Monday, November 14, 2011

What Herman Cain's Libya confusion tells us about him

You should watch this video if you haven't yet:

Pretty embarrassing.

But here's what I think it means. During my long, long experience as a student and my much less extensive experience as a teacher, I found that there are three main reasons that students don't know something that they should. From watching politics for more than three decades, I've also found that the same three reasons apply when a politician hasn't mastered an issue.
  1. They studied it but they're too dumb to learn it. (This is actually pretty rare, in both students and politicians -- except governors from Texas, maybe.)
  2. They blew it off and didn't study. (This seemed to be Sarah Palin's usual problem. People were always talking about how dumb she is, but I think the real problem was that she simply didn't put in the necessary work to master the issues.)
  3. They studied it, but don't care about it, so they forgot it. (This was always my Achilles heel as a student, actually.)
So what happened to Cain? Well, I've never gotten the impression that Cain simply isn't very smart, the way I have with Perry, so that rules out number 1. And he didn't have that deer-in-the- headlights look that Palin used to get when someone would ask her a question about something she'd obviously never even heard of. (OMG! What the heck is the Bush Doctrine?) Cain had obviously been briefed on Libya, he'd gotten his talking points or whatever ready, but he simply couldn't remember them. That rules out number 2.

That's why I think number 3 is the reason. As noted here, "Research into the psychology of memory shows that intention to remember is a very minor factor in whether you remember something or not. Far more important than whether you want to remember something is how you think about the material when you encounter it."

And, tired, according to his campaign, and asked a vague, open-ended question that didn't give him any cues towards an answer, Cain simply failed to remember what he had studied.

What this suggests to me is that Cain doesn't really care what happened in Libya. The subject didn't engage him; it was just a bunch of talking points. He found it boring, and thus embarrassingly easy to forget. So, coming after his "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" routine celebrating his ignorance of Uzbekistan, I think we can say with some confidence that Herman Cain 1) doesn't care much about foreign policy and 2) doesn't master issues that don't engage him. So now we know.

Of course, whether any of that matters to Republican primary voters is an open question. Ignorance of the rest of the world may be seen as a virtue rather than a flaw by most of them. Maybe they're satisfied just so long as America is killing foreigners somewhere. But I'd like to at least hope that to everyone else, ignorance isn't a virtue.

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