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In Defense of Elitism

Posted on Sep 23, 2008

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in Newsweek and is reprinted here with permission. Click here for more from Sam Harris.

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Let me confess that I was genuinely unnerved by Sarah Palin’s performance at the Republican convention. Given her audience and the needs of the moment, I believe Governor Palin’s speech was the most effective political communication I have ever witnessed. Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could.

Then came Palin’s first television interview with Charles Gibson. I was relieved to discover, as many were, that Palin’s luster can be much diminished by the absence of a teleprompter. Still, the problem she poses to our political process is now much bigger than she is. Her fans seem inclined to forgive her any indiscretion short of cannibalism. However badly she may stumble during the remaining weeks of this campaign, her supporters will focus their outrage upon the journalist who caused her to break stride, upon the camera operator who happened to capture her fall, upon the television network that broadcast the good lady’s misfortune—and, above all, upon the “liberal elites” with their highfalutin assumption that, in the 21st century, only a reasonably well-educated person should be given command of our nuclear arsenal.

The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth’s surface (she didn’t have a passport until last year), or that she’s never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska’s geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin’s lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. “They think they’re better than you!” is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. “Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!” Yes, all too ordinary.


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We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter’s microphone, saying things like, “I’m voting for Sarah because she’s a mom. She knows what it’s like to be a mom.” Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.

Palin’s most conspicuous gaffe in her interview with Gibson has been widely discussed. The truth is, I didn’t much care that she did not know the meaning of the phrase “Bush doctrine.” And I am quite sure that her supporters didn’t care, either. Most people view such an ambush as a journalistic gimmick. What I do care about are all the other things Palin is guaranteed not to know—or will be glossing only under the frenzied tutelage of John McCain’s advisers. What doesn’t she know about financial markets, Islam, the history of the Middle East, the cold war, modern weapons systems, medical research, environmental science or emerging technology? Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin’s ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.

I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn’t: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events. Needless to say, she shares this belief with millions of Americans—but we shouldn’t be eager to give these people our nuclear codes, either. There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn’t ready for? He wouldn’t. Everything happens for a reason. Palin seems perfectly willing to stake the welfare of our country—even the welfare of our species—as collateral in her own personal journey of faith. Of course, McCain has made the same unconscionable wager on his personal journey to the White House.

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By hetzer, October 1, 2008 at 7:43 am Link to this comment

Money is the primary means for crooks to keep things the way they are.  Americans need to understand (mainly by word of mouth) how money, power, status, and phony virtue are the main burglary tools for the rich.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.

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By Carlisticeday in Brockport, October 1, 2008 at 3:58 am Link to this comment
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Yes, we are a willfully ignorant people.  That is how we can do what we’ve done in so many places around the world without so much as a peep from Joe and Jane Blow.  But our so-called press is partly to blame for this, too. 

An informed public is essential for a proper democracy, but that comes not just from education, but from information — not a commodity our professional press are not in the habit of giving us.

Rather, the press, too, have by and large bought the America First line, amd they assume moreover that we are not able to understand the real issues.  And so they continue to promote our collective blindness by refusing to cover any story that challenges that.

An example.  We now know who the shooters were in Dallas in November of 1963, and Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t one of them.  E. Howard Hunt confessed his role in the coup on his deathbed.  This is an immensely significant bit of information for anyone concerned about the state of our so-called democracy.  Yet all the networks and all the “legitimate” cable channels continue to bleat about “conspiracy theories” rather than actually cover the story.

Likewise Torrijos and Noriega in Panama, likewise Allende, likewise the Shah of Iran, likewise Saddam, likewise…likewise…likewise. 

It’s just that Sarah Palin doesn’t know about these things.  She doesn’t.  What’s worse is that she — and millions of the rest of us — don’t CARE about them.  And I would argue that one reason we don’t is that the mainstream press isn’t bothering to cover them.

Do you want change?  How will that happen?

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By Anarcissie, September 26, 2008 at 7:19 am Link to this comment

hetzer: ’... No elite should be tolerated for long.  They should be easy to remove.’

