Okay, count me among those somewhat uncommitted voters galvanized by Sarah Palin. Don’t get me wrong, I was certainly going to vote Democratic this fall. I just haven’t found myself on the Obama Bandwagon. My man was John Edwards. I liked how he kept the issue of poverty and increasing opportunity on the table as no other candidate did. Then, when he dropped out, Hillary was my girl. When she conceded, I knew I’d have to vote for Obama, but I wasn’t passionate about it.
Then Sarah Palin showed up. And suddenly I was seeing Bush in a dress. The willful ignorance and the almost proud and boastful attitude about it. The incuriousness. The lack of scholarship. The attitude that you didn’t need to address issues with facts, or respond to media questioning. You could just bluff your way through anything. Because “who cares about all that learnin’ stuff. Off the cuff comments are better airplay.” That whole Republican mantra about “elitism”, which defines elite as educated, thoughtful, curious, experienced and insightful.
Something about Palin is sending me reeling back to my third generation immigrant roots. Having a grandfather who came over from Poland and an immigrant husband is really starting to affect my voting judgement.
The odd thing is that my husband and grandfather are worlds apart, but America was their common answer. Today, I’m not sure either would find the same answers here. And that’s why I’m getting mobilized.
My grandfather’s family was just above serf level in Poland at a time when that country was under Russia’s bootheel. Polish nationals were denied education and opportunity. In fact, Poland at that point (pre World War One) had disappeared from the map. My grandfather’s father brought him over here because the extended family pooled their resources in the hopes that my great grandfather could get a good enough job to buy land and bring the rest of the family over. That happened, but it happened slowly, with each member brought over immediately getting work, living on the family farm in Vermont and helping to pay off the mortgage. My grandfather, whose brains I hope I inherited, spoke seven languages by the time he was 12 (English, Polish, Russian, Czech, French, German, Ukrainian dialect), and landed his first job as a court translator at that time. He had to stop schooling after high school, but he vowed that every one of his children — and every one of his relatives he could help — would be educated. Not just at college, but at the best colleges. Not just at the best college, but top of their classes.
He succeeded. His son, my father, got a Congressional appointment to West Point and graduated near the top of his class. Then went on to Masters Degrees at Rensselaer and MIT. His daughter went to Middlebury and wrote for the New Yorker. Among the relatives he goaded, encouraged and helped pay for were kids who went to MIT, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Mount Holyoke, Vassar and Princeton.
I’m not sure he was disappointed in me when I went to a Seven Sisters College (Mt. Holyoke) instead of Harvard, which he’d set his sights on for me, and when I studied English and Art History instead of Law or Economics, but I remember the weekly phone calls urging me to study, study, study and be the best.
This was a guy as Joe Six-Pack as Sarah Palin would ever meet. He was the shop steward and Union rep at the Brother’s Gear Shaper Plant in Springfield Vermont for his entire career. But he certainly didn’t have her disdain for intellect and learning. He embraced learning and demanded it of his entire extended family. To him, the opportunity for education was what America offered, as no other country did.
Just because he was Joe Six Pack with a Polish accent didn’t make him so stupid that he would have fallen for her platitudes, empty speeches and blathering in circles which she thinks are enough for her “just folks constituents”. I remember telling him about my Political Science classes and listening to him make arguments that had my head spinning. He used to have spirited political debates with a Russian neighbor and loved calling me at college to tell me when he’d just won a point off his friend “Sasha”. Only years later did I learn that “Sasha” was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. You see, my Grandfather — unlike Sarah Palin — could name all the periodicals he read — and there were many of them, including The Times of London and other foreign newspapers. Being Joe Six Pack, back then didn’t preclude being an autodidact and one who could hold his own with one of the leading intellectuals of his day. He loved learning until the day he died and never hesitated to hammer that point into everyone in his extended family.
Which is a rambling way to bring me to the other end of the immigrant spectrum: my husband. If I may say so, I think he’s a genius. And he graduated from university at a time when England was sending only 2% of her high school graduates to university. But there were no jobs in England for him in the Seventies. They were locked up by families with connections. So although he was Middle Class with a Cambridge educated father, he headed for America where ambition and education were being rewarded.
