Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trump, Obama, and Grades

So... Donald Trump has now claimed that he has "heard that Obama was a terrible student," and wants to see his grades and test scores.  Oh, where to begin?  Let's start with disclaimers.  First, now that Trump has identified himself repeatedly and vociferously with the whole "birther" business*, it cuts the legs out from under the far-more-reasonable suggestion that the grades be released.  Secondly, my visceral dislike for The Donald makes it difficult for me to accept anything he says, including "2+2=4."  And third, there is a steaming pile of "so what" at work here.  As I recall, Nixon, Clinton, Carter, and Hoover were all stunningly brilliant.  Lincoln and Truman didn't have a day of college, Reagan graduated from Eureka College, and FDR was famously described as "a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament."  And recently the JFK library released Kennedy's Harvard admissions application, on which the only noteworthy item was "Father's Name: Joseph P. Kennedy."  So whether Obama is the most brilliant supra-genius after Will Ferrell in Megamind or a barely above-average fellow makes little difference.

OK.  Fine.  But there is the other side, too.  For my entire adult life I've had to listen to almost every Republican politician called a mouth-breathing moron.  Bush 43, or course.  Sarah Palin.  Dan Quayle.  Reagan.  Eisenhower, for pity's sake.  Gerald Ford (I think it was Tip O'Neill who said he had played too much football without a helmet.)  Those who were not stupid were crazy (Nixon, Goldwater, Cheney) or out of touch (Bush 41).  I guess Reagan must have been all three.  The fact that Bush 43 got his undergrad from Yale and an MBA from Harvard, and also managed to fly a jet fighter, counts for nothing.  So pot, meet kettle--it is not entirely unreasonable to ask for some semblance of proof that a fellow touted as indescribably brilliant really is.

If you do any reading on this topic, you get caught in a giant loop.  You have the absence of any hard evidence on the one side (with the notion that if proof of brilliance was really out there, it would have already have been trumpeted from  the rooftops).  On the other, you get the facts that Obama graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law, and was President of the Harvard Law Review.  Here's the thing: before 1981, making the Law Review was done 100% on grades, and the very top student was the President.  Should be a slam-dunk.  But after that, and before Obama's admission, they gamed the process to fix the fact that hardly any Law Review editors were women or minorities.  They also made the Presidency an elected office.  Does that mean that Obama was an affirmative-action Editor?  Not necessarily.  But if it is fair to assume that any academic credentials held by George W. Bush must have been corrupted by nepotism, why is it off-limits to wonder whether a multi-racial, multi-national son of a Harvard grad might have gotten a bump somewhere?  And there is no doubt that the man is an excellent campaigner.

That still leaves off the deal with "Magna Cum Laude."  That's the middle level of honors--Cum Laude is lowest, Summa Cum Laude highest.  If Obama had gone to the University of SC, I could tell you for sure that he had to have a 3.75 GPA to qualify.  But I don't know about Harvard.  On paper, everybody who gets into Harvard is brilliant.  That doesn't mean that the middle ones get a 2.0.  I know that today, there is much ink spilled over grade inflation at the Ivies.  I have no idea what it was like back in the late 80s.  It may very well be that Obama's "Magna" means he was top 10% of his class.  It might also be the case that 3/4 of the class was "Cum Laude," the top half "Magna," and the top quarter "Summa."  I don't know--but to assume either one is a leap of faith, likely rooted in wishful thinking.  And even if his grades were good, were they good in all classes?  What I mean is, did he bust the curve on Torts 1 or Contracts, which everybody takes?  Or was he mid-pack  in those, but aced the sorts of electives where being smooth, and glib, and right-thinking (liberal, of course) are an advantage? 

I suppose the very best answer to the question, "how smart is he" would be found by looking at standardized test scores, if only because they are taken by everybody.  SATs and LSATs would be the obvious ones.  And since President Obama is older than me (but not by much), I know that the SAT he would have taken would be the pre-1996 version which correlates almost perfectly with IQ.  (The modern version does not--but the "old" SAT was acceptable as an entrance test for Mensa, among other things.)  Now, if Obama took the PSAT (which I don't know), and if he really did have the kind of IQ that usually results in being top of your class at Harvard, you could reasonably expect him to have been a National Merit Scholar.  That ranking is done entirely from the test--double your verbal score plus your math.  But there are lists of National Merit winners, and Obama's not on them.  Again, maybe he didn't take the PSAT.  Nobody's saying he's dumb.  But the hard evidence of his purported brilliance is not all that solid.

