Tuesday, October 7, 2008
I consider myself to be a pro-life feminist, but I have a confession: I am not a fan of Sarah Palin. She might be a wonderful woman with a powerful life story, but her candidacy embodies a sort of anti-intellectual populism that is deeply troubling to me. I probably would not have voted for McCain in any event, but his selection of Palin solidified my opposition. Let me try to explain without resorting to the anti-Palin hysteria I see from the professional pundits.
I was drawn to the Catholic Church, in part, because the Church does not fear the world. Growing up in evangelical churches, I often had the sense that Christians were supposed to hunker down, circle the wagons, and ride things out until the Second Coming. Science, secular universities, and even the arts were to be viewed warily as potential threats to one's faith and to a God-centered culture. (As my brother says, "If evangelicals believe that God will protect our kids in the most dangerous third world mission fields, why do we doubt that God can protect our kids at Harvard?") I always had the sense that we were playing defense, and not the sort of aggressive defense that seeks to win, but the sort of defense that consists of covering your head and bracing for impact. The Catholic Church, by contrast, was so secure in the Truth of God's sovereignty that it stood ready to engage the world on the merits. Seek and celebrate knowledge.
When I listen to Sarah Palin and witness the rapturous embrace she has received from the GOP base, I'm taken back to my evangelical upbringing. It is as though she revels in her lack of knowledge, wearing it as a badge that says "I'm one of you, not one of them." It doesn't even matter, in the end, whether humans lived with dinosaurs, whether global warming is caused by humans, whether she knows any Supreme Court rulings, et cetera. The point, for many of her followers, is that she does not allow factual inquiry to trump worldview. Indeed, a major component of the operative worldview is to be extremely wary of factual inquiry. Nuance is not welcomed -- e.g., when the presidential candidates were asked about evil, Obama was heavily criticized for giving a long answer that includes the need for self-critical reflection, while McCain was celebrated for a two-word response: "Defeat it." In a changing and uncertain world, our reflexive defense is epistemic certainty, no matter the facts. It was that way in my church growing up, and it's that way in much of our political discourse now.
This is not a liberal-conservative problem, though the two most obvious recent embodiments of this have been leading figures in the GOP (Palin and George W. Bush). Conservative figures such as Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich, to offer two counterexamples, do not fear factual inquiry and ideas. They welcome intellectual debates and knowledge. I may disagree with many of their ideas, but I affirm their willingness to join the debate.
A more sinister ramification of a disdain for factual inquiry is that it lends itself to dehumanizing those who do not share our worldview. Intellectual engagement and an openness to new ideas is one key way in which we build bridges to "the other." When our worldview is a closed set, it becomes easier to marginalize. We can see some hints of this now in the campaign, with Palin, for example, using "East Coast" as a pejorative and saying that Obama "is not a man who sees America the way you see America and the way I see America." (This is not just a conservative problem, of course, as a competing worldview that has closed itself to intellectual engagement would not even recognize Trig Palin's humanity.)
So when Palin ignores the debate moderator's questions and instead speaks "straight to the American people" with a combination of winks, shout-outs to "Joe Six Pack," inartful colloquialisms, and empty slogans, should it trouble us, as Catholics called to engage this world? You betcha.