Sarah Palin, You Go, But Not to the White House

I have been not so much a Sarah Palin supporter as a Sarah Palin defender — and there is a personal psychology at play here regarding women under assault. Among my desperately few masculine attributes (I can’t fix anything, I hate cars, and I have a legendarily bad sense of direction) is perhaps an equally desperate and anachronistic kind of chivalry, a fierce protectiveness of women, even when they are, as they often are, fiercer than me.

I hope Sarah Palin continues doing what she’s doing — and I hope she lays to rest sooner rather than later any notion that she is a serious political candidate. Her shtick wonderfully exposes so many wince-inducing fissures in American culture, and may she continue to do so, without the distraction of a presidential campaign.

Palin has become the Reality TV of American politics — sadly literally, but more dangerously, metaphorically. Like Reality TV, which insulates participants and viewers together from any discomforts of intelligence, and focuses on some carp-worthy pop obsession, Sarah Palin does not so much participate in American politics (her own insulation from the risk of any actual encounter with any serious proponent of a disagreeable viewpoint, or even a skeptical journalist, is officially conspicuous), as give rise to multiple political banalities on the right and the left.

In sum — and I know this will sound odd — Sarah Palin is too controversial for serious politics. What?! Two words: Hillary Clinton. Controversy success story (mostly, but for the junior senator from Illinois). Yeah, I know, I said it would sound odd. But I mean “controversial” in two different senses. Hillary Clinton was (and is) a controversial politician, with hints of ethical shortcuts, scandal, power-tripping, crass political opportunism — the things we associate with politicians, and which serious politicians can weather well enough if they demonstrate the requisite brazen desperation for popularity and power (and stay out of serious criminal trouble).

Sarah Palin is “controversial” in a distinct sense. She is a cultural third-rail, a public figure who makes intelligent people on the left and the right go apoplectic-stupid. Sarah Palin brings out the worst in people of all stripes because she has become a super-charged cultural myth, a short-cut for venting the worst left and right hypocrisies and bigotries. Good for Sarah, let’s play it to the fullest and find out who we are. But not the kind of figure who leads a nation.

A part of me recoiled when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 campaign, but another predominant part recognized and respected the hail-Mary pass of an American hero confronting an historic tsunami. America was going to elect its first African-American president — that much was pretty clear — and McCain’s only hope was to find his own little piece of history, perhaps a piece jettisoned by the Democratic party in its primary, that might inspire a few voters in swing states, and hopefully electrify the base. The base, after all, wasn’t enthusiastic about McCain. And Sarah Palin did electrify the base.

Then a strange thing happened. The left lost its mind, and its moral moorings. Sarah Palin became a gang-warfare villain. And the very real restraints that applied to political discussion of Barack Obama — restraints that candidate McCain himself insisted upon — did not apply to discussion of Sarah Palin. She could be reviled with unbounded hideousness.

  • Get your coffee mug, or a sweet t-shirt, declaring Sarah Palin a “Republicunt.”
  • Keith Halloran, a New Hampshire Democratic candidate, said on a Facebook thread that he wished Palin had been aboard the Alaska plane that crashed, killing five including Sen. Ted Stevens.
  • Comedian Sandra Bernhard warned Palin she would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers” if she tried coming to New York.
  • Markos Moulitsas, of the Daily Kos, promptly blamed conservatives for the Tucson tragedy, tweeting that Sarah Palin had “accomplished her mission,” a reference to her midterm elections bulls-eye target of politicians that included Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — a graphic that Democrats also routinely used, including hypocritically, the Daily Kos website itself.

And so naturally, I defended Sarah Palin. Honestly, who wouldn’t? (Except Halloran, Bernhard, Moulitsas, Bill Maher, and those shameful people who bought the Palin coffee mugs.) Here was a woman stripped of entitlement to the most rudimentary human courtesies and decencies, a woman treated like a cockroach, a woman upon whom a swath of Americans projected their vilest hatreds, in some sort of orgy of repressed fury that needed only the treacle-sweet green light of pop culture to spew.

