Back-handed praise

BACK-HANDED PRAISE…. Neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz, apparently still willing to take himself seriously, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, praising former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The neocon crowd has generally been skeptical about the bizarre former VP candidate, and it’s possible that Podhoretz would like to improve her standing in advance of 2012. (via Ed Kilgore)

Podhoretz and his cohorts tend to look for far-right leaders whose strengths are built around national security, foreign policy, and military affairs. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, was governor of a small state for two years, thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, has no idea why there are two Koreas, and sincerely told a national television audience that she understands international affairs because Vladimir Putin has flown over her head.

Podhoretz’s task, in other words, is rather challenging.

Indeed, he concedes early on in his op-ed, “True, [Palin] seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership.”

Of all the anti-intellectual arguments, this is among the most entertaining. To hear Podhoretz tell it, Palin’s ignorance is a good thing, because experts have often made poor decisions. So, let’s gamble with global stability and security — maybe Palin will just guess the right answer!

Podhoretz adds that many conservative leaders are underwhelmed by the half-term governor, but it’s only because they’re snobs.

Much as I would like to believe that the answer lies in some elevated consideration, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the same species of class bias that Mrs. Palin provokes in her enemies and her admirers is at work among the conservative intellectuals who are so embarrassed by her. When William F. Buckley Jr., then the editor of National Review, famously quipped that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, most conservative intellectuals responded with a gleeful amen. But put to the test by the advent of Sarah Palin, along with the populist upsurge represented by the Tea Party movement, they have demonstrated that they never really meant it.

Buckley’s thought experiment was always pseudo-populist nonsense, but it’s worth appreciating the fact that in this scenario, Podhoretz sees Palin as one of those random names from the phone book, rather than a scholar or an expert.

It’s this back-handed praise for Palin that always surprises me. In Podhoretz’s vision, Palin deserves support, not because she’s extraordinary, but because she isn’t. Conservatives should give her a chance, not because she has unique talents, but because she doesn’t. She could be a credible national leader, not because she can draw upon her intellect and think creatively, but because she can’t.

It’s this conservative celebration of mediocrity and ignorance that I’ll never be able to relate to. Since when should the United States, when choosing leaders, deliberately aim low and expect less from those we know to be incapable?