Tuesday, August 10, 2010

President Obama, What We Mean by "Intelligence," and What He Means by "Hope" -- PART 1

Whew.  A pretty grand heading, that.  My usual course in these entries is to mosey through bloggish reflections and eventually say what I want to say.  I thought you might be grateful if I got to the damned point.  So: 

(1) President Obama's high intelligence is connected to his being the first President whose policies are dominated -- not just influenced, but almost completely swamped -- by concept, theory, and ideology, and scarcely at all by political observation (or, put less kindly, by facts).

(2) His presidency will subtly alter the popular view of "intelligence," if not its clinical definition.

(3) Understanding the President's intelligence helps us understand what he means by "hope."

*     *     *
I regard Barack Obama as an extremely intelligent person.  More, I regard him as the most intelligent President we have had since -- I don't know.  Long time.  

The objective evidence of this is considerable.  Although I have seen suggestions that some of his publications are not entirely his own, one does not become the President of the Harvard Law Review from his beginnings without some serious smarts.  His genuine eloquence from the podium is widely acknowledged.  It is true that personal charm -- or skillful BS -- has a lot to do with conveying the impression of intelligence.  There is also the uncertain effect of informal affirmative action.  But I'm a believer.  The guy is brainy.  He's sold me, anyway.

Barack Obama as President of Harvard Law Review (holding copy)

It's one of the reasons I wasn't all that bent when he was elected.  I heard the warnings of the Hannities and O'Reillys and their ilk, and I believed them, but I was hopeful that, like other ideologues elected to high office or appointed to the bench, he would govern more from the middle, even if somewhat left of the middle.  I thought that, like the Clintons, he would apply the political shrewdness he had shown in his political rise.   He certainly portrayed himself as willing to cast off the extreme partisanship that had characterized political discourse in recent decades.  Alas, the electorate's revulsion over Republican rule resulted in bulletproof Democratic legislative majorities, and any need he may have felt to rein in his impulses dissolved.  We should have listened to Sean and Bill and their ilk.

So I find myself asking -- how can such a smart guy be advancing such dumb policies, and saying such dumb things, and worse, things that he knows to be untrue whose untruth is easily shown and widely noted?

Ah, Steverino, you say, you believe yourself to be a smart guy and therefore you believe that any ideas that conflict with your own could only be the result of dumb thinking.  I have considered this possibility and, since it's my website, I reject it.

No, actually, I don't reject it.  I do think that the center and right and Tea Partiers, putting aside their occasionally obnoxious rhetoric and methods, are correct in their rejection of almost everything this administration has advanced. 

But my point in this post is not to prove that Barack Obama is a fraud.  He is, but the fraud is not that he has falsely conveyed an impression of intelligence.  I concede that his braininess is established.  What I want to explore is what we mean when we say that someone is "intelligent."  The President is very intelligent, but I don't want him anywhere near a position of civil authority.

Why is this?  I think it has something to do with how we understand -- what we mean by -- "intelligence."

I am fortunate in having had the opportunity to attend and teach at some of the most highly-regarded educational institutions in the United States.  I found myself frequently awed by the raw intellect of many of the men and women who taught and attended there (and simultaneously wondered what I was doing there).  Some were touched by genius.  But I recall a remark made by William F. Buckley in a debate at Harvard:  "I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the Harvard faculty." 

The measurement and meaning of intelligence is a vast topic and not one in which I have any technical background.  But there is a lay understanding of what we mean when we say someone is "highly intelligent," is there not?  And in general, don't we admire those people?  On the other hand, a lot of highly intelligent people -- not all, maybe not even most -- have some characteristics that correlate with their intelligence that are not so attractive:  dreaminess; neglect of the person; arrogance; difficulty in communicating; and -- here we go -- an preference for the abstract to the concrete.

What has all of this to do with the President?  He recently made a statement which summed up for me the reasons I have come to find the course of his Presidency so disturbing.  At a speech at the American University School of International Service a couple of weeks ago, he reportedly said:  "Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth, it’s a matter of faith."  Even allowing the President some rhetorical license here, it's a very revealing remark, and a silly one.  Being an American has almost everything to do with birth.  The very first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads:  "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."  

While the President knows this, he doesn't really feel its truth.  He far prefers the comfort of the abstract thought that America is not a chunk of real estate with borders, but rather a bundle of concepts that have something to do with freedom and equality and abundance and other fine things everyone should experience.  And if you value those things, if you have faith in those Americanish things, well, then you must be an American.  

It is similar to what John F. Kennedy meant when he said "Ich bin ein Berliner" -- that is, all people who love freedom are, in a sense, citizens of Berlin who had been confined by the Berlin Wall.   President Kennedy was speaking conceptually, and in his hands it was a powerful metaphor and a signal moment of the Cold War.

But President Obama wasn't just offering an attractive metaphor like Kennedy was.  He didn't just say that people who have faith in American values are Americans, a pleasant but not terribly helpful thought in the current border controversy.  He said that being born here had nothing to do with being an American.  Unlike President Kennedy's graceful formulation, President Obama's treats the metaphor as reality by expressly rejecting the fact that where you are born has anything to do with being an American

This is how he thinks.  Not troubled by rules, constitutions, statutes, traditions, voting.  Very impressed by academic concepts like income redistribution, enforced leveling of social status, racial preference, downplaying Islamist terror, the merits of international kowtowing, and, in general, "social justice" in all of its uncertain outcomes.  (I've commented on this unfortunate mindset here and here and here.)

Thus:  The President, like lots of intelligent people, and especially like those we regard as the very most intelligent, is more comfortable with the abstract than with the concrete, with theories than with the uncertainty of their real world application.

PART 2 of these speculations will appear in a few days.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree that intelligence can sometimes be a burden - you have no doubt experienced the same in your lifetime. But I see conflict among many issues when intelligence is pitted against ignorance and I am suprised at how often ignorance wins. Ignorance doesn't have to think through anything; ignorance doesn't have to compromise; ignorance doesn't have to be rational. How do you cross examine a witness when they don't even understand your question? Sometimes ignorance is developed as a strategy to avoid the need to think and compromise. My friend, I fear that is our greatest worry right now. I don't agree with everything that Obama says and does, but I have never questioned his sincerity. I do question the sincerity of may people on the far right. And who is John McCain and what does he believe these days. Does he support his own ideas or not. He is now a tool and a victim of the far right and it is sad, because I have always liked John McCain.