Some right-wing blogs are discussing articulation versus intelligence. Todd Zywicki writes,
This piece by Randall Hoven on American Thinker raises a question that I’ve been wondering about, namely how it came to be that many people believe that Sarah Palin is not smart enough to be Vice-President. I think that what it probably explains it is a tendency to confuse glibness with intelligence, or perhaps more accurately, to confuse the ability to “bullshit” with actual intelligence.
This begs the question, what does he mean by “smart”? For the record, I don’t think Sarah Palin is stupid, if by “not stupid” we mean having a capacity to learn. I am guessing she has an above-average IQ.
I would say the better word is “unprepared.” Her knowledge of world affairs is, shall we say, shallow. But I think if someone gave her a job in the State Department that required her to learn, in five to ten years she might be a match for Henry Kissinger. Not that I care for Kissinger, but whatever you think of him, he’s not stupid.
For that matter, George W. Bush probably has, or had, as much cognitive capacity as most other presidents. People who know him say he’s not stupid, just intellectually lazy. If something interests him, he can learn about it quickly enough. It’s just that there’s a world of stuff that doesn’t interest him.
Lack of intelligence and lack of knowledge are both called “stupid,” but they are not the same thing. I get the impression that until recently Sarah Palin has not given much thought to issues that don’t directly affect Alaska. And that was fine, as long as her job was all about Alaska. But it’s not fine for a POTUS. And the depth of knowledge she needs to be POTUS is not something even a very bright person could pick up in a few easy lessons. It takes years.
I spent a lot of my life editing other people’s writing. I noticed a long time ago that sloppy language reveals sloppy thinking. The blog post linked above is an example; the words smart and intelligence are not used with precision. “Smart” means a lot of different things. Palin is smart in some ways and not smart in others.
And there are people who use language in lieu of thinking. Victor Davis Hanson’s verbose essays are mostly word salads, for example. Christopher Hitchens can turn out clever sentences, but he doesn’t tie his clever sentences together to make defensible arguments. He leaves gaps one could drive a truck through. His essays tend to be much less than the sum of their parts.
Some of us are better at writing than speaking. I’ve had a little experience at public speaking, and manage not to suck at it too much, but if I want to be very clear I’d rather write. I have sympathy for the candidates when their mouths get ahead of their heads and the words come out wrong. Sometimes a stumble is just a stumble and not anything to get excited about.
However, show me a person whose language is consistently sloppy, and I’ll show you a sloppy thinker. An adult of above-average intelligence, speaking or writing in his native language, ought to be able to convey his ideas coherently. His rhetoric may be wooden and graceless, and that’s OK, but if it’s fuzzy, it’s darn near certain his ideas are fuzzy, too.
Regarding Barack Obama — the blogger linked above says,
Obama has this ability to fall back on empty stock-phrases that he utters with a furrowed brow and gravitas, projecting a perception of intelligence and understanding even if what he is saying is largely devoid of substance. For instance, it seems relatively clear that neither McCain nor Obama has the slightest clue about what caused the financial crisis or what to do about it. But McCain’s discomfort and lack of knowledge when it comes to talking about the financial crisis is transparent, whereas Obama is able to cogently spout empty generalities that obscure his lack of knowledge.
It’s true that many of Obama’s stump speeches are more soaring rhetoric than substance. However, he is one of the few people in national politics who does do substance when it’s called for. The “race” speech and the “faith” speech are examples. The guy is a real thinker. You can tell he likes to dig beneath the surface of issues and understand them deeply. This is a trait I appreciate.
However, people who are sloppy thinkers themselves don’t appreciate clarity of thought. They like to wallow in the warm familiarity of stock phrases and comforting biases; all other communication bounces off them without leaving a dent. Anything that requires critical thinking to understand probably won’t register.