It’s like a journalistic trifecta for me:

Writing about Sarah Palin in Newsweek last month, I pointed out the crude way in which she tried to Teflon-ize herself when allegations of weird political extremism were made against her. Thus, she had once gone to a Pat Buchanan rally wearing a pro-Buchanan button, but only because she thought it was the polite thing to do. She and her husband had both attended meetings of the Alaskan Independence Party—he as a member—but its name, she later tried to claim, only meant “independent.” (The AIP is a straightforward secessionist party.) She didn’t disbelieve all the evidence for evolution, only some of it. She hadn’t exactly said that God was on our side in Iraq, only that God and the United States were on the same side. She says that she left the University of Hawaii after only one year because the climate was too sunny for an Alaskan; her father (whom she considers practically infallible) tells her most recent biographers that she quit because of the preponderance of Asian and Pacific islanders: “They were a minority type thing and it wasn’t glamorous. So she came home.” And so on. As I tried to summarize the repeated tactic:

So there it is: anti-Washington except that she thirsts for it, and close enough (and also far enough away to be “deniable”) to the paranoid fringe element who darkly suggest that our president is a Kenyan communist.

Last week, the new darling of the right did her best to vindicate me. She appeared on the radio show of a certain Rusty Humphries, another steaming and hearty slice of good-old U.S. prime, and was asked whether she would make an issue of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Her response: “I think the public rightfully is still making it an issue. I think it’s a fair question.” That was on Thursday, Dec. 3. On Friday, she had published a second “thought” on her Facebook page, reassuring all and sundry that: “At no point have I asked the president to produce his birth certificate, or suggested that he was not born in the United States.”

Well, exactly. Of course she hasn’t. She just thinks it’s a good idea for others to do that, in their “rightful” way, since, after all, it is “a fair question.”

Could anything be more cowardly and contemptible? Alexander Pope came up with a few lines about this sort of second-hand, third-rate innuendo-mongering:

Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings:
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys
Yet wit ne’er tastes and beauty ne’er enjoys.
So well-bred spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.

In the eighteenth century, Hitchens wouldn’t have tagged the quote as by Pope. Then it was simply assumed that one knew one’s classic literature by heart; Burke’s speeches are full of unattributed Latin tags from Horace, et al. Still, this is a perfect example of why one needs literature to participate fully in the modern world. Hitchens may give us a little jog to the memory, but he still assumes a highly sophisticated reader: one who can read those lines, understand them, and then draw out the parallel that makes Palin out to be a cur. (Or, knowing Hitch, a female cur.)

Such examples could be multiplied. (It’s not just the humanities that you need, either: some economics and sociology, not to mention a little physics and biology, are essential. But you learn to read and interpret language and history and politics on my side of the quad, not theirs.) Bottom line: you not only need to be able to read, but to read well, if you want to stand a chance of keeping up with the world.

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