In some organizations, including rather autonomous ones like communes, and in some of the ancient Greek city states as well—and doubtless elsewhere—important posts are or were filled by lot for a limited term from a relatively large pool of supposedly qualified citizens.  Given the present intellectual and moral levels evidenced by our national administrators and legislators, for the United States such a pool could be very large indeed.

Such an arrangement could have many benefits.  For instance, it often takes time to corrupt and suborn an official.  If the officials were selected by lot, they could not be corrupted in advance; the corrupters would have to start work after the person was in office, and the benefits for the corrupters would run out when the official’s term ended and she or he was replaced.

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By hetzer, September 26, 2008 at 7:19 am Link to this comment

Thanks for the boost.  I like Watership Down.

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By Outraged, September 25, 2008 at 10:24 pm Link to this comment

Re: hetzer:

In many ways, you and I are kindred spirits…(see “Anne of Green Gables” Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst)  Hang tough.

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By hetzer, September 25, 2008 at 5:07 pm Link to this comment

If a soldier finally succumbed to battle fatigue or whatever he or she lost their leadership position without much fuss.  The Vietnamese recognized that one could not serve as an “elite person” under battlefield conditions for very long.  We, on the other hand, allow a criminal elite to take over our government and lead it with impunity.  Millions of people have lost their lives to this ridiculous government illusion.  No elite should be tolerated for long.  They should be easy to remove.

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By Larry, September 25, 2008 at 10:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

...especially in the editorial rooms.  When NEWSWEEK published this article, they chose to retitle it as ‘When atheists attack’—that sounds like something you’d see in the supermarket checkout line on one of the tabloids.  Could this be because their parent corporation wants people to approach an article that might actually be INFORMATIVE and offer up an alternative viewpoint to that usually featured in NEWSWEAK (a) with their mood pre-set to ‘hostile’ or (b) to skip it altogether?

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By nobozos, September 25, 2008 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

Just because there is only one POTUS does not mean we can’t expect ours to have the knowledge, intellect and past policy experience to hit the ground running in January.

Sarah Palin’s biggest contribution to American politics so far has been to exemplify by example John McCain’s desperate personal ambition for the White House, and his terrible lack of good judgment in the ways to get there.

If McCain kicks while in office (and actuarial stats say he’s got 2-4 years), we end up with Sarah the nincumpoop.

Country First my ass.
The White House is no place for on-the-job training.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, September 25, 2008 at 7:49 am Link to this comment

Sam, you wrote, “I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk.”

The truth is that the neocon selection of John McCain as their standard bearer was the big mistake.  McCain could have picked Jesus as his running mate and we’d have still been in big trouble.   

Anyone who can understand that, and many, many, many do, even Republicans, are among the elite then.  This is McCain’s last gasp.  And I don’t think elitism has won out; common sense has.

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By hetzer, September 25, 2008 at 7:25 am Link to this comment

There are no heroes in this world.  There are only acts of heroism.  No one is a root and branch hero.  That hero myth only serves the crooks who set us up with their rackets and wars.  My neighbor is a member of the car repair elite.  I am a member of the political smarts elite.  Both conditions are only temporary and always liable to error.  Advantage of any sort is almost always used for rackets.  No one should be given laurels to rest on.

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By KDelphi, September 24, 2008 at 3:50 pm Link to this comment

rage—Did you fall for that idiot-job from Connecticut?? I knew who he was when he announced he was running ( family went to school with W) Ithought taht it was a joke. When I figured out it wasnt, I re-registerd as a Dem.

But, apparently, the Dems have alot of trouble winning , when (along with cheating by GOP)they just cant get those knuckle-dragging rubes in the midwest to vote for them. I just cannot figure out why they do not love the Dems..hmm.

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By rage, September 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm Link to this comment
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““They think they’re better than you!” is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. “Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!” Yes, all too ordinary.”

Let’s get serious! This chick is anything but ordinary and just like the rest of us. She’s an heir to a candy fortune! Worst, I suspect she can’t tie her own shoes. And, she was born in the American Midwest.

I’m personally sick and tired of these useful reactionary idiots from affluence and wealth temporarily inconveniencing themselves to pretend to be ‘one of the little people’ just long enough to dupe a bunch of knuckle-dragging rubes that they are the interesting among us with whom having a beer is a good thing. Didn’t we fall hard enough for that ruse with that trust funded terrorist from Connecticutt who claimed to be from Texas?

