misleading. Going back to Bush et al: they were smart and lots of them were academics. I would hardly call them marxists. Same goes for lots of people in the conservative party and on the right. To generalize all “Smart People” TM as leftish rabble rousing is the same sort of over-generalization as calling the republicans that clouds the discourse and leads to the type of intellectual blindness you mentioned.
    The idea that the more educated people are the less common sense they have falls in line with that strange stereotype. Its the type of ridiculous over-broad statement that one can never prove or disprove. After all, everyone knows its true: its common sense, right?

  8. Jesse
    Nov 17, 2008 9:38
    Report Abuse

    JWL- I agree with you that it is ridiculous to say that Bush et al are stupid, they made some stupid mistakes, but the idea they are all dumb is a bit overblown.
    That being said, I think the rest of your comment is a bit misleading. Going back to Bush et al: they were smart and lots of them were academics. I would hardly call them marxists. Same goes for lots of people in the conservative party and on the right. To generalize all “Smart People” TM as leftish rabble rousing is the same sort of over-generalization as calling the republicans that clouds the discourse and leads to the type of intellectual blindness you mentioned.
    The idea that the more educated people are the less common sense they have falls in line with that strange stereotype. Its the type of ridiculous over-broad statement that one can never prove or disprove. After all, everyone knows its true: its common sense, right?

    * * *

    QFT

    And bush isn’t nearly as dumb as most think, or as his handlers wanted to make him out to be. But to put him in Obama’s league is ridiculous.

  9. Jesse

    When I refer to Smart People, I mean the top 1-2%. I agree that if you graduate university, it doesn’t mean you have little common sense. The intellectual elite in Arts/Humanities tend to be drawn to Marxism because they believe they have all the answers to society’s ills. Obviously, this is not true for every one of them but I have yet to see articles that point out how conservative/right wing universities tend to be.

    Mike T

    You are projecting. We know that Obama did ok in prep school in hawaii, spent a couple of years at college in LA before transferring to Columbia. Graduated Columbia without any honours and than on to Harvard after a few years of community rabble rousing. Obama did not release his university transcripts but has acknowledged that he benefited from affirmative action. What is ‘Obama’s league’ exactly?

  10. jwl – it seems like piling on, but SP = Marxism really is a bit too much. The very qualities you decry in intellectuals – “The problem with Smart People is that most of them think they are better than the hoi polloi and it leads to big problems” – can easily apply to the right wing pundits like Rush and Bill et al who clearly think they know more than anyone else.

    If you were to stick with the simple observation that SP who don’t listen and who simply seek to impose their conclusions on us all are a problem, without branding them with labels ind philosophically at odds with our own, thereby adding insult to injury, you would be getting somewhere.

  11. Obama league is president of Harvard law Review.

  12. How did the legend arise that Michael Ignatieff is an intellectual superhero? He’s a colour commentator, for God’s sake, who made his name as a pundit on British TV, wrote a few books about human rights, and parlayed those into an untenured (= guest) job at a Harvard institute. He’s just another egomaniac like Paul Martin.

  13. “How did the legend arise that Michael Ignatieff is an intellectual superhero? ”

    Jack Mitchell, probably from the same group of people who decided that David Emerson was a brilliant minister and that Rick Hillier is the best thing since sliced bread.

    Those are the same people who raved about Maxime Bernier when he first landed the Foreign Affairs portfolio and swore up and down that John Baird was the man who would bring consensus around the Harper’s environment plan.

  14. The problem with Smart People is that most of them think they are better than the hoi polloi and it leads to big problems.

    That kinda depends on what you mean by “better than” doesn’t it? If by “better than” you mean “morally superior to”, then I reject your premise. If by “better than” you mean “more capable of running the country” well then, call me an elitist, but I think smart people ARE “better than” the hoi polloi. The problem is this notion that “regular people” are just as capable of being in charge as “smart people”. Well, hogwash.

    I also love the shifting sands of intellectualism. When people are worried that Harper doesn’t seem intellectual enough, his graduate degree is touted. When people think he’s not “common sense” enough, an academic degree in economics becomes “he’s an economist”. That last bit I find particularly infuriating. Harper is most certainly NOT an economist. Never was. He’s a lifelong politician and lobbyist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Calling Harper an economist is like calling someone with an M.A. in English Lit. a poet. But it makes him sound like he has some practical knowledge, when all he really has is an academic degree. The anti-intellectualism on the right isn’t that they refuse to put forward intellectuals, it’s that they refuse to acknowledge that they put forward intellectuals, and that they put forward plenty of anti-intellectual candidates to hide their intellectuals. There are “Smart People” among the Tories and Republicans, they’re just not allowed to acknowledge it. An MBA from Yale from a privileged Connecticut family needs to be a rugged, regular guy cowboy from Texas. An academic life-long politician and lobbyist NEEDS to be an “economist”. The vice presidential nominee NEEDS to be incapable of speaking in coherent paragraphs.

    Well, OK, that last one didn’t work out so well.

  15. Jack: If he’s a TV pundit, you answered your own question. Of course pundits (those who are on TV and those who would rather like to be on it) are going to pontificate about how amazing one of their own is!

    And to be fair, the books were well-regarded on a subject of paramount importance, human rights, and he was adroitly defending the value of American Empire at a time when such a thing seemed both inevitable and (to many in the foreign policy community) desirable. Times have changed, and he’s spent the past 2 to 6 years backpedaling from that pro-interventionist position, but that’s what cemented his bona-fides.

    Why Canadians would vote in a man whose position on Iraq, the seminal foreign policy issue of our time, remains not just out of step with their own views but the views of the President-Elect of the United States is a good question, but since all the dead of Iraq won’t do a damned thing to help circulation numbers, the media’s desperately trying to ignore it.)

  16. How did the legend arise that Michael Ignatieff is an intellectual superhero?

    Beats me. I’d never really heard of him before 2003 and from what I’ve read since then, I haven’t been impressed. I simply can’t get passed the intellectual vacuity of “Empire Lite,” for intellectuals, you are forever as bad as the most irrational thing you’ve ever believed.

    Anyway, “intellectual” just means being more animated/energised by ideas than by things. Many intellectuals are self-taught; I have more respect for those types than the types who point to credentials, publishing record, and celebrity uniquely as proof of their intellectual prowess. Since there’s usually a component of challenging, real-world experience that informs their intellectualism, they’re likely possessed of a more knowledgeable, well-rounded intelligence.

    The most intelligent people are the ones who know what they don’t know and whose world view is characterised by doubt and scepticism. They’re usually more motivated to learn and are not generally prone to solipsism, which both Ignatieff and Harper are guilty of.

  17. “Times have changed, and he’s spent the past 2 to 6 years backpedaling from that pro-interventionist position…”

    Oh? That’s not the impression I got from his talks on why we needed to stay in A’Stan when the others in the party (including Dion, I think) would have had us a few months from now.

    Iggy hasn’t met a war he didn’t want to get into.

  18. A leader needs to have the emotional intelligence and judgment to know when other people’s ideas are better and should be listened to. Leader needs to surround him/herself with people who have varying perspectives and a sense of proportion about their own ideas. There’s room for a few smarty pants as long as they don’t get bogged down being right all the time. Weighing all the perspectives and avoiding the little picture is the job of the visionary leader, not being a know it all.

Sign in to comment.