A woman. And many men remarkably joined in this bilious frenzy. I say “remarkably” because it simply isn’t surprising to see women viciously shredding other women — oh my, how often I’ve witnessed that. But one part chivalry and three parts political correctness typically restrains men from the worst rhetorical excesses when their target is a woman. Not so with Sarah Palin. Something about her screamed “open season.” Something about her changed the subtle rules of comportment we typically acknowledge when we talk about people.

Fascinating and disturbing as a cultural phenomenon. Not attractive as a political candidate.

Part of it is the desperate insecurity of so many Americans regarding their own intelligence, and the ease with which Sarah Palin permits a kind of anxious guffaw and a schadenfreude sense of superiority vis-à-vis a vice-presidential candidate, one heartbeat away from the presidency.

Sarah Palin is most certainly not stupid, but she permits too many Americans to feel less stupid. “Too many,” not because they are stupid, but because how sad that this accomplished woman serves primarily to make her detractors feel smarter.

Even when they’re not. In Boston recently, Palin purportedly botched a description of Paul Revere:

He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.

The manifest glee that followed! The orgy of self-satisfied condemnation! Paul Revere warned the British!?!? How stupid!

Well, Paul Revere did warn the British. By his own account, he encountered British soldiers and warned them they would be met with armed resistance.

And this is why I am a Sarah Palin defender, and not a Sarah Palin supporter. Like Jonathan Adler on this topic, I have no idea what might have been in Sarah Palin’s mind when she spoke the words she spoke. I have no idea why she referenced ringing bells. But I do know that the vast majority of people who pounced had no better grasp of actual history than Sarah Palin.

Their better selves already knew this. But something about Sarah Palin made them willing to go public with presumptively superior historical understanding over Sarah Palin. Something about Sarah Palin makes people reckless. Few of us wish to see less of this — the ironies are sublime — but she is a cultural phenomenon, not a serious political one.

Meanwhile, on the right, the godfather of rational conservative discourse, Charles Krauthammer, presumes to question Sarah Palin’s stature as a candidate — and a swath of the right goes nuts. Mark Levin says he’s “sick and tired of these smears by Krauthammer against” Palin.

“Smears”? Here is what Krauthammer said to Bill O’Reilly:

“She is very smart and adept. Great political instincts and is a star. The problem with her, I think, is that she is not schooled. I don’t mean she didn’t go to the right schools. I mean when you get into policy, beyond instincts — I like her political instincts, I like her political overall view of the world — but when it comes to policy, she had two-and-a-half years to school herself and she hasn’t and that’s a problem. It’s not only the lack of schooling, it’s the lack of effort to school herself and the lack of insight to see that she needs it.”

That’s not a “smear.” Indeed, Levin’s remark is a gross misuse of the word “smear.” Krauthammer’s discussion of Palin is an impressive smattering of compliments, coupled with one chastening observation. But, according to Tom Rowan at American Thinker, that one chastening observation must be because Krauthammer once wrote speeches for Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan.

Now that’s just preposterous. And that is why Sarah Palin is doing important cultural work, but really must stay out of electoral politics. Any person who electrifies the left down to its lowest common denominator of indecency and condescension, and who electrifies the right to absurdly vilify its own icons, is a net negative in American politics. A net positive, quite possibly, in American anthropology — and let that rich amazement persist — but not a person with any hope of uniting Americans or turning their anxieties to dreams.

