Who Are You Calling Intellectually Incurious?

Lisa Murkowski, who it now appears may be the second person since 1954 elected to the Senate by means of write-in votes, recently made news with a snarky swipe at Sarah Palin. Murkowski sagely observed that Palin suffered from a lack of “intellectual curiosity.” This assertion marks Murkowski in a way that may cause Alaskans to experience an acute case of buyer’s remorse, for it is a very specific type of person who thinks, let alone makes, this assertion.

Intellectual curiosity appears to be rather ephemeral. It defies easy definition. Certainly one can cobble together a definition from a dictionary, and those who imagine themselves to be possessed of metric tons of it (and they’d surely prefer the metric system to the more red statish American system) are generally more than happy to identify those who do not possess it. Still, intellectual curiosity seems to be something that is understood and/or bestowed rather than earned. It seems to be a state of grace awarded by those who already exist in that exalted state rather than something one can attain through long-standing effort and merit.

In fact, there is substantial evidence that intellectual curiosity may be ironic, perhaps even paradoxical. The more one is lauded for possessing it, the less likely it is that they will manifest any meaningful evidence of its presence. Take Senator John Kerry, who, when running against George W. Bush for the presidency, was widely lauded by the press and the presumably intellectually curious as the obvious intellectual superior of Mr. Bush. “I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot!”  he reportedly exclaimed.

Yet it was, in due time, revealed that Mr. Bush earned better grades at Yale, the alma mater they shared, than Mr. Kerry. Suddenly, Mr. Kerry was no longer so publicly lauded. Perhaps one can be privately intellectually curious? But what’s the point of being a superior being if you can’t share your brilliance with the world and be, thereafter, suitably praised?

While president, George W. Bush, despite holding an undergraduate degree from Yale and a Harvard MBA, was labeled as lacking in intellectual curiosity by his self-imagined betters, yet the accomplishments of this intellectual pygmy are such that they have been, in large part, adopted and continued by his successor, the most intellectually curious human being who has yet lived -- who nonetheless blames him for, well, for just about everything. Since leaving office, various books, including that by Karl Rove (the locus of all evil in the world), have revealed that Mr. Bush is a dedicated reader, and a reader of substantive books at that. In fact, as this is written, his book, Decision Points, is the New York Times and Amazon top seller and is receiving good reviews at the hands of honest critics. Not bad for one so lacking in intellectual curiosity.

Ronald Reagan was widely derided as an “amiable dunce,” a reckless cowboy, and B-movie actor. Surely he was intellectually incurious? Yet, judging by his accomplishments, he must have attained some level of intellectual acumen. Even some of those so quick to denigrate his intelligence have been forced to admit, following the posthumous publication of his diaries and letters, that Mr. Reagan was in fact well read, intelligent, thoughtful, and even intellectually curious.

It would seem that there is more to this intellectual curiosity business than is at first apparent. It appears to be a label applied, almost exclusively, by those of the liberal/progressive persuasion to conservatives. For instance, one might be tempted to apply the label to Vice President Biden, every utterance heard or recorded whenever his lips are moving being prima facie evidence of the accuracy of the charge. However, conservatives appear to refrain from such name calling. What could account for this puzzling situation?