Monday, November 10, 2008

It's All In The Mind

Two articles over the weekend, on different sides of the Atlantic, stress an aspect of the US election result which most of the networks & press unsurprisingly ignored or downplayed.
Jonathan Raban ( ) celebrates the fact that Obama is an intellectual.
[He must be the first US politician since the 19th century to quote Latin in his speeches, as he did at the Democrats' convention in 2004, & not be howled down or treated like a freak ( ).]
Raban relates, "At the University of Chicago, he taught constitutional law, the most demanding and far-reaching area of study in US law schools. He names Philip Roth and EL Doctorow among his favourite living writers."
Raban highlights Obama's rigorous academic approach to any given topic, enabling him to develop & articulate a flexibility of thought which is par for the course in academia, but truly mind-blowing in modern US politics:
"The unique contradictions and messinesses of his own childhood made him an empiricist by instinct, finding a path for himself by testing his footing each step of the way. His education at Columbia and Harvard made him an empiricist by training. As a law professor at Chicago, he pressed his students to adopt contrarian views while playing his own opinions close to his chest. In July this year, the New York Times reported:
'Obama liked to provoke. He wanted his charges to try arguing that life was better under segregation, that black people were better athletes than white ones. "I remember thinking, 'You're offending my liberal instincts,' " a former student remembered.' "
The counterfactual argument in history is often a meaningless academic exercise. However, when applied to specific & emotive issues, it carries a moral & intellectual resonance, augmenting the case for progressive causes.
Nicholas D. Kristof pens what turns out to be a welcome accompanying piece to Raban's article in the New York Times ( ):
"We can't solve our educational challenges when, according to polls, Americans are approximately as likely to believe in flying saucers as evolution, and when one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun orbits the Earth."
Kristof lists some fascinating, yet almost forgotten facts about early US presidents:
"James Garfield could simutaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other, Thomas Jefferson was a dazzling scholar and inventor, and John Adams typically carried a book of poetry. Yet all were outclassed by George Washington, who was among the least intellectual of our early presidents."
Last time I heard, George W. Bush was making good progress with his English.

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