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32 Responses to Sarah Palin, You Go, But Not to the White House

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  5. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    The other day I posted a comment on a blog about Palin – my comment was, “What’s the point of Palin?” Your post here has helped answer that question. Though I’m not a fan of hers at all, I’ll give the woman this: she’s never had to reinvent herself. She is who she is and she embraces that wholeheartedly. I wouldn’t say she doesn’t have a role in politics – she’s a different kind of political animal, one that makes people uncomfortable. Her colloquialisms and fractured speech haven’t been the norm in the world of political candidates. Perhaps it should become so. She might be the verbal equivalent of Ford’s physical gaffes. If the political arena in DC weren’t still such a good ol’ boys network, she might have had a chance. I’ll admit this – every single time I hear, in response to Palin’s potential, “Well, she’s attractive,” it turns me away from her. Yet, the authors of that statement are men, who I believe, sadly, partitioned her off and helped ruin her chances.

    • Thanks SDS. Palin is certainly and irreducibly herself — yet she’s actually more interesting as a cultural mirror — a gauge in an odd way of how people think and process. I don’t think it an overstatement to say that I can probably tell more about a person’s political orientation and way of thinking from their reaction to Sarah Palin than from their reaction to any other single politician. Maybe that’s another answer to your question, “what’s the point of Palin?”

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  7. hansi says:

    I think Sarah palin is Hot! OK, now that you know I’m a male pig that only thinks with his you know what, I got to admit you made some very fine points that I’ve never considered. I like Sarah, can’t stand her politics. She’s come a long way, and has done a lot to popularize and sell her brand. She is the darling of the Left, cause she makes us feel smart. I love it that she’s creating so much grief for the left and the right. Your last paragraph is a well writen insight about the Sarah phenominum. Well done.

    • Thanks Hansi. Interesting whimsical blog you have!

    • Wayne Winters says:

      Okay, I get this. I thought Jane Fonda was hot. Hated her politics.

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  9. Sherry says:

    Sorry but I find nothing defensible or admirable about a woman who is simply a grifter. Always has been. She is superbly incurious about the subject matter about what she speaks. She takes her positions dirctly from an article in the WSJ or some other right-wing pundit. She uses the basic ignorance of her base to further her own personal aims. Certainly most politicians do this to an extent, but most are at least knowledgable about the subject matter at hand and have interest in it.

    I think you are simply wrong about suggesting that those who vilified her utter ineptitude on such the tiny challenge of what Paul Revere did and said have no better understanding than her. That is absurd in my opinion…its kinda like grade school knowledge…rather basic.

    Otherwise, interesting blog…

    • Thanks for the visit Sherry. Yes, a child of nine knows Paul Revere warned the colonists. Palin spoke of Revere warning the British. People went nuts. Everybody knows Revere warned the colonists, not the British. Well, not true. And that was my point. It’s evidently not too well known that Paul Revere did explicitly warn the British. It was just another fascinating cluster of ironies that follow Palin like flies on a hot summer day. The people taking such pleasure in reviling her knowledge of history didn’t actually know their history too well.

      • Wayne Winters says:

        William Dawes warned more people than Revere. Revere sold more silver.

  10. William says:

    Sarah’s role is not to govern. In my opinion, she abandoned any serious consideration of holding office again when she bailed on her Alaska governorship. But that’s OK.

    Sarah’s role — and I think she knows this — is to inspire the right and annoy the left. She’s doing that well. And if she’s making money in the process, good for her.

    The left spazzes and spazzes about her. I see my normally reasonable Facebook friends — all responsible adults with full time jobs — go crazy, crazy, crazy over her. Not sure if it’s amusing or sad.

    Sarah won’t run for the presidency. She’s too smart to do that. And if she does — she is unelectable. Her base is loyal but small. So the left should be happy about her popularity and hope she runs.

    Disjointed thoughts here — my apologies.

    • Not disjointed at all my friend. Thanks for the thoughts. And I can’t really disagree with any of your thoughts or predictions — though I might be a little easier on her for resigning as governor, and I thought she did a very credible job as governor.

