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November 9, 2008

Reflections on brains

Filed under: American culture,intellectuals,New Broads,Obama — by maggiec @ 6:37 pm

There was a very interesting editorial by Nicholas D. Kristof in today’s New York Times about having an unabashed intellectual in the White House.  I especially enjoyed reading it because it had great resonance with what I have been thinking lately.  One of the reasons I think Obama won is because he didn’t underestimate the intelligence of Americans.  A number of outright lies were flung out there trying to discredit him, and he rightly reasoned that most people in America aren’t stupid.  Counter a lie with truth and thinking Americans can tell the difference.

America has a long, and to me scary, history of being an anti-intellectual country.  Calling one’s self an intellectual is a dumb move in most circles.  By profession I am a scholar with a PhD from a fine institution, but when people ask what I do, I almost always answer “I’m a teacher”.  When I answer “I’m a professor,” I alienated far too many people.  So unless I’m in a professional setting, I hide my intellect in order to grease social wheels.  People don’t mind if I show “smarts,” (read street smarts or even business sense), but heaven forbid I show “brains”.

It’s not that we’ve had dumb presidents, per se.  Clinton was quite the scholar and Bush I was brilliant.  Just because I don’t agree with his politics doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the depth of the man’s intelligence.

Kristof notes

Perhaps John Kennedy was the last president who was unapologetic about his intellect and about luring the best minds to his cabinet. More recently, we’ve had some smart and well-educated presidents who scrambled to hide it. Richard Nixon was a self-loathing intellectual, and Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs.

That’s a sad, and scary, thought.

But the mention of Kennedy got me thinking.  I’ve often commented to my students this term how much JFK’s election meant to my Irish and Catholic family.  The first Catholic to be president.  The only Catholic to date, I might add.  He broke barriers.  If John Kennedy could do it, we could do it, too.  Members of my family remembered anti-Catholic prejudice, so to have a Catholic in the highest office in the land was a major coup for his co-religionists.  And far too many of my elder cousins remembered being “dirty Irish” growing up and the “No Irish need apply” signs posted under the Help Wanted signs.  To have a proud Irish-American as president was a major accomplishment of which we could be proud.

Kennedy had to go against the WASP establishment to become president.  He had to prove he wasn’t an ignorant mick who could hold his own against the ruling powers in American government.  And the Kennedy boys were smart, no doubt about it.  John and Robert had fine minds.  John, of course, had a spotty relationship with academic standards and could be a lazy scholar at times, but that’s a different issue.

So now, almost 50 years later, we finally have our second non-WASP president.  He, too, had to overcome prejudice, an even more massive prejudice.  He had to prove he wasn’t an ignorant Black.  Obama couldn’t have hidden his intelligence and survived politically, so he had to let his light shine.

Kristof goes on to say

As for President Bush, he adopted anti-intellectualism as administration policy, repeatedly rejecting expertise (from Middle East experts, climate scientists and reproductive health specialists). Mr. Bush is smart in the sense of remembering facts and faces, yet I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever interviewed who appeared so uninterested in ideas.

This is scarier to me than the earlier quote.  Ideas don’t hurt people.  I remember during the first debate, Obama would often say to McCain, “you’re right about that.”  And then he would go on to add the “but”.  Pundits jumped on him after the debate, saying, you can’t agree with your opponent during a debate.

Why not?

Isn’t binary thinking one of the reasons we’re in such a mess in this country?  A thinking person has no problem finding common ground with an opponent and then moving on from there.  And thinking people in America obviously had no problem seeing that Obama was correct.  John McCain and Barack Obama weren’t really that radically different in their positions.  But the nuances did have an impact.  Obama wasn’t afraid to let American people see the nuances.  Oh, he did mention things in broad strokes sometimes, but there are times in life when we need nuance.

I especially enjoyed the definition Kristof gave us in his essay

An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and — President Bush, lend me your ears — that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.

(Intellectuals are for real. In contrast, a pedant is a supercilious show-off who drops references to Sophocles and masks his shallowness by using words like “fulgent” and “supercilious.”)

As a teacher of Sophocles and Shakespeare, who views and reads both for insight, I applaud this comment.  As someone who regularly fields the question: “What’s the point of reading this old stuff” I’m happy to have someone else supply an answer for a change.

Hopefully this will be the dawning of a new day on more than one level.  Maybe brains won’t be such a bad thing to have after all.

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