Anti-Intellectualism, the “Real America,” and Sarah Palin

09.18.08 | permalink | 1 Comment

I always laughed at the idea of the “liberal media.” News media always seems to me such a twisted, grotesque circus of distorted experiences, values, histories, and tightly controlled narratives, to call it anything but a grand opera of delusion seemed like a real-knee slapper. Roger Kimbell, a bizarrely conservative but interesting art/media critic I come across from time to time, wrote this earlier in the month, and it feels deeply true to me–and thus, completely terrifying. I am terrified, more than I have ever been by miles.

At bottom, this election is not about “change” or “experience” but about culture, which is to say it is about what we value as individuals and as citizens. It is about some very basic questions: what matters most in a society? How should we live our lives? What place does love of country, of family, of freedom have in the economy of our hopes and ambitions? The crises of the last several years–the threat of Islamic terrorism, economic instability, a newly rampant Russia and Iran–have pushed such questions out of the limelight. But Sarah Palin–the pro-life, gun toting, seriously religious hockey mom and aggressive political reformer–has suddenly brought them back into vogue. As Thomas Lifson notes, “Liberals have long lamented the existence of two nations in America. They are right to do so today, but in a way they never meant. It is not the divide between rich and poor which soon will be causing serious pain on the left. Sarah Palin’s pending nomination for Vice President is exposing the depth of the cultural divide between Middle America and the leftists who have taken over the education, media, and cultural establishment of our country.

I had to reconsider the meaning of Middle America, and who that really was.

I grew up in NY, and I live still in the liberal wilds of New England. I have seen very little of the world outside of literature, film, art, the expanse of the internet; my family has taken exactly two vacations over the course of my life, once to Arizona in the 6th grade (where I had my first panic attack below a sky so endless it overwhelmed me), and once to Italy, when my father first fell ill and my Grandmother wanted to squeeze in some last minute bonding time in a memorable locale. My circumstances, though, never left me wanting for culture—there were no afternoons spent dreaming of my escape to the big city, there were no unhinged jaws or clucking tongues in the wake of my purple hair and pierced face at 14, some of the greatest artistic achievements of human history literally within arm’s reach–NY is endless. It is rich and not necessarily in an economic way, but culturally, the exposure to which is essential in fostering a sense of place in the world, and in NY, it becomes effortless. There was profound suffering and inspiring levity visible at all times, and you could not shut it off, and you could not pretend that the world was not happening outside of yourself. Conservative values are well and alive in NY, that is not the source of it; instead it is the constant proximity to what is not like you which encourages a sort of empathy by necessity. This is a privilege, and not one that belongs to NY alone.

But these are the politics of geography. New York holds inside of it so many universes that it is nearly impossible to make yourself blind to another person or persons’ humanity. That is not to say there aren’t intricate and fragile race and class politics at play, but they were subtly different in important ways. To put it one way, I understood much more acutely and viscerally a work like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing than I did Richard Wright’s Black Boy. The world that Scout Finch inhabited seemed like an antiquated America, one that maybe haunted the farthest reaches of some Appalachian hilltop, but that at the very least, in the public sphere, most Americans were beyond reviving. Many of my friends and I implicitly understood the space between where we were and the hippie crystals of California as a more conservative, secular existence, but what the fuck did we actually know? It’s likely that Jeff Foxworthy was the only person we’d ever even heard speak that would self-identify as a “redneck.” Here was one culture that really did feel alien to us, most pointedly because they were ostensibly equally, if not moreso, apple-pie lovin’ Americans just like us.

In effect, there was “our” America, where very few of us were more than 2nd or 3rd generation Americans, our dippy West coast sister, and then that strange, mysterious void in the middle that remained largely a mystery. At least for me, the south was certainly included in “my America,” loaded and rich as it was with cultural and political history, almost like the birthplace of our national character, the site of some of our deepest shames and most exalted and important pioneers (this is all in the abstract, of course, not in terms of literal geography). But again, books. I knew this only from books.

