Entry from November 21, 2011

According to Cristina Odone in today’s London Daily Telegraph, “Bling’s out. Now brainpower is a force to be reckoned with. The word ‘intellectual’, once a term of abuse in English, has become a plaudit.” She may be right, but the fact that in the new James Bond film, Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M will be revealed as a reader of The Literary Review seems pretty slender evidence for the proposition. Moreover, just reading high-brow publications like The Literary Review doesn’t make you an intellectual, not as traditionally understood. The reason why “intellectual” used to be a term of abuse in English wasn’t that intellectuals were intelligent but that so many of them thought their intelligence gave them the right to tell other people how to live their lives. Ms Odone continues, with her tongue only partly in her cheek, writing that “In the boom times the cerebral approach seemed other-worldly and out of date; now that everything is fast coming unstuck, a pause for thought sounds timely. Intellectual pretensions will flourish in the coming recession.”

So no doubt they will, but they will evoke an answering flourishing of those determined to resist and debunk them. For intellectual pretensions have become the very point at issue between left and right, as we see increasingly from the way political debate is being conducted. That’s how Darwin has somehow become an issue in the Republican primary campaign. In the editorial pages of yesterday’s Washington Post there were not one but two articles warning Republicans that being stupid was not the high road to electoral success. That, you might think, is the kind of warning that could hardly be necessary, but the party’s flirtation with the likes of Herman Cain and Rick Perry, which Kathleen Parker calls “the Palinization of the GOP,” causes her to sound the tocsin.

In this she is joined by Nia-Malika Henderson and Perry Bacon Jr. who insist that the likes of Perry, Cain and Palin do not endear themselves to the Tea Party faction among Republicans by acting dumb.

As the tea party movement surged in 2010, it was often dismissed by liberal critics as an anti-intellectual force led by figures such as Sarah Palin, who has dismissed the importance of answering reporters’ questions or learning the nuances of policy. At times, Cain and Perry seem to have embraced this caricature of the tea party. But this is a serious misreading of the aims and goals of tea party activists. While it’s still not clear who will capture their vote, one thing is obvious: Playing dumb isn’t the way to win it. One person who understands that well happens to be [Newt] Gingrich, the candidate now rising in the polls. “If we nominate somebody utterly inarticulate, Obama gets a billion dollars, he spends two months smearing the Republican Party with negativity, and we have a candidate who can’t debate him — he might pull it off,” the former speaker told Politico.

Without wishing to deny that intelligence is a useful quality in a national leader, I would just point out that the real debate ought to be not on this question but on that of whether it is or is not the essential quality. I believe it is not. I believe, with the olde timey political theorists that the essential quality in a leader is virtue (or virtu if you prefer), and that when we focus on the question of intelligence, pro or con, we play the left’s game. Our intellectual is smarter than your intellectual is always going to be much more congenial ground for them — even if the opposing intellectual is Mr Gingrich rather than Mr Perry — than the much tougher question of which candidate has a record in office suggestive of an ability to do something about the political and economic problems that matter to people. By trying to keep the focus on what has usually proved to be the irrelevant to (or even counter-indicative of) political success, namely the question of intelligence in our leaders, people like Miss Parker and the Henderson-Bacon team are, whether they know it or not, furthering the interests of the Democrats — and, of course, the intellectuals of the media.

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