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By KDelphi, September 24, 2008 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment

Virginia777—YOu disagree with all these Obama supporters?

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By KDelphi, September 24, 2008 at 1:21 pm Link to this comment

-Virginia777—Try race, class and intellectual elitism.

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By Virginia777, September 24, 2008 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment

“Harris is a founder of The Reason Project” - really??

Elitism is the CAUSE of many of the problems our country currently faces. The fact that it has been mis-applied by the spin-masters to Obama (who is not elitist in the least) is the wrong use of the term.

I could even narrow that down - “White elitism” is the cause of many of the problems our country faces today.

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By BruSays, September 24, 2008 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment

Yep…Pallin is toast. The honeymoon is over and Republicans once drunk with enthusiasm over the “spark” her nomination brought to the party are now waking up and thinking, “Oh shit. The spark is sputtering.”

But that won’t keep the accusations of “elitism” at bay and may prove even more reason to play that card as efforts to cover and conceal her utter lack of experience and ability are ratcheted up by the Rovians.

Funny, this “elitism” label. I recall a high school humanities class decades ago when we were asked to define what we look for in our leaders. The take away message from that class was that it’s deeply (but not surprisingly) entertwined in our history.

As pioneers settling a rugged land, fortitude, stick-to-it-ivness, toughness and stubborness were revered. Life could be short and a European education in Latin, philosophy and the fine arts was useless when you’re fending off bears, drought, starvation and cold.

To this, add in our natural distrust for the Brits whose wealthy and educated governors extracted taxes from us hard-working souls and sent the money home to purchase lace, books and formal educations. 

To this, add in our natural distrust for governments in general; many of us had fled the excesses of those governments and our last aim was to re-establish those heavy hands in the colonies. 

But…that was 200 years ago. Time to grow up America. We (Sarah Pallin possibly excepted) are not shooting bears in the woods anymore. Time to align our urban existence with 21st century vision and knowledge. Time to put the pursuits of scientists above those who earn millions throwing a ball. Time to respect education, knowledge, science and the arts.

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By Donald Stauffer, September 24, 2008 at 10:24 am Link to this comment
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Let’s imagine Palin as President.
Cabinet Meeting:
Member Charlie:  Madam President, Russia just invaded another country.
P:  Russia?  Oh, my.  Where is that?
C:  In Europe, Madam President.
P:  Uh-huh.  Are they the ones I can see from my window, Charlie?
C:  Yes, Madam President.
P:  And they invaded?  What exactly does that mean, Charlie?
C:  They sent in troops, killed, maimed and bombed the people there.
P:  Sounds like a soccer game.  Are the people there Christians?
C:  Some are, but most are Muslim.
P:  Well, my goodness then, Charlie.  God will certainly save the Christians, and the others will burn in Hell.
C:  Ummm.  Okay.  But what should we do, Madam President?
P:  Oh, dear.  Could I be excused for a minute, Charlie?  I’ll go into the other room and ask my girls.  In the meantime, all of you join in with the Pastor here and beg forgiveness for your sins.  You too, Charlie, you didn’t bow your head last time.

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By KDelphi, September 24, 2008 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

I would rather not have an elitist at all.

Being smart or educated, or even, dare I say, rich, doesnt exactly make you an elitist. (I’ll think of a rich person who is not, maybe, by the end of the post)

It is an attitude, sometimes of the person being called elitist; sometimes by the person calling them elitist; and , often, by the MSM.

I think that it has been shown that the electorate do not mind someone being , even, a multi-millionaire,(you literally cant run for pres. these days, if you are not), and much better educated than they are, as long as they seem as though there are not sold out to monied interests. It is even better, if they have a background of “not being so rich”. In short, they have to show that they give a damn.

So, how did W get in power? Well, besides cheating, He presents himself as a “common man”. He is, in fact, Sinclair Lewis’ “professional common man”. He is Buzz Windrip.

It especially works when people are afraid (hence the re-incarnation of shock—I’m sure most people have read Klein by now). It is true, in some ways, what Obama said in SF—although it couldve been said better. People in teh south and midwest DO turn to guns and god when things get scary. If they were NOT bitter over what has happened to the uS, they mustve not been paying attention.

