Just when it seemed Sarah Palin had, pardon the expression, dodged a bullet with respect to her culpability in lowering the tone and raising the temperature of contemporary discourse, she waded back into the fray with her spectacularly tin-eared and ill-timed “blood libel” speech. As the President spoke in such a statesmanlike and uplifting manner that even Glenn Beck (I’ll admit it, I was flabbergasted) was moved to congratulate him, Palin delivered some boiler-plate condolences that were all but forgotten once she shifted into attack-the-media mode. To hear her bellyaching, you’d think she, not the 20 people who were killed or wounded, not their families and loved ones, not a shocked and appalled nation, was the true victim of the Arizona outrage.
At this point it would be hard to imagine anyone beating out Palin in the bad taste department, but the Moonie-owned Washington Times may have done her one better by editorializing about an “ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers” like Palin, Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Considering that Palin apologists had just about managed to damp down the blood libel brouhaha by convincing most people that she had probably been unaware of the term’s anti-Semitic origins, the choice of a word like “pogrom” seemed more like the work of Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. Or like comedian Patton Oswalt’s series of one-liners portraying Palin trying to tweet her way out of the hole she’d dug herself into: “Just know the Jewish Defense League’s planning a media blitzkrieg on me right now;” “Took video down. Sorry for offending Jews. My camp is concentrating on better one. Final solution soon;” or, perhaps best summing up Palin’s predicament: “Yeah, I need this kind of media attention like I need a hole in the head.”
To be fair, Palin has other defenders, and they’re not all from the lunatic fringe. The “reasonable” conservativeRoss Douthat portrays her and the media as locked in “a particularly toxic marriage” à la Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, while at the same time putting forth what seems to be an up-and-coming right-wing meme: that by focusing on Palin, the media are pursuing a non-issue, since she’s not a declared candidate for office, is not the front-runner for anything, and basically, well, just isn’t that significant.
This story sounded eerily familiar until I remembered that I’d heard almost exactly the same thing a day or two earlier on the Weasel Radio podcast, in which Ben Weasel, the original “Palin Punk,” devotes nearly half of his one-hour show to explaining why, although he likes her, she’s just not important enough to be giving all that attention to. Like Douthat, he tortures logic by stating that because she hasn’t formally declared herself as a candidate for president (hello, nobody has, not even the current president), she can’t be considered one, and that even if she were (which she’s not) a candidate, she wouldn’t be the frontrunner.
Granted, the lady has substantial negatives, but if, apart from George Bush and Ronald Reagan, there’s been a Republican with more visibility and more name recognition in the past several decades, his or her name seems to have escaped my memory. Will she snag the 2012 nomination? On present form, perhaps not, but the American public has a short memory, and frankly, I can’t see the Tea Party wing nuts who comprise the Republican base getting excited about nonentities like Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney, let alone recycled hacks like Newt Gingrich or that Huckabee guy.
Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin is Big News, not necessarily because of any intellectual or moral attributes she might possess, but because she embodies a significant and powerful strain in contemporary politics. If she disappeared from public life tomorrow, the sentiments she gives voice to would remain unabated, and that, not what she might or might not do, or how electable she might or might not be, is why people pay attention to her.
It’s also why she and her fellow militants shouldn’t be allowed to wriggle out of the web of veiled threats and thinly concealed incitements to insurrection that they’ve been weaving these past couple years. Sure, they might not have meant them literally, just as she probably didn’t really intend to liken her plight to that of Jewish infants having their brains ground up for matzoh, but words have power that often goes far beyond the ability of their original speaker to imagine.
The appropriate and sensible approach, following the Arizona shootings and the torrent of criticism aimed at her, would have been for Palin to say, “I of course never meant to suggest that anyone should take up arms against the government or our elected representatives, but to the extent that anyone might have misunderstood my words, I apologize for not choosing them more carefully, and I promise in the future to be more thoughtful in doing so.” That would have not only dampened down the media firestorm, it also would have won the respect of people across the political spectrum.
Instead she responded with defensiveness, anger, and what, by week’s end, had begun to sound like a persecution complex. I’ll be honest: many of us who strongly disagree with her views find it heartening that the mixture of incompetence and self-obsession she recently displayed might be the undoing of her political career. But Palin herself is not the problem, any more than her eclipse would be its solution. Far more serious is the climate of nihilism, anti-intellectualism, and unfocused anger that, whatever she may have done to inflame it, she’s also an unwitting product of.
In the past, Americans have responded to assassinations or massacres by, if only temporarily, trying to impose some limits on the unfettered access to weaponry this country offers to lunatics. This time, sales of firearms, particularly of the type used in the latest shooting, have shot up, and there is general agreement that nothing is going to be done about gun control laws, that, if anything, they are going to become more lax. The same people – Palin, the Tea Party, the libertarian right wing – who have been talking about “Second Amendment solutions” to what used to be legislative problems are the ones trying hardest to eviscerate the few remaining strictures – for example, the ability of individual cities like New York to control or prohibit gun ownership – that remain.
The obsession with firearms represents in some cases an atavistic attachment to America’s frontier days, in others a fundamentalist reading of the Constitution. But among an increasing – and alarming – number of self-styled “patriots,” the gun represents a veto over democracy, the abandonment of the American ideal as we’ve historically known it in favor of brute force wielded by a small but highly motivated minority.
We’ve been here before, in the not so distant past. In the 1960s and 70s, there were calls to “pick up the gun,” stemming from the belief that problems like war, poverty and racism would never be addressed, let alone solved, if left to the masses of ordinary Americans. At that time the madness originated on the left; the fact that it’s now coming from the right makes it no less disturbing and dangerous.