That space between seemed ahistorical. While I tried my best to not assume these qualities on an individual level, every piece of information that I would absorb about this “middle America” seemed repulsive, indeed anti-American. I will be completely candid about my impression, unsavory as it may be; it seemed flavorless and stagnant and stubbornly white, governed by irrational ideologies and fear, reactionary and easily manipulated, and most of all, characterized ultimately by what I see now as a criminal lack of curiosity. I did not at all conceive of “Middle America” as populated by toothless “hicks” and evil morons with ill intentions, but rather a certain slowness that I did not and still do not have the patience for. There is no getting around the unsavory class implications of all this, but I am trying to be as honest as I can be about most of us saw this.

While once, I might have cringed and shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know!” Now, I wonder if maybe I know. Like many, many others, I was horrified and pained to watch this administration swoop in to exploit a nation’s mourning and blind rage, but in a way, I understood how it had happened. My venom was still reserved for the government then. They were liars and master manipulators, not too unlike most of whom had come before them in executive power, and I had faith that the magnitude of this mistake would be pretty quickly realized. And it was, relatively. I was astounded by a second Bush term, but still, I saw how it had happened. This all might sound arrogant, but I don’t especially care–if you ever supported an invasion of Iraq, you were played for a fool. There were many people who knew better. But a fool isn’t a fool unless he does not draw meaning from his mistakes, right?

But now there are too many fools, too highly visible, it’s all too shocking. The silly, pithy faith in a “real America” I once kept close to my heart despite all evidence contrary has extinguished over the last two weeks completely. No one has even enough respect for the American people to spin a barely convincing yarn. So here it is, right in front of you, submitted for your approval. They are squirming and fumbling and pandering to the most repugnant, hateful side of this country, so why is the McCain/Palin ticket even slightly threatening? Is this what America really is, is this who it really wants?

The fact is that McCain had nary a chance against Obama alone. Didn’t. We saw him twist himself into a shape that was not his own for neo-con support, and it was frankly uncomfortable. Conservativism, while I feel is often misguided, is not a fundamentally tyrannical or awful ‘system’ of belief—it seemed pretty clear that McCain didn’t give much of a fuck about certain issues of great import to “Middle America,” such as reproductive rights, and that lost him voters on both sides, one because he took a stance that was weak sauce, and the other because he took the wrong side of this weak sauce stance. He was suddenly a ragdoll for the GOP, no longer the “maverick” that had warmed the cockles of the press and charmed the public. That kind of insincerity wouldn’t hold up in an election.

And then, Palin. What an incredible strategy, and what a profoundly cynical view of the American landscape they must see to have executed it. My friend and I watched her speech upon the announcement of her name as the running VP at my parent’s house in NY, and we laughed. “No, it’s over, it’s done. Obama’s got it. Nobody could buy this evangelical bullshit.” We had yet to become as darkly cynical as they had, but it’s rubbing off.

Palin is the superstar here, McCain is like the fuddy duddy sideshow, uncomfortable and slinking off midstage. The media and the people want to hear more about Palin, myself included. Every discussion of her is framed around the question, “Is she qualified to be the president of the United States?”, a fascinating and revealing angle that illuminates how weak a candidate McCain really is, as she is not the one running. And let’s be serious, we all know dude isn’t dying in the next 4 years, he’s sort of a horse (albeit a haggard one under unflattering lights). The GOP couldn’t successfully turn him into a convincing figure that would attract the body of voters they’re gunning for, but that’s exactly what Sarah Palin is being groomed for. She was born to pull in “middle America,” and ‘value’ conservatives. Every drip of coverage on her is an almost surreal balance between a somewhat bewildered media and a huge, unseen body of very real support coming from a nondescript location that nobody can exactly point out on a map.

If this isn’t a perfect metaphor, then I don’t know what is:

“‘Sarah Barracuda’ — she’s proud of that name now, she uses it in her campaigns,” said her former mentor. “But she got that name from the way she conducted herself with her own teammates. She was vicious to the other girls, always playing up to the coach and pointing out when the other girls made mistakes. She was the coach’s favorite and he gave her more playing time than her skills warranted. My niece was on her team; she was a very good player. I used to sit there in the stands, and I would wonder, Why on earth is Sarah getting so much playing time?”

This is who invigorated a spiraling campaign. This is who is speaking to middle America. This is who scares the shit out of me.