The prob. is getting them to translate that into , more, “fearing fear itself”. As long as Congress keeps voting down restricitons on guns, and promoting faith-based initiatives, it seems a little hypocitical, dosent it?

Oh, yes. Buffett, Soros, Edwards,—ther are plenty. But, “rich” depends on where you sit. As more and more people dont even have a chair to sit on, it becomes more and more impt. to let the electorate know that you DO know this, and that you have plans to restore democracy (without a middle calss ther is no democracy) I really do not know why the Dems seem to fail at this task every time. I do know that the answer to “MCain says that you are an elitist—what do you say?”, if you want to come off as NOT elitist, is not “That’s rich”.

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By Carol A., September 24, 2008 at 9:51 am Link to this comment
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Yesterday’s photo op with world leaders at the UN provided sufficient evidence that Palin’s handlers are shielding her from unscripted, uncontolled questions from the media. Photographs of an attractive woman don’t convey her lack of knowledge and experience. As long as she’s kept behind a teleprompter, she appears smart, tough, and gutsy, something that appeals to women. By keeping tight control, the McCain campaign hopes to avoid any gaffes or probes into some of her social positions and scandals that could make Palin a liability. It also serves to keep expectations low for her debate with Joe Biden.

Voters have been denied a chance to learn about Palin’s true character, experience, knowledge, and understanding of foreign affairs. She is the second least experienced VP candidate in our nation’s history. She is a wildcard and a reckless choice, with a 1 in 5 chance of actually becoming President. In these economic times, with two wars raging, an energy crisis, climate change, and a new world order developing, Sarah Palin is far too much of a risk.

It’s time for the media to ignore McCain and Palin. Black them out- no photos, no reporters, no entourage on the Double Talk Express- nothing! Let them stew in their own juice until they make Palin available.

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By Ivan Hentschel, September 24, 2008 at 9:34 am Link to this comment
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“Mediocrity” is far too often the norm. It is a word for the general mental state of America, that we overlook too often and, sadly and just as often, accept as “enough”.

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By felicity, September 24, 2008 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Elitism is found in the animal kingdom.  The HC Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling” a tale of a beautiful black swan accidently born among ducks which shun it, even fear it simply because it’s different than they are is a good example of elitism, animal style.

We ‘higher’ animals are equally uncomfortable with the other, the different among us - even going so far as to fear them. (Unfortunately, reason doesn’t stand a chance when the animal in us rears its beastly head.)

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By Anarcissie, September 24, 2008 at 7:37 am Link to this comment

Sarah Palin is over.  This week we’re going to see whether the bankers finish cleaning us all out, or we hang them from lampposts.

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By tdbach, September 24, 2008 at 7:28 am Link to this comment

I would argue that there is no defense for elitism, at least not while advocating for an American system of governance. Elitism is as un-American as it gets. Which is why it is an underground enterprise. And why it has been such an effective strategy of the right to label liberals as elitist. The irony that escapes most Americans is that both parties are fundamentally elitist, but by far the most profoundly elitist are the Republicans.

The problem for Democrats and progressives is that we believe in the value of good governance, so we elevate leaders who show, as Harris suggests, exceptional ability and a resume of leadership. Which of course makes our leaders easy targets for the elitist label, even if it is a bastardized concept of elitism.

Republicans, on the other hand, see government as a necessary evil (national defense) to be gamed to their advantage. It’s not important that the leaders are exceptional - in fact that’s more a problem than an advantage. What’s important is that they be controllable. Which is why light-weights like Reagan, GW, POW McCain, and Palin are a perfect face to put on their clutch of power. These people depend utterly on the expertise of their aides, which enable the true socio-economic elites to work the levers of power with no exposure to elitist labels. The person “in charge” is as common as a cheeseburger.

Which elitists would you rather have in power? The ones who wear their ambitions on their sleeve, who worry about public opinion, as it reflects the will of their “customers?” Or the ones behind the curtain who say all the right things while doing god-knows what to further their unspoken ambition?