  11. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Oh, believe me, I’m one of the liberals who slammed her early and often. I think her learning curve has always been and continues to be steep and what with the magnifying glass that’s focused on her constantly, she’s caught more often making a a lot of goofy comments. Frankly, I don’t want her as a President, but I’m not remotely thrilled with the majority of the Republican candidates, who, though they may have a better grip on history and geography, are far more repugnant. Ya know, a lot of people couldn’t stand Hilary Clinton because she appeared to be an opportunist. Are women always going to be judged more harshly than their male counterparts? I hope not.

    • I know you’ve been a Palin critic. I’ve seen some of your comments. But the tenor of your criticism has tended to be discomfort with Sarah Palin as a role model of successful women. You haven’t been a vicious or a schadenfreude kind of critic (to my knowledge). I’m not sure I agree, though, that women are generally judged more harshly (except perhaps by other women) than their male counterparts. In fact, that’s one of the things that truly stands out about the Palin phenomenon. She’s attracted a truly extraordinary magnitude of over-the-top viciousness. In other words, it’s not normal. And that’s both interesting and disturbing.

  12. Paul Grubbs says:

    Palin has attracted an “extraordinary magnitude of over-the -top viciousness” because she is truly feared by the folks that are diametrically opposed to her politics. Anger is almost always a by -product of fear. Sure, the radical left love to laugh at her and she certainly supplies the comedians with ample material, but deep down she exposes their fear. The success of Sarah Palin and the TEA party requires them to ponder their most fearful scenario- abject failure.

    The outpouring of hatred exposed in your video (BTW I loved the Alice Kooper music!) is very disturbing because it clearly exposes her critics’ hypocrisy. I thought liberals were, well, liberal and willing to participate in heated debates with large quantities of booze and smokes consumed while we worked out the liberation of all people. Apparently it is easier on their thought process to “demonize” Palin than to listen to her politics. If such rancid hatred were to be directed toward a woman of more progressive ideology, NOW and other groups like them would be irate, offended, and call for a Senate investigation but when the C-word is used to describe Sarah Palin it is supposed to be taken as humor. What gives? Maybe Palin is a bit too close to home.

    I think Obama and his minions are a bit taken back that a significant part of the world can be enamored by Palin’s refusal to play ball within the unofficial bounds of Washington DC’s political playground. I see the same disdain by many of the so called “Republicans” as well. She appeals to those who cling to their God and their guns. Many of us have not forgotten Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc and do not expect the government to be our savior.

    My advice to our president, the Democratic party, and the main stream media is to pay no attention to the woman on the bus, but to pay attention to the unemployment lines. You could be next!

    • I agree that progressive organizations have been strangely muted in the face of astounding vulgarity directed at Sarah Palin. There has been a little stirring. NOW, for example, finally came out against the use of female body-part vulgarisms to refer to female politicians back in March. It was a heavily hedged denunciation — but at least it was something. That is was so heavily hedged, and coupled with denunciation of “right-wingers,” underscores the sad fact that the politics trump the principles with too many organizations, left and right.

      And by the way, since I happen to agree with Charles Krauthammer’s assessment of Sarah Palin, I may be one of those “so-called Republicans” you reference. 🙂 But I hope not.

      • Wayne Winters says:

        Everyone has been schooled to know by SNL and Alex Baldwin that Palin is just an object. An object to TITer at. The caps were intentional.

  13. A part of me recoiled when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 campaign, but another predominant part recognized and respected the hail-Mary pass of an American hero confronting an historic tsunami.

    This is what pissed off the women who wanted Hillary to win the nomination. The McCain campaign wanted those votes. Yes, they wanted a woman, but not just any woman. If McCain chose his BFF Lieberman, it wouldn’t have been such a tsunami.

    Palin has become the Reality TV of American politics

    It fits since she’s a Reality TV star herself.

    It’s very admirable of you to be a Palin defender. Obviously, I’m far from a fan and have written about her brutally. She irritates me. When she can’t answer a question, it’s the “gotcha” media. When she gives a poor interview, it’s the “lamestream media.” Can’t she just own it and say, “I didn’t know.” And her voice is like nails on chalkboard for me.

