Monday, July 06, 2009

Palin, Douthat, Class and Education

Ross Douthat has an equivocal defense of Sarah Palin, or rather a lyrical defense of the-Palin-that-might-have-been in Douthat's hopeful hypotheses, in the Times. He cops to the damage that Palin has done to herself and to her own political future, but also throws a lot of blame on the media for misrepresenting her. I disagree with Douthat broadly: I do not think that there is another Palin, or that she would have performed better in different circumstances. I think there's one Sarah Palin, here in the phenomenal world, and I think we're looking at her.

But I really want to take issue with a narrower point, about how Douthat frames Palin's agenda:

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

That is genuinely a nice distinction on Douthat's part and the tension between small-d democratic impulses and meritocratic impulses go all the way back through our history. (Part of my Independence Day reading has involved the election of 1800; 'nuff said.) But Douthat is collapsing another important distinction: that between hostility toward class and hostility toward education per se.

One can dislike Harvard and Columbia for class-based reasons, as bastions of elitism, and that's an eminently reasonable position, even for Harvard alumni with columns at the New York Times. But some dislike Harvard, Columbia, and the rest of the Ivies because they dislike education itself. There's an anti-elitist position and a know-nothing position. One has merit. One does not. Richard Nixon might legitimately scorn Harvard, where he could not afford to go although he earned admission. But Nixon never scorned learning itself. Lincoln, the greatest of our up-by-the-bootstraps politicians, valued education tremendously.

The question here is whether Palin is the class warrior Douthat imagines or a simpler, less laudable, know-nothing . Douthat feels that she's a failed or incompetent Andrew Jackson:

he’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But perhaps she's "botched" this role because she's not trying to perform it. Perhaps she isn't fumbling Douthat's agenda, but has one of her own that Douthat himself could not embrace.

It's very clear from her public words and actions that Palin does not merely resent educational privilege, but education itself. She resents knowledge. She resents learning. She resents anyone who is smarter than herself, which is a very significant slice of humanity. Palin doesn't simply view Harvard and Columbia as elitist; she views state colleges as elitist. She's against knowing stuff.

How can we test this? We could look at her education policy. How does she support the University of Alaska system? Surely, the University of Alaska is not about eastern snobbery or old-money prestige. It's about students learning things.

And while we're at it, we should consider, as the best evidence of all, Palin's hostility to public libraries in her state. Public libraries are anti-elitist education at its purest and best. They give no degrees. They have no cachet. They have no lacrosse teams or school ties. They're just about information, about learning for everyone. They are the places where many of our greatest American autodidacts, and there's a glorious tradition, have begun to pull themselves up by the public bookplates.

Palin, naturally, hates them.


Flavia said...

And let's not forget her willingness to let Bristol miss weeks--months?--of high school during her pregnancy. The important thing was that she get married and have the child: not as a way of ensuring a stable and supportive home life, so she could still go to college and start a career, but as an end in itself.

Will Palin encourage any of her children to go to college? It'll be interesting to see.

the rebel lettriste said...

And let us not forget, as well, that Douthat earned a degree from ... wait for it... HARVARD!

I am always intrigued when east coast-y red tie republicans come down all hard an "the academy!' as a bastion of class elitism. New Criterion, I am totally looking at you.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Flavia- That's a good point, and I think is partly about a whole value system that Palin represents. Even given money and resources, Palin would choose not to educate her own children, which strikes me as a pretty disastrous strategy in the 21st century.

RL- Yes. Douthat is absolutely a member of the elite, Harvard-educated and employed by a series of old, rich East Coast journalistic institutions. (Currently The Times, which he came to from The Atlantic.)

I think the "anti-elitist" card is irresistible to certain Ivy Leaguers, most of all to those who don't really have any claim to it. If losing an argument at Harvard, simply announce that the people winning the argument are blinded by their Harvardness, and that The Little People, out there somewhere, would all agree with you. All Douthat has to do is appoint himself Tribune of the Little People and everyone has to accept everything he says as coming from his mouth as oracular.

The man was born in New Haven. His dad was a lawyer. That he offers to speak for Ye Olde Common Folke is a bloody insult. And that he presumes that they're like Palin is a bloodier one.

the rebel lettriste said...

They ARE like Palin in some way, but not in the way he thinks they are. (I come from blue collar...)

I think that people like and admire her pluck, and her beauty, and her willingness (or inability) to be anything other than herself. She isn't putting on "airs."

Or so it seems. But I think that the working class and working poor are much more complicated and intelligent than anyone gives them credit for.

The whole anti academia thing is so icky, and so poisonous coming from the mouth of somebody like him. Or somebody like the people at the New Criterion. I always tell myself, when in their esteemed company, that I actually do teach (poor) people useful shit, and have hard earned credentials and am self supporting and oh yeah, I contribute to society.

Whereas they 'work' for journals like Parnassus and cultivate their alcoholism and write snarky shit.