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By hetzer, September 24, 2008 at 7:22 am Link to this comment

Democracy and equality will weed out any Palin.  Don’t forget the Palin is the product of a Republican elite devoted to force and fraud.  Republicans are crooks.  Any elite that comes from them will be crooks.  The Democrats are only a slightly diluted version of the Republican idea.  Democrats seek virtue points just like the Republicans seek power points.  Both endeavors are hopeless.

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By Scott Stewart, September 24, 2008 at 5:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wonder if the words you’re actually looking for are “competency” and “anti-intellectualism”.  Bush and Co are “elites” but not in the sense of elite runners or troops.  They are rather elites in the sense of unearned privilege.  If competency was part of the meaning of elites we wouldn’t be in half the trouble we’re in.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, September 24, 2008 at 5:25 am Link to this comment

Harris is right, the last thing we need is another bibledrunk with an itchy finger on the buttons. Fortunately, Palin’s shortcomings are rather obvious to many. One does not need to be an atheist to see them. Unfortunately, others will attempt to dismiss the contents of this article simply because it’s author is an atheist—perhaps the most openly and unjustly scorned group in all of these United States.

I can only hope that Obama’s people don’t react this way. Harris’ defense of elitism is exactly what Obama needs to say when Mccain makes his inevitable “elitist” charges in the coming debates. If Obama can’t make that hypocritical 2-percenter eat his words on that point, he probably won’t get the job—and he certainly wouldn’t deserve it.

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By marta kaye, September 24, 2008 at 4:56 am Link to this comment
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There’s a difference between a real shiny Diamond and a Fake one. Palin is a shiny FAKE!

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By Fahrenheit 451, September 24, 2008 at 3:22 am Link to this comment

In our Euclidean world, which includes the Cartesian coordinate system (xyz) for some depth; most of us have an expansive x or y axis or both, but a very shallow z axis (both plus and minus).  This dooms us to plumbing the shallows of each others brains.  Two dimensional existence is so boring.

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By nrobi, September 24, 2008 at 1:00 am Link to this comment

Elitism has become a bad word because it connotes a mindset that excludes the common person, one who earns a living rather than living off the money of a trust fund or money not earned by oneself.
Sarah Palin, is the polar opposite of an elitist, she is the extremist that we do not need and should not vote for by dint of the fact that she sees everything through the glasses of an outdated and outmoded way of life. This way of life includes that idea that, one should do as I say, not as I do. Many pastors children, including some I have known personally, have made decisions that could only be accounted for by the fact that they were rebelling against the “norm” that their parents were espousing. Such is the Palin story, there are too many holes, theologically for the mainstream Christian to acknowledge as truth, too many accounts of mismanagement of resources, too many of the elitist viewpoint that I am the one who consults G-d, and then makes the decisions regarding the future.
Sarah Palin cannot and should not be Vice-President, one step away from the most powerful position on earth, she has little or no foreign policy experience, and yet touts her qualifications as being a neighbor to Russia. Just because I live next door to a gas station doesn’t make me a car. Neither does the fact that Ms. Palin, by reason of her nearness to Russia, make her a foreign policy wonk or a person we can trust to wield power such as the president of the U.S. has in times of crisis, without the proper backing and preparation.

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By pa0lagar1bay, September 24, 2008 at 12:03 am Link to this comment

There is a huge amount of publicity about Sarah Palin and she’s definitely no typical woman. Yet there is a lot about her that people don’t know about.
has a lot of evidence ...
the most comprehensive page of information on Sarah Palin on the Internet ... including videos of her saying the Iraq war is a “task from God,” stating her proposed $30 billion pipeline is the “will of God,” and that a month ago that she doesn’t know what the vice-president does. Also her recently praising the biggest pork barrel spender in Congress -

It has in-depth research, audio clips, videos, excerpts, and links to hundreds of articles, including many from newspapers and TV stations in Alaska. It has rare footage you won’t find anywhere else, including her telling the ‘08 convention of the Alaskan Independence Party, whose aim is to give Alaska a vote on seceding from the U.S., to “keep up the good work.” The level of research is unparalleled.

The site’s editors and volunteers include an Emmy-award winning CNN reporter, the former operating editor of the Monitor’s web site, the former head of NPRs News Blog and the Executive Director of the Online News Association -

Americans have the right to know more about anyone who might be a heartbeat away from being president.

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