Brainy Candidates Need Not Apply
By Ariel Dorfman http://www.latimes.com/news/politics...,7091860.story
Chilean Ariel Dorfman has just published "Other Septembers, Many Americas:
Selected Provocations 1980-2004" (Seven Stories Press). Website: www.adorfman.duke.edu
October 22, 2004
Is John Kerry too intelligent to be president of the United States?
It was what I felt instinctively the first and only time I met him, at a
lunch at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 1998. He was
subtle, full of cultural and historical references, elaborating each fine
argument at length, with perception and nuance. I commented to one of his
aides afterward that I regrettably thought his brains could turn out to be
the biggest impediment to a man like him ever occupying the White House.
All these years later, with most polls still showing George W. Bush ahead of
his opponent after three debates in which Kerry proved himself more
articulate and thoughtful and flexible and able to understand an
increasingly dangerous world, I am afraid I may have been right. Yet it
still seems inconceivable to me that someone as incompetent, incoherent and
obtuse as Bush could possibly command almost half the votes of his fellow
Is it that Americans actually like Bush's know-nothing effect? Or is it that
Kerry strikes Americans as too highbrow? As pretentious? Do they see his
complexity as excessive effeminate suppleness?
This anti-intellectualism has, unfortunately, a long history in the United
I first encountered that widespread prejudice as a 10-year-old Latin
American boy in New York in 1952. It was an election year, and I was
enrolled in the Dalton School on 89th Street - a bastion of American
progressives. I had no doubt that "my" candidate, Adlai Stevenson, one of
the most lucid and cultured men in the nation, was going to defeat Dwight D.
Eisenhower, a general who bragged that he preferred playing golf to reading
a book. In a mock vote, the tally in my class was, as far as I recall, 27 to
A few days later, the American people, in the real balloting, overwhelmingly
chose "I like Ike" over "egghead" Adlai. When I asked my dad how people
could possibly reject someone as smart and educated as Stevenson, he
explained that this was a transitory aberration, the malevolent dregs of
McCarthyism, which had convinced many Americans that, at a time of great
national peril, being an intellectual was akin to being a traitor.
But it was not an aberration and certainly not transitory. Eleven years
later, Richard Hofstadter published his "Anti-Intellectualism in American
Life," a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that explored the deep roots of this
wariness toward anyone "who takes more words than are necessary to tell more
than he knows," as Eisenhower himself rather wittily phrased it.
Anti-intellectualism had its origins, according to Hoftstadter, in American
traits that anteceded the nation's founding: the mistrust of secular
modernization, the preference for practical and commercial solutions to
problems and, above all, to the devastating influence of Protestant
evangelism in everyday lives. Anybody who cares to read this masterful book
today may be astonished to see how it anticipates and even predicts the rise
of the neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalism in contemporary
Hofstadter seems to be writing in 2004 when he chillingly states: "The
fundamentalist mind is . essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as
an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and
accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can
tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it
believes to be trifling degrees of difference."
And this mind-set could well elucidate why so many Americans recognize that
Kerry may have won the debates but is unable to persuade them with his fine
distinctions to change their minds or vote for him.
It may turn out that enough undecided voters will set aside their
misapprehensions and select Kerry as their next president. It may be that
Iraq, the loss of jobs, the rise in healthcare costs and so much more will
make them ignore the fact that Kerry is someone they would not want "to
share a beer with."
More than a century and a half ago, in the very state of Massachusetts that
Bush has maligned in every speech, there lived in the city of Boston, not
far from where Kerry has his home, a man named Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was
arguably the preeminent North American intellectual of the 19th century, and
in "The Conduct of Life" he wrote these prescient words: "Our America has a
bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been
boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned
themselves to face it."
The terror of life.
One can only hope that his fellow Americans, so many years later, will not
be afraid of choosing as their leader a man who believes that the best way
to defeat the multiple terrors of today and tomorrow is with an intelligence
of which no human should ever be ashamed.