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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Looking at USA’s National Election from Afar

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I heard a woman interviewed on NPR today. She was asked What do you like about Sarah Palin?, who was campaigning in conservative radio-talk host Rush Limbaugh’s Missouri hometown of Cape Girardeau. The woman, self-described as “very conservative,” said she liked that Palin was “very girlie,” “more conservative than McCain” and, “she knows how to answer all the questions, and I think I could sit down with her and not feel stupid.”

While none of us wants to feel stupid talking with anyone we meet, or seek out, we all nonetheless do from time to time come across a person who outshines us in eloquence, knowledge, wit, candor, facts & figures, history & literature, etcetera. This is not an indictment against us for not knowing as much as the next person, or feeling stupid under a flow of eloquence. Nor is it an opportunity to blame that next person for making us feel stupid just because we are ignorant in one or two areas: that next person shouldn’t have to feel anything but rewarded for using his or her intellectual prowess. In fact I think at worst, the experience of meeting and speaking with someone who is far above my own intellectual abilities, is inspirational— a call a nudge a challenge for me to find new books, new friends, play with ideas, and learn … then think and write about subjects previously unknown so that I come to understand what I really do think.

I’m sure that that Cape Girardeau woman wouldn’t feel stupid sitting down with Sarah Palin, because Palin has shown that she has few qualities of mind. One needs only to watch her interview with Katie Couric, and learn of Palin’s past, to see she is little more than a party aparatchik who has little interest in intellectual pursuits but mightily interested in political opportunism. When asked what magazines she reads to keep abreast of current events, Palin cited “all of them.” When pressed, she couldn’t name one. She couldn’t even scat and pick one out of the ether (Newsweek! Time! The Economist!). She didn’t even show imagination and lie, which is the politician’s pocket ace. How much preparation does a candidate need to marginally sound intelligent?

While book learning doesn’t give you walk-down-the-dark-alley experience, reading books and magazines (and then thinking about what you read) can teach you through story about the experiences of others. Useful information for such life altering decisions as romance, travel, cease-fire talks, and negotiation cocktail parties. Fiction, nonfiction, biography, history, art, criticism, and all the major and minor religious tracts—these represent a wealth of “experience” that, when read deeply, thought through, and debated among people, can in fact add an acute understanding of the world. On the other hand, getting out in the world, shoes on the pavement, in whatever capacity, is an amazingly rich experiential opportunity: you get to practice what you’ve learned otherwise as a child & then adolescent, from school and through books.

However, simply “doing” a job and calling that “real life” (the so-called experience of life) isolates you in one genre, using the same set of words, seeing the same people day after day, surrounded by the same ideas, performing the same tasks with, if you aren’t careful, provide few rewards beyond renumeration. Likewise, if you go home after this life-experience-makes-me-street-wise attitude, and merely turn on the television for crass entertainment, then you are doubly isolated.

The addition of books, magazines, conversation-that-spurs-debate, and finding people who know things which you do not, is to me the essence of life experience. Striving for the constant challenge of learning and challenge-of-the mind with old knowledges and new ways of seeing, is the only reason I can find for being. This is, for me, the ultimate existential question.

So when I look at a political candidate, I look for someone who outshines me. I don’t want a drinking buddy in the Congress or the White House. My drinking buddy is a guy or girl who wants to get drunk, like me, and talk about intimate things and wild ideas, not the cool inspection-introspection type needed to run a multitrillion-dollar republic whose stockpile of nuclear weapons and lives of thousands of soldiers and, oh-by-the-way, the 400 million citizens who need the lights on every morning and the bridges not to crumble, should weigh really fucking heavily on every single decision.

I also don’t want someone I can relate to; I want them to be able to relate to me. And I want someone who can make a decision based on knowledge, experience, understanding of the big picture and the child left behind, in consultation with diverse minds, who alone then (if necessary) has the intellectual courage to call a spade a spade.

Where have all the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Madisons, Franklins and Lincolns gone?


  mlbeyer wrote @ November 2nd, 2008 at 7:01 pm

Uncle Mark, do you believe today’s federal and state governments are even systems that lend themselves to producing another Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, or Lincoln? One needs only to look at the strings once-aspiring politicians such as George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Rudy Guiliani, and George Wallace pulled in order to attain public office to wonder or infer that people are forced to sacrifice moral codes and ideologies for the sake of getting elected.

  Mark wrote @ November 3rd, 2008 at 7:41 pm

I understand what you drive at. However, everyone pulls strings – gets help, calls in markers, uses the system and circumvents laws made to curb dissension. Read a biography of Thomas Jefferson during his run for the 1900 presidency against John Adams. The integrity of the person means everything, though.

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