    I’ll leave it at that. Ending on a positive note, she is an absolutely beautiful woman. Very HOT. 😉

    • Thanks Spinny. Fair point about “just any woman” — though I don’t think Sarah Palin’s record as governor of Alaska was, to put it mildly, equivalent to any random woman.

      Okay, she’s an attractive woman, but I confess I’ve never really understood what that has to do with anything. When conservatives say she’s “hot,” it sounds suspiciously like, “we’ve got the babes on our side.” When liberals say she’s “hot,” it sounds suspiciously like, “having brutally reviled the woman, let me now sound ‘balanced’ and say, ‘she’s hot’.” Neither “compliment” seems a particular service to women in politics, or women in general. In a way, mindful that I’m straying into a minefield here, the whole Sarah “hotness” thing strikes me as the equally crass counterpoint to the despicable commentary on Chelsea Clinton’s, um, not-hotness, back when. Granted, there’s a big civility difference in calling someone beautiful versus calling someone ugly — but my point is the irrelevant banality of both kinds of yak. Coming full-circle to the theme of Reality TV, I’m vaguely okay with the fact that a program like “America’s Next Top Model” exists, but I’d rather not confuse it with serious political discourse.

  14. When liberals say she’s “hot,” it sounds suspiciously like, “having brutally reviled the woman, let me now sound ‘balanced’ and say, ‘she’s hot’.”

    I’ll concede. You pretty much nailed that one..

    Um, as far as Palin vs. Chelsea. Maybe you should have stopped when you saw the “Warning Minefields” sign. 😉

    • You’re probably right — but what didn’t you like about that discussion (which wasn’t Palin “vs.” Chelsea, but Palin “and” Chelsea)?

      • You’re right it should have read “and.””

        You mentioned the civility difference. There’s also an age difference. Sarah Palin is 47. The “ugly” comments were directed at a 13 y/o Chelsea Clinton (at the time). That was pretty f’n brutal. The tween years are hard enough.

        • You’re absolutely right. I thought it was horrible. But my point was to put to one side the civility and age issues, and see the two discussions as flip sides of the same coin: a cynical infestation of “looks” talk in political discourse.

          Actually, here’s another difference. Chelsea wasn’t herself espousing any particular political opinions (at the time). She was, or should have been, absolutely off-limits. I agree that that plunge was a conspicuous low in political meanness. But I’m suggesting that talking about “looks” — positively or negatively — comes from the same misbegotten impulse. I’m suggesting that we all owe each other, and the people in the political limelight, a disciplined focus on what they do and say, not what they look like.

          And by the way, even though it appears to contradict everything I just wrote — and perhaps this is the true meaning of the minefield — I feel obliged to say that Chelsea is a beautiful woman. Had there never been a horrible contrary narrative, I wouldn’t have to contradict myself here. So I really wish we’d stop talking about what people in the political sphere look like.

          • You don’t need to say she’s a beautiful woman since you were never horribly contrary. That just makes you extra nice.

            I’ll say Sarah is beautiful – now and later – for all the past and future horrible contrary narratives. 😉

  15. rautakyy says:

    As an outsider view, I could offer you mine. I think it is a great example of progress that a conservative party has a high ranking female politician. How hot she is, should be totally irrelevant. Male politicians are not valued by their hotness, are they? It is not a new thing that there is a female among conservative politicians. It has been ages of Margaret Thacher, but we should remember it was those who supported the conservative values of their time, that said women could not vote. That is now a passed issue, though the US has not yet had a female president. That is an example how defending the conservative values is a lost cause, because the radical ideas of yesteryear are the norms of this day and conservative values of tomorrow.

