Wednesday, October 01, 2008
So you Palin-mockers think you’re so smart
Over the past month, the Palin Phenomenon has been moving too fast for me to keep up. It took me a week or two to figure out what I thought about seeing a major-party VP candidate with a child with Down syndrome (pretty cool, except, you know, for her actual policies on disability and McCain’s plan to strip another ten or twenty million Americans of health insurance), and by then, everyone had moved on to full-bore Sarahmania. Welcome to the Palindrome! (Sorry. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And no sooner did I begin to wrap my head around Sarahmania than the interviews started to hit the YouTubes, and before I knew it, the full-scale panic was on.
My initial reaction to the “in what respect, Charlie?” moment was that it was like watching a student try to fake a term paper in real time: “well, the Bush Doctrine, Charlie, is a doctrine developed by George Bush. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘doctrine’ as ‘a: something that is taught; b: a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief,’ and the Bush Doctrine has taught us much about the body of principles in George Bush’s system of belief, which is to defend America and never blink, Charlie.” Not surprisingly, Palin’s moose-in-headlights performances have reminded almost everyone of what it’s like to try to fake it, and, since many of us have been (woefully unprepared) students at some point in our lives (including me), Palin seems to evoke painful memories across the political spectrum. Witness CrunchyCon Rod Dreher:
I remember the morning I woke up in my college dorm room and went in to take my final exam in my Formal Logic class. I knew I was unready. Massively unready. And now I was going to be put to the ultimate test. I sat down in Dr. Sarkar’s class and resolved to wing it. Of course I failed the exam and failed the class, because I had no idea what I was talking about. I wasn’t a bad kid, or even a stupid kid. I was just badly unprepared, and in way over my head. Seeing the Palin interview on CBS, I thought of myself in Dr. Sarkar’s exam. But see, I was a college undergraduate who had the chance to take the class again, which I did, and passed (barely). I wasn’t running for vice president of the United States.
I then read the remarkable Ta-Nehisi Coates post that opens with a citation of Dreher, and I found that it called attention to an aspect of McCain’s cynicism I had overlooked. (Dang! and I thought I’d caught them all!) But until Dreher and Kathleen Parker broke ranks, I was simply amazed by the willingness of conservative pundits to go to the mat for Palin. Katha Pollitt’s most recent column sums up my sense of things exactly (thanks, Katha!):
The stress on high-end conservative pundits is beginning to show. These are people, after all, who belong to the Ivy-educated, latte-drinking, Tuscan-vacationing urban elite they love to ridicule and who see themselves, however deludedly, as policy intellectuals and grown-ups. They’ve written endlessly about “excellence” and “standards.” McCain’s erratic flounderings, and Palin’s patent absurdity, have driven David Brooks and George Will to write columns so anguished I’d feel sorry for them had they not made their bed by spending the past eight years rationalizing the obvious inadequacies of George W. Bush.
(One lovely tidbit from that column: Pollitt quotes Charles Murray’s New York Times Magazine interview with Deborah Solomon. On Palin, he says, “I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love,” Murray said. “The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government.” Now, I know that Murray has been railing against the evil cognitive elite for much of his career, but the “pointy-headed intellectual” trope is a bit much, since Murray is, after all, an intellectual, and his head is by all accounts very, very pointy. Which is why it fits so well inside that Death Eater hood.)
“Michael, please,” says my imaginary interlocutor. “You know perfectly well that even the ‘high-end conservative pundits’ will slurp down any old slop they’re fed by the party. That’s their job. It’s degrading and dehumanizing, sure, and a lot of them can’t face themselves in the morning anymore, but you have to remember that the pay is awfully good.”
“What about Bill Kristol?” I asked my imaginary interlocutor. “I mean, he’s the very most hackiest of the hacks, but he’s also the child of two serious conservative intellectuals. Do you think he has any morning sickness about Palin-shilling?”
“The thing about Kristol,” I.I. replied, “is that after he’s dead, we’re going to find out not only that he has no vital oils but that he has no internal organs whatsoever. No higher-order consciousness, no pineal gland housing the soul. What’s in there instead? Just balsam wood from tip to toe.”
So I understood Palin, from the outset, as basically the latest installment in a generation-long project of bird-flipping from the right. Beginning with Reagan, the GOP has come to understand that when it runs with amiable dunces—even putatively amiable dunces—at the top of the ticket (Reagan, Bush II), it kicks butt and (as Atrios succinctly puts it) pisses off liberals; when it runs old-school government-and-civics types who understand things like parliamentary procedure and know the names of furren leaders (Bush I, Dole), it doesn’t fare so well (Bush I won but quickly squandered the party’s Reagan Dividend; meanwhile, Quayle kept alive the attack-on-eloquence-and-arugula). The idea, of course, is to run “ordinary people” (even if they hail from families who have been among America’s political and economic elite for generations) against us Volvo-driving liberal elitists. You know that already. McCain/ Palin merely seemed the most outrageous gambit on this culture-war front, the most deliberate and direct assault on the idea that being reasonably informed about shit should be some kind of prerequisite for the presidency.
