Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Meaning of Things

Despite the wide political gulf between my would-be hippy father Abbot Yid and his more McCain- (or Goldwater)-esque brothers, Milt and Moe, one thing that everyone agreed on the last time politics were discussed was that they can't stand Sarah Palin.

In discussing her ridiculous use of the "blood libel" to complain about the media attacking her for attacking people who were then physically attacked, Rabbi Andy Bachman illustrates some of the reasons why:
Sarah Palin is smart; but not particularly deep or capable of rendering historical terms with accuracy or nuance.  She is passionately sanctimonious and deeply committed to her Evangelical Christian faith, promising to care for America "with a servant's heart" while at the same time deeply isolated by a bubble of advisers who seem to aid her plotting machinations with a singularity of purpose that is impressively focused, if only on herself.  And typical of the pathological narcissism that runs through the veins of so many celebrities in our country, she can rarely have the humility to know the difference between moral scrutiny and self-reflection and that pernicious expression of victimhood and martyrdom that she does so well.  The act of true political bravery she pretends to have by selling her image was another missed opportunity.  "You know, all of us say or represent ideas irresponsibly sometimes; and I will admit that targeting political opponents with the graphic representation of the cross-hairs of a gun was a bad idea."  We know she didn't pull the trigger; but what would have been so wrong about taking responsibility for an overly partisan political climate?  We are all responsible.
...I don't think she hates Jews; I think she admires us.  I don't think she hates Israel; I think she admires it.  So when she uses the term "blood-libel," in her own weird way, she's actually identifying with us.  Guilt by association!

...Ironically, both Pain and Dershowitz are guilty--not of blood libel but of an ahistorical hubris and a politically self-righteous arrogance that only further debases our already noisy civil discourse.  The notion that we have a "victim" in a multi-millionaire celebrity, whose every opinion is carefully crafted and broadcast throughout the world, who is in the rarest of positions to serve her nation in higher office, is one of the great absurdities of the day.

I think some of Rabbi Bachman's observations are spot on. However there are a few areas where we differ: I wouldn't describe Palin as smart but rather extremely ambitious. Obviously it takes some intelligence to be able to properly position yourself within the political system and to play the media and your base against each other so that in any discussion, your name keeps coming up, but I see that as being more about having good marketing instincts rather than any particularly deep thoughtfulness or intellectual curiosity.

Indeed, everything about the public Palin seems to exude contempt for those who think, for those who aren't always sure of things, for those who question and doubt-- much less research-- before they form an opinion. Palin is all about the (seemingly) quick answers, the immediate, folksy wisdom about what to do in every situation, an always friendly, bubbly confidence. A beauty queen with a shot-gun. What to do about creationism and evolution? Teach them both. Or don't, whatever. What about the tricky ethical issues of abortion in cases of rape and incest? "Choose life."  What we do about Afghanistan? "We can win." Counseling about end-of-life choices and living wills become "Death Panels." Palin isn't a thinker or a doer, she's a sloganeer in search of a cause to make posters for.

The problem is that Palin's rhetoric about how great or tough or knowledgeable she is never seems to match what she's capable of delivering. Palin spends lots of time pretending she knows what she's talking about, and her ego is such that regardless of how many times it's shown she's wrong, she can never acknowledge it. Instead everything is a smear, an attack, a blood libel. Because there's no substance to her positions, there's no room for discussing the nuances of disagreement.

Palin is always on the attack, whether she has someone or something in particular to go after or not. And this is really where, in my view, her anti-intellectualism comes out. When Palin is attacking something, details stop mattering. Palin exemplifies the new media politics, which uses the short bursts of Twitter over in person, sometimes drawn out discussions of, say, an in-person debate. Palin has done an excellent job of capitalizing off a political and cultural atmosphere in which people's attention span is limited to 180 characters.

This is what gets under my skin about her. At the end of the day, I don't think most politicians are so different from Palin. I think lots of them are ambitious, wishy-washy, intellectually lazy, and probably more than a little hypocritical. But when she wraps herself in the mantle of a would-be Founding Mother-- and when she uses her position as one of the top figures in the increasingly loud (but unfocused) Tea Party-- to continue describing a vision of an America of good guys and bad guys, patriots and traitors, authentic heartland-ers and clueless coastal elitists, she is demonstrating that she doesn't care about the truth. She is saying that truth, facts, and details don't matter. That history doesn't matter, that nuance and context don't matter. In Palin's worldview, the important thing is what side you're on, not the nitty-gritty of what you say, do, or believe. That everything is black and white, and that since she's a good guy, you had better make sure you're one, too. For Palin, it truly doesn't matter what "blood libel" means, because Palin and the Jews are on the same side. The true meaning of words don't matter, they're just weapons to be used. Palin's approach to knowledge is purely utilitarian.

With such a background, how can you even be surprised at anything that comes out of Palin's mouth? So, no, I can't be as charitable as Rabbi Bachman. To me, Sarah Palin isn't wrong. She's a jackass.

I'd like to say that I look forward to Palin disappearing from the political scene, but honestly, I think she's more a sign of the times. The sad thing is that as long as people like Palin are defended by equally complacent hacks like BuchananBoteach and Dershowitz who care more about getting noticed and selling books than examining whether this further trend of downplaying details in favor of promoting absurd rhetoric is good for the political discourse, I think we'll be seeing a lot more Palins in the future.

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