Friday, January 14, 2011

Sarah Palin’s history lesson


Despite the abundance of wildlife that typifies the Alaskan environment — Bears! Moose! Elk! — we were starting to think that crickets had taken over the Last Frontier. For some days after the Tucson shootings on Saturday, that’s all we’d heard from Sarah Palin about our newest, latest American family tragedy.

The reigning political personality weighed in briefly about the shootings with a standard-issue sentiment on Facebook and an e-mail communication with Fox News chalkboard scribbler Glenn Beck. These were mostly incidental pushback against the gathering sense post-Tucson that Palin, and the pre-election Tea Party movement generally, helped develop the idea that exercise of the Second Amendment was basic to conservative political expression.

"I hate violence," Palin is quoted as saying to Beck. "I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this."

Other than that, nothing. Until Wednesday, the day that President Obama spoke in Tucson at a memorial service that veered strangely close to a pep rally, spoke to the better angels of our nature, the citizens of Tucson — 14 of them wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; six of them slain by a mentally disturbed man last week.

Wednesday. That’s when the grizzly barracuda from the frozen north fully ended her radio silence, releasing a video via Facebook — a long and defensive disquisition, a rhetorical faceplant that may, years from now, be brought forward as that distilling, irrefutable occasion when it was clear Sarah Louise Palin would not be president of the United States in 2012.

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Narrative has its place, but the video is something you have to experience for itself. There may be no words adequate to communicate the smug certainty, the rhetorical naiveté that's visible in eight long short minutes.



But not right off. At the outset, there’s sincere sorrow for the victims of the Tucson attack, words from the heart of an American and a mother; and a sturdy defense of Representative Giffords’ approach of taking the small-d democratic process direct to the people where they live.

But before long, Palin veers into her stock-speech mode, rich with non sequiturs, sloganeering straight from the campaign stump. At one point she waxes rhapsodic about “our country, our exceptional country, so vibrant with ideas and passionate debate and exchange of ideas, it’s a light to the rest of the world ...” All true enough, but said with such canny glibness, it might as well have been a sentiment read from cue cards (or cribbed from notes written on her hand).

“It’s inexcusable, incomprehensible why a single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens that day,” she said. “... Like many, I spent the last few days reflecting on what happened and praying for guidance ... I listened at first puzzled, then with concern and now with sadness to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event. ... Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own.”

After making excuses for some Tea Party adherents, whom she broadly describes as “law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies,” Palin goes a bridge too far.

It happens right about the 3:30 point, an excoriation of journalists for linking her with a mood of intolerance many people think facilitated the events in Tucson.

"If you don't like a person's vision for the country, you're free to debate that vision. If you don't like their ideas, you're free to propose better ideas. But especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn," Palin said. “That is reprehensible.”

You see the problem: Palin's reference to "blood libel," an 800-year-old falsehood against the Jewish people, the pernicious allegation that Jews killed children to use their blood in various religious rituals, including holidays and the preparation of meals. It’s the kind of phrase whose use requires a nuanced understanding of history; a phrase that could be highly problematic, if not radioactive, in unskilled rhetorical hands. Like hers.



Jewish organizations and thought leaders were uniformly circumspect, given their ample justification for outrage. "We wish that Palin had used another phrase, instead of one so fraught with pain in Jewish history," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to Reuters.

“Using the phrase ‘blood libel’ is particularly disturbing and unfortunate,” said Hillary Bernstein of the ADL’s Seattle chapter, to NBC Seattle affiliate KING-TV.

"Perhaps Palin honestly does not know what a blood libel is, or does not know of their horrific history -- that is perhaps the most charitable explanation we can arrive at," said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, also to Reuters.

(Someone else wasn't so accommodating. S/he/they hacked the Wikipedia page for “blood libel,” adding a right-rail module titled “Antisemitism” bearing Sarah Palin’s picture. The hacked Wiki page was corrected pretty fast, but not before the image of the right-rail item was copied all over the Internet.)

The video goes on, with Palin chiding journalists and political observers for misinterpretation of the current political climate. "They claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those 'calm days' when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?"

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What, uh, purported to be an insightful comment rife with historical suggestion manages to leapfrog about 200 years of political conflict resolution.

Palin was referring to the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel in July 1804. But reaching back 200-plus years to find a comparison with today’s incivilities, with no intervening eras of rational debate and illuminating compromise, is itself the problem. For Palin, words don’t resonate beyond themselves; they’re in a vacuum separate from the contextualizing force of history, even while they call on the symbology of our history — “our country, our exceptional country, so vibrant with ideas and passionate debate” — as a kind of conditioned reflex.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t see (or didn’t consider) any problem with the timing of the Facebook video, the defensive whining almost built into the release of such a video on a day when the nation needed unity.

It’s all about speaking to her base, her true believers, the ones already singing in her choir. The ones who see nothing wrong with using crosshairs on a map to identify the districts of political adversaries. Not stars or circles or numbers, or even GOP elephants.

Crosshairs. No sensitivity to American history there.

Shortly after the video came out, journalists and analysts asked out loud: Who wrote the speech for her? Some of the words she used — “incomprehensible,” “reprehensible” — are rarities in the public Palin lexicon. “Purport”? That word sends even veteran copy editors to their dictionary bookmarks. And the phrase “blood libel” almost screams ghost-written. She didn’t come up with that on her own. Period. That phrase’s use marks this potential presidential contender as someone who doesn’t vet the speeches she makes as thoroughly as she should.

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No matter. On one of the worst days the United States has had in a while, the country cried out for coming together and Palin took to the Internet to justify willful rhetorical excess, to tell everybody to stop blaming her and the Tea Party for trying to tear it apart.

Yes, “acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own.” Until it's clear they don’t. Acts of monstrous criminality don’t emerge spontaneously, fully formed, with no causative factor. As sure as cause is wedded to effect, vastly criminal acts require some oxygen, some incubator, some kind of spark to further their origins.

When various extremist champions and the candidates they support, or an extremist movement and the candidates it represents, rhetorically revel in the rights of the First and Second Amendments (without corresponding expressions of citizen responsibilities under those amendments), and all of this plays out in a politically hyperpartisan era ... well, that makes acts of monstrous criminality like the Tucson shootings certainly possible. Maybe even flat-out inevitable.

At the CBS News Web site, reader rbl149 commented: “If the GOP EVER refused to accept the support of those who use such inflammatory speech, they might not be so heavily scrutinized now. Their behavior is simply being exposed for what it is, un-American demagoguery. We don't need proof that it caused this incident to see that it has no place in our political dialog.”

When she had the opportunity Wednesday to break from the script, to give Americans some sense of her as a healing, annealing force in American politics, Sarah Palin doubled down on intransigence. She all but shouts it in the video: I’m still right and you’re wrong, again.

In a time of national crisis, when she had the opportunity to show up in Tucson to stand both among true leaders and the American people she champions, Sarah Palin phoned it in.

Sticking by her guns, half-cocked. Again.

Image credits: Palin stills: via MSNBC. Hamilton-Burr pistols: public domain.

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