Elitism and arugula (Eruca sativa)

During the hotly contested Democratic primary, while speaking to a group of potential donors in San Francisco, Barack Obama made a statement that came back to haunt him then and is still being quoted now, most specifically by Sarah Palin at the Republican Convention.

He said, "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Once the comments (recorded on a cell phone) became public, the response was all but instantaneous. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain accused Obama of being an arugula-loving, Ivy League elitist and being out of touch with "real America." More than once, Obama, a former law professor, has been accused of being too deliberative, too professorial, too cerebral. Guilty as charged. And had anyone taken Obama's comments for what they were — a fairly accurate and honest analysis of what has taken place in so many communities over the last two decades — it could have made for an interesting and insightful dialogue. He was ridiculed instead, his thoughts turned into political fodder.

It's an odd, contradictory and counterintuitive bias that runs through the American character. We extoll the place of education in our lives while simultaneously reacting to the highly educated with suspicion. University trained individuals inhabit "ivory towers," are called "egg heads," "nerds," "geeks" and thought to lack understanding of the "common people," those folks who raise the crops and do the manual labor, and live in the "real world." Those who can, do. Those who can't ... and so on.

There has always been a wide vein of anti-intellectualism embedded in America's history, likely rooted in our 19th century agrarian society when education was fine ... in its place. No book ever got the harvest in on time.

George W. Bush is as good an example of a detached, uncurious president as we've had since, well, Ronald Reagan. He has taken pride in making decisions based on his "gut" and not reading newspapers. He is known to be restless with involved or complex analysis. He is, like McCain, intellectually, a populist. The kind of guy you'd like to have over for a beer while standing at the barbecue. Or the guy tending bar at the local club, chatting up the customers, who can wink and charm and give everyone nicknames.

Sam Harris, in a recent essay in Newsweek, wrote, "When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country." We are quick to reject anyone who we perceive as thinking they are smarter than we are. We like people like us. Or people who we think are like us. But as Harris asks, "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 ... elite troops ... elite athletes ... and elite scientists. 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."

But consider this moment in history. Consider the complexity of the financial crisis confronting us. One that few can understand and even fewer can hope to unwind. It requires detailed analyses, steeped in the deliberative, requiring the qualities of the policy wonk, the professor, and the highly educated. America is desperate for intelligent leadership. Not only are we confronted with a Wall Street meltdown, but we are still facing a myriad of problems, nationally and internationally, that seem all but overwhelming: nuclear proliferation, two wars, global climate change, challenges from Russia and China, Islamism, the cost of healthcare, our declining schools and infrastructure, and more.

We don't want the woman next door who can field dress a moose or the bartender down at the Shamrock Bar & Grill taking the reins. Good people, to be sure. But we need now the best and the brightest. An individual who, by training and background, intellect and temperament, is profoundly well-suited to lead.

Obama stands before us. Within our grasp. Pray we have the wisdom to choose him.

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