This all brings me to why Sarah Palin has energized me. She is the apotheosis of what seems to be the growing Republican mantra of “anti-elitism” which defines elite as being educated, smart and ambitious. It’s the mantra that allows Karl Rove to characterized Obama, the child of a single mother and raised on food stamps who earned his way to Harvard and success on his on intellectual brilliance, as “the guy at the country club with a Martini sneering at the rest of us.” While Bush, who really is the child of privilege who was raised in the country club but threw away all his advantages on booze, drugs and youth as a wastrel, as a just folks-guy who you’d like to have a beer with.
I’m going with late night host Jon Stewart’s comment: “I want a president who is elite. I want a president who is embarrassingly superior to me. Who speaks six languages and sleeps two hours a night.”
So why is Sarah Palin energizing me? Because I’ve just had it up to here with this Republican pandering to a dumbed-down America they think will reject education, natural ability and talent. An America they think will roll over and watch “Star Search” while they plunder the economy and squander America’s resources.
These are tough times. This is not the moment for a soccer mom and a guy who, admittedly was heroic in the war, but hasn’t shown much leadership since. This is when we need to gather the best and the brightest to help us weather greater crises than we’ve faced in decades.
And what’s wrong with an elite? I’m thinking of one of our greatest presidents, Franklin Roosevelt. No one can deny he had one of the most privileged upbringings in America for either his time or ours. Didn’t stop him from understanding how to get the working man back on his feet during the Great Depression. How about most of our Founding Fathers who were the very definition of the elite yet laid a groundwork for a country that my Polish grandfather could see as a land of opportunity? What do we lose when we buy into this “anti-elitist” mantra? We lose people like my grandfather and my husband, who both, I would argue made indelible contributions to this country. Who are both the kinds of people we WANT to keep this country competitive.
Thomas Jefferson defined elitism this way: “There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . .” I think that’s the aristocracy, and the America my grandfather believed in. When he told us “study, study, study” he was urging us to be fit for leadership, or be fit to vote.
I’m thinking what made America great was the fact that it used to reward hard work, intellectual ability and learning. Who are the most successful immigrants? I’d argue the Chinese and the Jews top that list and both groups saw America as a place that prized and rewarded education — and afforded that opportunity based on talent not on position.
When did that change?
I want the America that rewarded my grandfather and my husband. I want the America that recognizes a “Natural Aristocracy Among Men”. I want a country that doesn’t see taking a place in the world and learning about different cultures as a bad thing.
Oh yes, I’m one of those kids that finished high school and went on a backpacking trip around Europe. My family wasn’t rich and I wasn’t “given” the trip. I earned the money for my Eurail Pass and the Youth Hostels I stayed in. But what I learned on that trip was invaluable. It’s apparently a lesson Sarah Palin never learned and has no interest in learning. That lesson? Other countries and peoples have different viewpoints from what you hear in the local mall.
When I think of Palin, I also think of a Marketing Vice President that my husband hired. He’d seldom been out of the States and on his trip to a trade show in Germany, he so embarrassed the company and clients SCREAMING LOUDLY AT THE FOREIGNERS and demanding hamburgers that he was almost immediately let go. My husband has since revised some of his hiring interview questions to address if the candidate has a passport, how long they’ve had it and how much they’ve travelled. Yes, it’s that important in this economy. It’s even more important in a critical government position.
My rambling point? Let’s strike a blow for what made America great. Easy access to education. A system that rewards the best, the brightest, the smartest, the most ambitious. Stand up and say you are elite. Or stand up and say, like me, that you are trying to be elite, at least as Thomas Jefferson describes it. And vote for the smartest candidate. Please.
And that smartest candidate. Gotta be Obama. He’s especially impressive when you consider his background and where he got himself to on his own talent and initiative. Then factor in that he has the intelligence to surround himself with smart people, not necessarily people in lockstep with him, but, like Biden, people with the deep experience to help dig us out of these crises. I have to say it now (thanks Sarah Palin) but Go Obama!