Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Populism unmodified

Silvestre ReyesWillie HulonGeorge W. Bush
Reyes and Hulon and Bush, oh my!

By now the shortcomings of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes and FBI national security director Willie Hulon are old news. (Reyes and Hulon are rather famously confused about the sectarian affiliations of Hezbollah, Iran, and Al Qaeda.) As for George W. Bush . . . had we world enough and time, my coyness here would be no crime.

Still, Reyes and Hulon prompted Peter Beinart to make these astute observations about the real relationship between populism and elitism in American politics:
Arabic scriptHulon and Reyes . . . are symptoms of a disastrous American tendency to see knowledge of foreign societies as superfluous to foreign policy. According to the Iraq Study Group, the 1,000-person U.S. Embassy in Baghdad boasts only six employees fluent in Arabic. And the Study Group isn't exactly an intellectual powerhouse itself: Of its ten members, only five have significant international experience, and none is a genuine expert on Iraq or the Middle East.

Why do we think this is OK? Part of the answer, I suspect, is populism -- a deep-seated American distrust of experts and faith in the wisdom of the common woman and man. In 1999, for instance, after George W. Bush couldn't name the leaders of India, Pakistan, and Chechnya in an interview with a Boston reporter, spokeswoman Karen Hughes huffed that "99 percent of most Americans" couldn't either, as if that made it all right. But it's not elitist to expect politicians to know more about the rest of the world than average Americans. In fact, true populists should insist on it, since, at its best, populism abhors undeserved power -- the kind that allows people with no particular expertise or ability to enjoy privileges that ordinary people don't.
Yes, this was an essay on American politics and foreign policy, but Beinart's last sentence deserves repetition and recognition here at MoneyLaw:
[A]t its best, populism abhors undeserved power -- the kind that allows people with no particular expertise or ability to enjoy privileges that ordinary people don't.
Now that is populism unmodified. Amen.

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