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Douthat Confirms He’s an Overachiever

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by Brien Jackson

When we one day look back at the death of The New York Times, I hope we can all agree that the decision to pay Ross Douthat for the priviledge of publishing his bullshit Very Serious Columns was a disastrous decision that, couple with the idea to precede him in that spot by Bill Kristol, absolutely destroyed the credibility of the entire enterprise. His column on Sarah Palin this week probably isn’t the worst column he’s written yet, and really, that’s probably the worst thing about it. There’s a lot of stupid to wade through here, but this is the part that stuck out to me, and a lot of other people:

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

As someone who doesn’t have an Ivy League degree, and probably isn’t going to have one, let me just say; this is complete bullshit. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t really plan to instill my kids with the belief that if they want to do something, they’re entitled to be a success at it despite how much ability or effort they may lack, and I never had anyone tell me that either. I had a lot of people tell me that if I worked really hard, I’d be able to achieve anything I wanted, but that’s a rather crucial difference, and Douthat’s exclusion of it rather changes the “ideal” he’s describing entirely. To say nothing of the absurdity of arguing that, on the basis of lacking a degree from an elite East Coast university, you’ve naturally achieved more, or overcome a more substantial hurdle, than Barack Obama. I’ll outsource this critique to Conor Friedersdorf:

It is true that she isn’t an elite in the sense that George W. Bush and John McCain were — they came from families with political connections — but it is hard to see how she embodies the up-by-the-bootstraps narrative more than Barack Obama (or Joe Biden, for that matter).

In Ross’s telling, what separates the meritocratic ideal from the democratic ideal is whether you can be a success story without having attended Columbia or Harvard. Okay. Well Joe Biden was born into a middle class family to a father who had a long spell of unemployment, and later found work as a used car salesman. He made a success of himself having graduated from the University of Delaware in Newark and the Syracuse University College of Law. Why isn’t he the embodiment of the democratic ideal?

But I actually don’t want to concede Ross’s premise. Given the history of race in America, the election of a mixed race black man to the presidency — Columbia and Harvard or not — ought to have as much a claim to fulfilling the democratic ideal as the nomination of a woman who didn’t attend an Ivy League college. We’ve had our Andrew Jacksons and our Jimmy Carters. Despite the frequency of Ivy League presidents, no one doubts that a candidate from a less elite educational pedigree can be elected. Which candidate caused more Americans to reconsider the kind of person who might be elected to the presidency, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin?

I’d add that it just seems strange to imagine this supposed split occuring between people with Ivy League degrees and people with degrees from non-Ivy League schools, especially considering that only about 1/3 of all Americans have a college degree at all. And while I can see Palin, as an individual, may seem like the great affront to meritocracy, being that she was totally ignorant of more or less everything and still got nominated by a major political party to be Vice-President of the United States of America and all, it would seem to me that the real enemies of some meritocratic ideal would be the George W. Bushes and John McCains of the world, who have each spent a lifetime trading on their fathers and grandfathers despite an obvious lack of any abilities on their own part, not Barack Obama, who elevated mhimself from a decidedly middle class upbringing to excel at elite universities and become President of the United States. I will, however, grant that Douthat’s perspective could be somewhat clouded, given that his profession is one of the few areas I can think of off the top of my head where the major cultural split really is between people with Ivy League degrees and everyone else, and that non-Ivy Leaguers do have a scandalously hard time getting ahead there. But that’s hardly an excuse for someone writing in a publication that fancies itself the gold-standard of journalism, particularly given the overall shoddiness of basically everything Douthat has written for the Times so far. Worse, this really isn’t anything new for Douthat, so the Times should have known in advance they were getting this kind of garbage. Then again, looking at the other people they’re paying for this stuff, you have to wonder if they even care.

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