In Defense of Sarah Palin

[Edit: I’ve gone back and added a few links to this post and re-worded a few points for clarification in the subsequent days and weeks after this was originally posted.]

Just to be clear, even to write that post title made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

In fact, I still strongly believe that Sarah Palin is the anti-Obama – where he is intellectual, she is ignorant. Where he is civil, she is confrontational. Where he is cool, she is crass. But they have this strange polarity where each is an enormously charismatic presence with a hugely populist appeal.  (The thread on MF where Sarah Palin was announced as McCain’s running mate still holds the record for most comments with 5555 on a site where the average thread might get 50-100 comments and a really really hot one will get 500 to 1000!  In fact, that thread has twice as many comments as the next highest commented thread.  Palin is also connected directly to four and indirectly to six of the top ten MF threads of all-time – most of which are related to the 2008 Presidential election although some have more of a focus on Obama and/or McCain.)

But after nearly a week where I’ve spent a lot of time reading various online forums and magazine articles about the Gaby Giffords shooting in Arizona, I’ve gone away from my initial reaction that Sarah Palin and the elevated violent rhetoric she revels in were somehow responsible.

In my mind, Palin is no more responsible for Giffords’ shooting than Robert DeNiro is responsible for the shooting of Ronald Reagan or Marilyn Manson is responsible for Columbine. (Video games on the other hand?  Nah, just kidding.)

Ultimately, as a librarian (and long before I chose this career), I have had a strong belief in the importance of people being able to say what they want (as long as it contravenes no existing laws.) I would rather have dangerous ideas (or stupid ones) out in the open so they can be analyzed, dissected, occasionally ridiculed and ultimately accepted or rejected.

There has been a lot of talk about the rise in violent rhetoric in the US over the past generation but it’s something that’s always been there since the first days of the country. And I am reminded of what a former chair of the Calgary Freedom to Read Week committee told me: “Just because you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean that you should.” He was speaking about the Dutch Mohammed cartoon situation but that sentiment can equally apply to the politicians in the US who use cross-hairs er, surveyor marks on maps to show which districts they’re targeting.

But again, as pathetic as it is, violence is Palin’s “brand”. She’s the “mama grizzly”, she shoots wolves while hanging out of the side of a helicopter, she can cook up a mean moose stew – after field dressing it herself of course!

There is little yet to directly link the shooter to the Tea Party movement and his actions seem to be the result of a mentally unstable mind that blended all manner of philosophies from the right, left and elsewhere (I admit to gasping a bit when someone pointed out a couple clues indicating the gunman was an atheist.)

There are much deeper problems here than the inflammatory speech that happens in American politics. The speech is just the end result of a variety of other factors – a culture of guns that is ubiquitous, a culture of violence (again, not a direct contributor but there are some studies that indicate links between the excessive amount of violence absorbed from popular culture and changing behaviour patterns), a woeful lack of mental health services (made worse in a country without universal healthcare). There is the impact of the rise of “me first”-style churches that are increasingly politicized in a country which theoretically has division of church and state.

There is the distrust of the “Other” and the internalized stress that an increasing majority of US citizens feel as their country’s millionaire and billionaires pull the American dream even farther from their reach – even as the increase in reality TV makes people think it’s closer.

And underlying it all is a crumbling education system which does not give people even the basic tools to be critical-thinking citizens but instead churns our barely literate drones who will need pictographs to work the register at McDonald’s.

No, Sarah Palin isn’t responsible for the shooting in Arizona. But she is currently the single best embodiment of the various deeper cultural factors that allow disruptive shootings like this to occur.

(Much of my take on this issue was influenced by reading the back and forth in this mega-MetaFilter thread. Here are a few links I couldn’t work into this post…

And the single freakiest thing I came across in a story with all kinds of unreal elements (everything from the fact that a woman shot in the brain at point blank range is still alive to the child who was shot having been born on September 11 to the congresswoman being married to an astronaut who is scheduled to command the last Space Shuttle mission!) – a MetaFilter post about the rise of Christian right-wing extermism in the United States from *last* August said:

The current cycle will likely peak next spring. The usual pattern is for the Patriots to ride on the energy of electoral cycles and then the more violent ones will have a temper tantrum (usually in the form of mass killings) in the spring after the federal elections. You may recall the last cycle turned violent in 1995, six months after the right-wing frenzy gained the Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Depression. The crazies like Tim McVeigh and Eric Rudolph don’t have any investment in electoral politics, but they are activated by political agitation and take the hot air coming from the far right as encouragement and approval for their own extremism.

Eerily prescient.

One last thought…

It’s a small light in the midst of tragedy but some are claiming that Obama’s memorial speech in Tucson could be a defining moment of his Presidency and in fact, restore some of its initial promise of bringing the nation together.

Comments 2

  1. LRT wrote:

    Excellent post. We took a lot of heat over on LRT for taking a similar position. Progressives clearly have issues with Sarah Palin (which I think only ads to her celebrity among her followers) but I don’t see how she has blood on her hands here.

    Posted 14 Jan 2011 at 9:47 am
  2. HeadTale wrote:

    I think a lot of people – on both the right and left – are really looking at this on a very surface level instead of thinking about the deeper issues.

    And beyond that, as you so rightly point out, the freedom of speech issue here is crucial.

    A long time ago, during one of my annual Freedom to Read Week series of posts, I made the point that censorship happens from both the right and the left – and I don’t like either form!

    Posted 15 Jan 2011 at 1:21 pm
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