Media support is obscenely weak. There is not a single rational or substantive explanation for her success. This is because they don’t need one. They finally have a candidate whose appeal supersedes all earthly logic, rocketing into a position of power without actually having accomplished a single thing. It does in fact seem like some sort of miracle, like Sarah Palin was actually anointed by God. It was more likely to have been the stringpullers orchestrating the GOP, but they do tend to get themselves mixed up from time to time.

It took 600,000+ unjust deaths, countless wounded, and an unknowable and unquantifiable amount of psychic trauma for the American public to see what a grave sin this administration has committed, that we all, in our silence, have committed. And yet now that we’re presented with a championing figure (Palin, of course, not McCain) who is somehow MORE reactionary and unthinking, full of vitriol and evangelical insanity, the very same media figures who were so astoundingly wrong about Iraq and in their support of Bush are pushing an identical, if not more extreme, agenda. They were wrong. They were well over half a million fucking lives wrong. They were abstinence education wrong, they were social funding wrong, they were corporate welfare wrong, they were health care wrong, they were private sector wrong, they were WRONG. So why are they still talking? And why is anyone listening?

I might laugh if I were reading some Shakespearean farce, but it’s not funny. This is real, so real it’s excrutiating. It’s not funny to attend funerals, and it’s not funny to watch the families around you fall apart, it’s not funny to dismiss and neglect the soldiers that were thrust into this travesty when they come back in need, and it isn’t a very good punchline to know that this was all for absolutely nothing. That is hardly the whole horror of it, and yet busting the street laborers on the corner and making sure two men can never marry, this is what makes their agenda. Truly, what is important to middle America?

The only possible sense I can make of this willful ignorance is that the appeal of Sarah Palin is rooted firmly in that slowness I was only suspicious of before, but even that seems insufficiently powerful. What it is, really, is a country divided by anti-intellectualism. It is filled with people who refuse to think, and who resent others that do. These are not people who have been denied access to information, and they deserve no pity. They are cowards who wish to remain in an insular and comfortably stagnant world, who quell their fear of ‘the other’ with the myth of certainty and “divine truth.” I really couldn’t have imagined a more hideous waste if I had tried.

Is that what it means to be American, to have such little regard for the world? Corrupt arrogance and recklessness? No ends to justify any means, only power and greed? They will do anything to win, and they are. If they succeed, if this really is the ‘real’ America, then we deserve everything that will come to us. If they don’t succeed, it doesn’t seem likely this rift will mend itself, only further widen.

So perhaps it is a liberal media I’ve known my whole life. It’s a deformed and unrecognizable liberalism, but it must be of the same breed, because I honestly had no idea how far the depths of anti-intellectualism did go. Palin’s media support, with no material basis for a believable argument, has essentially resorted to celebrating her as the “noble savage.” This makes no rational sense, but that is the point. In fact, as EVEN David Brooks agrees, it makes exponentially less sense than it did the first time. This is because thought, intellect, reason, and rationality, as best we can manage those qualities, are not of any real worth to a Palin constituency. Faith, subjective and prescriptive morality, “divine truth,” and God are what rule. She is of the people and thus for the people. Like Bush (yet sharper and less dopey), she speaks what Wordsworth would affectionately call “the language of real men.” While here I was, thinking Wordsworth was a fucking dick and that the 20th century had embarrassed the fuck out of Rousseau and all of his Romantic bullshit, here it is, shooting a Moose in the face and sending you a bill for getting raped (she’ll teach you to cry wolf, eh?). This time, God doesn’t exist in nature (drill! drill! drill!), he just hangs out in the clouds, combing his beard and hating fags. But don’t worry, Sarah Palin’s got his number, and when she calls, he’ll put the fucking Pope on call waiting.

I cannot mask my disgust with the Christian right, with the GOP, with the collapsing economy that throws a life preserver to the CEOs and investers of a corporation while actual people, actual fucking people are being forced out of their homes, with those who fetishize willful ignorance as if it were some refreshing virtue. I already feared the Bradley effect, but if middle America really is successfully svengalid by the flag waving barbarism of Palin and actually is this eager to swap a republic for a theocracy, then fine. Fuck it, let’s implode. McCain is irrelevant, a wrinkly red herring, and that’s what’s so dangerous—if he’s elected, those were really votes cast for Palin. And holy shit, they really don’t show you those parts of the country on TV, do they? It makes a girl feel like Eva Gabor in fucking Green Acres.


1 comment


Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

You may use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>