Tom Palaima: No Issues, No Interviews, No Scrutiny, No Democracy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Tom Palaima, a professor of Classics and ancient history at the University of Texas at Austin, is a regular commentary contributor to the Austin American Statesman and writes regular reviews for the Times Higher Education and the Texas Observer. He has contributed a number of pieces to HNN.]

After Sen. John McCain announced that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate, Republican presidential campaign manager Rick Davis told us what kind of campaign they would run: "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." And they are now running it right before our eyes.

Palin and McCain will not discuss issues. Palin is off-limits to the press as she travels from heavily scripted rally to heavily scripted rally repeating a demagogic message of change that has no meaning in a democratic society without serious public scrutiny.

The image of reporters shouting long-distance unanswered questions from airport tarmacs at her, even while our financial system and stock market get hit by Katrina-like forces, is, to me, a sacrilegious violation of a basic principle of our democracy. It is no change at all from the imperious secrecy of the Bush administration these last eight years.

This is all the more troubling given that Palin's track record, in a state that has fewer people than Austin, Texas, of intense partisanship, appointments of unqualified cronies and vindictive firings of independent-minded public servants mirrors how our White House has operated since the year 2000.

Davis wants us to trust his candidates when McCain mimics Herbert Hoover's assurances that the hemorrhaging economy is "fundamentally sound." The reality is that eight years of Republican laissez-faire policies have brought our economy to a perilous condition.

On other issues, too, Americans are asked to trust McCain's and Palin's personalities and the unchallenged assertions they make. They declare that victory can be achieved in Iraq, without explaining what victory even is and with Palin, either dishonestly or ignorantly, still linking Iraq to 9/11.

Shouldn't they be explaining to Americans why they think preemptive warfare (aka the Bush doctrine) and enhanced interrogative techniques are viable ways to secure our way of life? Shouldn't they explain how nearly $10 trillion dollars in national debt will go away by cutting taxes yet again for the wealthiest Americans? Don't they need to prove to us how off-shore drilling will solve the energy crisis?

Beware when you hear talk about "composite views" and unspecified things that we individually should take away from candidates. Such words tell us it is okay to neglect the common good and the basic principles that made our country, until the last eight years, a world model of tolerance, personal freedom and respect for reason and law.

This kind of talk invites us to give into prejudices about gay marriage or Roe vs. Wade or the teaching of creationism or pre-millennialist religious beliefs or the banning of sex education in schools or removing certain kinds of books from libraries or the biased liberal press.

McCain and Palin are turning a critical election into a reality show. Nonetheless, here is my composite view of what I take away from the candidates.

Where our future president is concerned, I am prejudiced toward educational achievement, intellectual abilities and democratic engagement with the issues.

I admire Sen. Barack Obama, because, as the child of a single mother, he studied hard for years and became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. His achievement contrasts with McCain graduating 894 out of 899 from the naval academy and Palin hiding the transcripts of her six years at four different regional colleges.

I admire that Obama turned down lucrative jobs because he felt called to community organizing. I am biased towards his ability to devise solutions to complicated problems and explain them to critics and supporters. I want a president who has been involved in elite intellectual circles during his college and adult life, and has cared about human beings at the grass-roots, state and national levels.

I admire Obama for continuing to address important issues, while being Swift-boated by Jerome Corsi, who Swift-boated John Kerry.

I take away from such tactics and from the Republican personality-focused, take-no-questions campaign that Obama's ideas frighten those who do not like to think and who don't want us to think either.

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Donald Wolberg - 9/19/2008

Mr. Palaima seems to belive that bias is a one way street, and that objectivity is the field of the natural sciences and not the social sciences. He seems to favor the spin and diatribes of the ill informed elitists and forgets or ignores uncomfortable data (facts?). Mr. McCain asked for unscripted public forums to discuss issues in as unstructured and candid way as possible, but the concept was rejected by Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama, ever the rehearsed, needs a scripted and controlled forum, and this failing was seen in his poor performances during the primary debates, where he did so poorly in comparison to Ms Clinton. Mr. McCain is much better at informal events and is better informed than Mr. Obama. Then too, Mr. Obama has betrayed an amazing ignorance of his "material" and seems remarkably poorly schooled. He wondered if, "he had visited 57 of our 58 states," and urged us, "to do away with all forms of carbon." The empty suit image is all the more filled by his remarkable unawareness of his "retired" terrorist friends, Mr. Ayers and Ms Dorn, or the racist and miserable rants of Mr. Wright, in whose church he sat for 24 years. He also admitted he should not have accepted the largess of the felonious realtor, Mr. Resko, and one wonders how it is that he managed to acquire the second largest contributions from Fannie and Freddie, both creations of the Clintonian era of political correctness and largess for friends. Of course these data bits escape Mr.Palaima as does the fact that Mr. Obama is very much the Illinois politician who has has a singularly unaccomplished record (more than 180 "present" votes). Mr. Obama never seems to have "worked" at a plebian job, nor brought forward any substantive legislation either in Illinois or the U.S. Senate. Superficiality is not a substitute for experience or knowledge.

It seems that the elitism of so many seeing "rustic" in Ms Palin ignores the vapid basis of her counterpart, Mr. Biden. A "legend in his own mind," Mr. Biden like Mr. Obama, seems to have had a propensity for other people's speeches and words, and in his 36 years in office, Mr. Biden seems to have acquired wealth (almost $5 million), but his largess is limited to $3,000 charitable donations while telling Americans that it would be patriotic to pay more taxes. It would seem that this has also escaped Mr. Palaima's attention. Mr. Obama's fortune of more than $7 million was recently seen to include major investments via exclusive brokers in tax free portfolios, again while asking Americans to pay more taxes. This is hardly evidence of political fairness. Mr. McCain is of course correct that the American economy is sound: a $13.4 trillion (thats $13,400 billion) GDP dwarfs any other economy in the world. Several of our states, in fact, would appear in the leading 10 economies of the world. Mr. Palaima seems to confuse "Wall Street" and "Main Street" (overused but real) and most Americans 94% of them go off to work, buy concert and baseball tickets and get by. Indeed, it was not Herbert Hoover (actually a very accomplished guy) or Mr. McCain that created the bad mortgage crisis. Fannie and Freddie are Clintonian creations. Indeed, 96% of all mortages are paid on time and of the remaining 4%, half are working out other arrangements. Mr. Palaima should look at the employment/unemployment figures for the last 20 years. The average unemploment rate is about 5.8%. The difficulty with elistism is that it ignores where most people are and clouds the ability to separate "data" from sloppy thinking.I willnot dwell on nonsense about Mr. McCain's standing at Annapolis or Ms. Palin's daughter. Neither Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden have served this Nation and put themselves in harm's way. Indeed, at the same age as Ms Palin's oldest daughter, Mr. Obama recalls in his book that he was on the treadmill of alcohol, pot and cocaine. One would be surprised to see these as counterpoises to Mr. McCain's life story.

Mr. Palaima might also do well to look a bit at geography and geology. He would find that Ms Palin as executive of the largest state (larger than Texas, Montana, California and Colorado combined and larger than all but 18 countries), had in her two years more executive experience than Mr. Biden (none) and Mr. Obama (none) and Ms Clinton (none), combined. He also seems unaware of the challenge Ms Palin confronted as executive of a huge area with more federal and foreign involvement than any other state. Russia is 23 miles away and Canada is at the border; 22 different languages are spoken in Alaska and there are about 30 ethnic groups. Many native groups have treaty agreements with the federal and State governments, as do the Russians and Canadians. Alaska has he largest reserves of natural resources of any state, requiring other formal agreements.