What?  Don't like the sound of that?  Well, here's a solution.  Consistency.  How about we say, "He couldn't have gotten where he is now without being pretty darned bright."  And say the same thing about, say, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.  Or say, "Raw, testable intelligence is no predictor of leadership."  And give the same benefit of the doubt to Reagan.  But it seems to me that to define "intelligence" as "a quality found only among those whom I like and agree with" is not clear thinking.

*Note: If you have doubts that Obama was born in Hawaii (and I saw on a muted TV at dinner tonight that CNN now has supposedly proven that he was), just ask yourself this: if there were ANY chance that Obama were not eligible to be president, do you doubt for a second that we'd have President Hillary Clinton right now?  I might could believe that men didn't land on the moon, that Oswald was a clone, and that Dick Cheney caused hurricane Katrina with his magic weather machine.  But to believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton somehow decided to play nice and take one for the team is a bridge too far.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rob Bell = Sarah Palin

I finally gave in and read Love Wins, Rob Bell's controversial new book on heaven and hell.  For those who don't follow intramural fights among evangelicals, Bell has come under fire for suggesting that God might not send anybody to hell.  Or rather, that the opportunity to repent continues to exist even after death, and that given the time involved (eternity) and the persuasiveness of God's love, that like the million immortal monkeys with typewriters who eventually pound out Hamlet, it's possible that eventually everybody will be saved.  (BTW--this is a terrible oversimplification of what he says, or rather implies, and is more-or-less from the perspective of the critics.)

I am of two minds about this whole tempest in a teapot.  I'm not a huge Bell fan.  I find his style grating--everything from his haircut to his glasses to the font he uses in his books screams out "Look at me!  I'm edgy and cool!"  The selective leaking of some of the more provocative passages from the book generated a bunch of buzz, which of course translates to more attention for Bell.  And he is very careful to never actually SAY anything that can be nailed down.  That gives him the cover of being able to say, "I was just asking the question" without ever owning up to an answer.  What's more, the topic itself isn't even particularly original.  I much prefer C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce.

That said, I find my reaction to Bell almost perfectly mirrors my reaction to Sarah Palin.  As I have written elsewhere, I am not a Palinista, and would prefer she not run for president.  If she does, I will almost certainly not vote for her in the primaries.  I think she is a genius at self-promotion, but that her very skill at that distracts from a message that less-controversial messengers might deliver better.  BUT... the people who mindlessly hate her force me into her camp.  I find myself supporting (or at least defending) Palin, if only because I really can't stand the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Bill Maher, David Letterman, and so forth.  I find myself half-smiling at the idea of her running (even winning), just because it would possibly cause Maher's head to explode on live TV.

And so it is with Bell.  The sorts of "evangelical leaders" who have pretty much written him out of Christendom are of a sort that I would say have magnetic personalities--they repel me.  Attacking a book one hasn't read, ripping quotes out of context, jousting at a veritable army of straw men--those things offend me even more than Bell's suspect theology.  (If it even IS Bell's theology.)

Perhaps later I'll weigh in with my own views on heaven, hell, and salvation.  The very short version is that I have many of the same questions Bell does, and am even willing to entertain the possibility that God can and will choose to act in a way that conflicts with what I perceive as orthodoxy.  After all, He is God, and I most definitely am not.  But I am also satisfied that whatever He does, it will be both merciful AND just,  in a way that I am not able to do.  And I also keep coming back to Romans 6:1 (Should we sin more, that grace may abound?  By no means.").  So I do not presume upon God's goodness or mercy, for myself or others.

Dead Blog Walking

Well, it finally happened.  I've still got sitemeter set up on this alleged blog, and I still get a weekly report.  This week, I registered a Bluto.  (Mr. Blutarsky.... ZERO. POINT. ZERO.)  Can't blame anybody for not reading when I don't write.  It's so much easier to post a facebook status or to join in an online argument elsewhere.  Still, it's a good place to put longer stuff, and maybe I'll link it to FB if I write anything.