Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Dumbing Down Elitism
When I was in New Zealand for a year, I remember how the term "dumbed down" became so closely associated with America and Americans. I was somewhat taken back when it came up those first few times. After a while I started to figure out how it was... or at least that's what I thought. My explanation was that the association of "dumbed down" and "America(ns)" had to do with our (i.e., Americans) no-nonsense simplicity, our efficiency and our tendency to eliminate all of the fringe and ornamentation in any given project, our direct line of thought and its application to achieving our goals.
Even when George Bush was elected President in 2000 and I was in Christchurch, many Kiwis I encountered seemed to know what he was all about before I did. They referred to him (back then) the way I do today... not-too-bright, incompetent, butcher-of-the-English-language, arrogant, etc. Again, I was rather taken back thinking to myself, "Well, let's give him a chance before we totally condemn him."
Eight years later it seems that America itself has embraced this image of associating ourselves with the term "dumbed-down." Although we don't think of ourselves with such blunt terminology, however eloquent one states it, the translation is the same: we've been cultivating a growing distaste for anything that resembles elite or elitism. I'm unsure when the movement started, but George Bush's Presidency has certainly fertilized it.
I was just reminded that the founders of this country were elitist—highly educated, cultured, and brilliant. Isn't the formation of the "electoral college" a reflection of such elitism?
Sam Harris' recent Newsweek article attacking the candidacy of Sarah Palin has truly solidified my theory/opinion regarding our aversion to elitism.
I'll finish with quotes from his insightful article here, but I invite you to read the entire piece, print it out, and share with others.
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What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:
"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"
"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."
"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."
"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."
...The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.
...I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex—and dangerous—with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us. When asked why she is qualified to shoulder more responsibility than any person has held in human history, Palin cites her refusal to hesitate. "You can't blink," she told Gibson repeatedly, as though this were a primordial truth of wise governance. Let us hope that a President Palin would blink, again and again, while more thoughtful people decide the fate of civilization.