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.

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