Sarah Palin, You Go, But Not to the White House
June 5, 2011 32 Comments
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.