Because, you know, the campaign didn’t have to say anything at all about Palin’s foreign-policy expertise. They could simply have said, “it’s not her strong suit, sure, but she’s a quick study and brings a lot of populist energy to the ticket.” Or they could have said, “she’s a strong social conservative and deeply knowledgeable about how to organize a Rapture.” But no. Instead, they went on national television and made a series of arguments so stunningly and egregiously stupid that they wouldn’t have passed muster forty years ago in my third-grade class’s debate over the relative merits of Nixon and Humphrey. Seriously: if one of my fellow eight-year-olds had said anything like, “Sarah Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska is close to Russia,” we would have laughed his (or her!) right out of the room. And if someone had then tried to follow up with “no, really, she has foreign policy experience because she knows more about energy than anyone in America,” he (or she!) would have been sent to the principal’s office. Or to the school nurse.
And that, my friends, is why I have chosen to honor McCain/ Palin with that graphic in my sidebar. As a tribute to their contribution to public debate and reasoned political deliberation. All under the umbrella of job creation.
I’ve been reading the GOP campaign as being not merely an assault on liberal elites—like I say, that’s old news—but a frontal attack on the very idea of standards of plausibility in argument. To friends and family (and one or two inquiring reporters), I’ve been calling it the National Insult My Intelligence Tour 2008. It’s as if they’re simply trying to see how much amazing shit they can get away with (like this amazing shit!), even though (as many people have noted) this strategy requires them to run against the very constituency McCain had courted for over a decade—the elite Beltway punditocracy, McCain’s base.
And in so doing, they’re laying a fairly obvious trap for actual liberal elitists like me. When I was speaking at the Belmont Humanities Symposium last month, the topic of presidential debates came up—partly because the forum was about debate, check, and partly because Belmont is hosting the second presidential debate. And in response to one student’s question, I said (among other things) that I can’t stand it when liberals go around saying that Obama is going to wipe the floor with McCain in the debates, or that the Biden-Palin debate will turn the lights out on the whole campaign, because too many liberals and progressives continue to think it’s all a matter of being the smartest person in the room. There are plenty of Republican-voting people out there, I said, who are resentful and (guess what) bitter . . . because they truly believe they are being governed by high and mighty muck-a-mucks who sneer at their pastimes and their cherished local traditions, and they don’t see Obama (or Hillary either!) as someone who’ll give them the time of day. If this election gets framed as Ordinary People against Mr. Extra Extra Smart, I thought, the Democrats are going down in flames. Every time a liberal says, “of course our side should win this—we’re so much smarter than they are,” he (or she!) plays right into the right’s cultural-resentment script. And they make themselves sound like nineteen-year-old Objectivists into the bargain.
The financial crisis may have altered these dynamics, insofar as it seems to have alerted millions of Americans to the virtues of having a president who knows what he’s (or she’s) talking about. But three weeks ago at Belmont, I was pretty well convinced that McCain/ Palin were going to spend two months saying the most ludicrous and batshit things just to (a) make right-wing intellectuals and pundits repeat them and defend them, (b) confuse low-information voters, and (c) piss off liberal elites. And that they might very well win, too. At dinner that night, after the debate about debates, I suggested to my Belmont hosts that it was part of a 30-year culture-war experiment: just as George W. Bush made us nostalgic for the wit and wisdom of Ronald Reagan, so too, in her time, would President Palin make us long for the sagacity and statecraft of George W. Bush.
But then a non-imaginary interlocutor said a most interesting thing. (It was a dinner for twelve people, and I didn’t catch his name, or I’d tell you.) He pointed out that the right-wing culture war against pointy-headed intellectuals does not extend to the judiciary. On the contrary, he said, it’s as if they’re willing to run a cephalopod and a bag of hammers for the executive branch (I don’t think these were his exact words), but they actually recruit and train all their intellectual firepower for the courts (those were pretty much his exact words). And, of course, he’s right: Scalia, Alito, Roberts—these are all graduates from Pointyheaded Liberal Elite Law School, Evil Genius Division, and the glaring exception, Clarence Thomas, was a Palinesque conservative-affirmative-action fuck-you payback for the rejection of Elitist Evil Genius Robert Bork.
And the right-wing noise machine got the memo, too: witness the fact that everyone on the right, even down to bottom-feeding shriekers like Michelle Malkin, duly took up their torches and pitchforks when Bush nominated Harriet Miers. I was wrong, I realize now, to have called Palin Harriet Miers 2.0. Because Harriet Miers was ridden out of town on a rail, in a matter of days, by many of the same people who are now digging in, doubling down, and rooting hard for Palin against the mocking liberal elites. When it comes to the highest court in the land, these right-wing hacks don’t put up with no second- and third-stringers.
Interesting point, no? I wish I’d made it myself.