    It seems to me that in the western politics in general there is a sort of elitism, that turns the issues too hard for a great part of population to understand. It deals in expressions and terms, that are not within the general level of education. People are alienated from politics and turn their interrest towards sports, TV-reality shows and what have you entertainment. This suits the elite fine, because then they are left to run their affairs and play their political games in their own terms. To dwell within the bureacracy. However, when a person like Sarah Palin emerges, who seems to speak to the “simple people” whith a language they think they understand, the elite is alarmed. And rightly so, because the fact that the politician who speaks to the common people in their terms might be a demagogue, or just a political opportunist, as Sarah Palin seems to be by my standards. It is only when people loose vision of the actual political issues, when they start namecalling and smearing. It is really shamefull, who ever does it. When intellectual and civilized people engage in such, is it out of fear, that the audience would not get their point, if they only talked about the actual difficult and hard issues? To my memory Ronald Reagan won the elections against Jimmy Carter by shooting witty oneliners.

    The liberal part of US political elite is alarmed by Sarah Palin. Since obviously she represents such a great part of population who are totally unaware, or even against a scientific world view based on the theory of evolution. The liberals overreact to every little mistake she might say about history, but she does give them ample feed of idiocies. Is she representative of the general public, or of just a small minority of very ignorant adults? Does she not arouse feelings of shame in the more informed, educated and aware republicans? Or is she just a tool to extract the votes of most ignorant part of population on their side?

    As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I can not vote in your pole for political affiliation because it has no socialist option in it. I am not that keen on voting in the pole as I am interrested why you have not included that option? Do you not have socialists at all in the US or why?

    • Hi rautakyy and thanks for the visit. Regarding the poll, it’s designed to measure political orientation along a liberal-conservative spectrum, not particular ideologies. I didn’t include Marxist or Maoist or secessionist or any of a host of single-issue ideologies. I’m interested in these ideologies of course, but felt obliged the keep the poll fairly simple. (Yes, I did include “libertarian” because this political orientation typically splits pretty evenly between liberal and conservative, depending on the issue, and is therefore not really represented on a straight liberal-conservative spectrum.) If you’re a European socialist, I’m guessing one of the left-of-center/liberal options would be suitable, even if you’re conservative on some issues.

      • rautakyy says:

        OK, thanks for clearing that out. I will have to contemplate what you suggest, since I am inclined to think my personal political orientation and the socialism in general represents a third line of options (with a moderate to extremist axel of its own) to the linear you represent on the field of “political orientation”. Looking from northern Europe both of your major parties in the US seem like “right wing” parties. We also have liberal and conservative parties on the right wing, just as we have communist and socialist parties on the left.

  16. Paul Grubbs says:

    First, an embarrassing confession; I watched American Idol. I was intrigued by the celebrity’s tough dilemma of having to vote off great talents. What interested me more was the demographics of the people’s vote. Women are at a disadvantage; black women doubly so. Most popular votes probably come from the cell phones of teenage girls. The families watching together are most likely not too far from the urban hillbillies that watched Hee Haw! every Saturday night. Dad is gonna get a beer while the young ‘uns text their vote. I predicted early on that cute little Scotty would make the finals. I didn’t watch after some of my favorites got the axe but my suspicious mind seemed to be on to the “popularity contest.” Looks trumps talent. Scotty wins and all the young girls have their fantasy dance with Scotty. Thank you. thank you very much.

    I fear this same mentality is at play in our presidential race. The attraction of electing our first black president was temporarily upstaged by the “hot babe” from Alaska who was just as fresh on the political scene as the junior senator form Chicago. Bot Obama’s political machine literally killed any hopes the Republicans had of stopping his meteoric rise to president. McCain’s gruffness and Palin’s caterwauling (apologies in advance) helped assure a Democratic victory. With enemies like this who needs friends? After all,who could resist Barack’s twelve trillion dollar smile?

    It is predicted that the Obama campaign will spend one billion dollars during this two year run for another four years in DC. Facebook and Twitter are already in play. With all the division about vetting our electorate with photo ID’s and such maybe it is time for us to send in our votes via text message. May the best man or woman win.

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