By now, if you’re still following news from the Presidential campaign, you’ve come across the two-day-old trope of pouncing on Sarah Palin for differentiating “pro-America” parts of the country from other areas. Compounding it was another remark, which I’m not even sure that she actually made, that allegedly distinguished “real” America from other places within the geographic limits of the United States that are somehow not “real” America.
The thing of it is, a lot of people claim to know what this odd remark “really” means. It means a place where people vote Republican. It means a place where people are mostly white. It means a place were people are mostly Christian. It means a place that is not heavily urbanized. It means a place where people listen to country music. It means a place where people identify their ethnic background as “American.” It means a place where people fly the American flag from the front of their house and otherwise engage in visible displays of patriotism. It means all of these things, or only some of them, or maybe it means something else.
Well, I’m not sure that it really means much of anything. Or at least, it’s ambiguous enough that you can read into it what you want it to mean. Actually, this off-the-cuff remark presents a wonderful opportunity for Derrida-like deconstructivism.
Because it’s not quite accurate to say that the phrase means what you want it to mean. It’s much closer to the mark to say that it means what you want Gov. Palin to have meant when she said it.
If you want to think that Palin is a patriot, then you’ll read into it that “real” America is a place where people are overtly patriotic as demonstrated by displays of and reverence for the flag. Being “pro-America” means being overtly patriotic here.
If you want to think that Palin is a racist, then you’ll read into it that “real” America is a place populated by white people; they may or may not be tolerant of ethnic minorities in their midst, but “real” America is dominated by whites.
If you want to think that Palin is prejudiced against non-Christians, then you’ll read into it that “real” America is a place populated by churchgoing protestants and evangelicals. Questionable, but probably more likely than not, whether Catholics and Jews count as “real” Americans, but quite likely that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists do not count as “real” Americans.
If you want to think that Palin is trying to drum up the rural vote, then you’ll read into it that “real” America is a place where people drive pickup trucks, own shotguns and maybe hunt on a regular basis, listen to country music, own acerage and livestock, and do not place a lot of importance on higher education as compared with other virtues like work ethic or self-reliance. Which dovetails into another ridiculous concept I’ve seen floating about recently, which is that Republicans have become deliberately anti-intellectual.
You can read into it whatever you want. If you’re inclined to think favorably of Palin, then she was saying something nice about the areas she was in, and was silent about other places. If you’re inclined to think unfavorably of her, then she was taking a swipe at someone or something and you are likely on the receiving end of that swipe.
In any event, what you think a remark as broad and ambiguous as this one means is at least as telling about you as it is about Palin herself.
II. But You Came Here Because You Care About My Opinion
What, then, do I think Gov. Palin was really trying to get at? (In other words, when I hold up the mirror of deconstruction to myself, what do I think of Palin?) I don’t think she gave it a whole lot of thought, really. I think she’s smart, but she hasn’t been picked for this role because of her smarts. She’s been picked for the role because of her ability to fulfill a function — specifically, that of rallying the base of Republican voters. To do that, she has to be evangelical, proudly socially conservative, and the fact that compared to most other politicians she is young and attractive doesn’t hurt either.
So I think that when she said “pro-America,” she came pretty close to what was described on this week’s SNL skit with Tina Fey — the one in which the real Sarah Palin actually played a midly amusing part — in which it was implied that to be “pro-America” means in her mind “votes Republican.” I think she’s guilty of the same kind of lazy thinking — a deliberate oversimplification of issues, gross generalization and amalgamation of groups, and conflation of symbols — that makes Ann Coulter books sell. Even if Palin is mentally disciplined enough to avoid that kind of thought herself (I’ve seen no evidence of that, which is not the same thing as saying she is unintelligent) she has the job of appealing to the sort of people who buy Ann Coulter books and listen to a lot of repetitive right-wing affirmance on talk radio.
Now, the American left-of-center crowd also possesses large numbers of people guilty of lazy thinking, conflation of symbols, over-generalization, and seemingly intentional inability to concede even good faith or good intentions to the opposition. Make no mistake whatsoever about that! But Palin’s job is not to appeal to those people, her job is not to convince them to change their way of thinking. Her job is to use them as rhetorical foils so that the Republican base turns out to vote. Implying that such folks are “anti-American” is a rhetorical excess of fulfilling that function in the campaign.
So I think she made an unthinking, offhand remark. I don’t think she attributed much meaning to it at all. She said it because it sounded good and it seemed like a good way to pump up the crowd she was talking to. I don’t think she even wanted to imply that other people were somehow “anti-American” because I don’t think she thought it through that far.
But that can’t be the end of the analysis. Because even if she didn’t intend her remarks that way, some people have reacted to them that way.
III. The Big Picture
Palin’s remarks should be seen in that light — an indulgence in rhetorical excess. It doesn’t matter what she “really” meant because I think she didn’t really think about the remark at all. What she really meant is not all that important because it does not appear likely at all that she will ever hold national office.*
But it does matter how she is understood.
The problem I have with the remark of “real” Americanism being conflated with partisan loyalty is that it is aimed precisely at people who are not going to think critically about the remark. And some of them are the same people who still think Barack Obama is an “Arab” and a Muslim and that he’s going to sell us out to the Iranians and who knows what else. He’s not, and it’s irresponsible to encourage that kind of ignorant nonsense. We don’t need to contribute to that kind of social and mental polarization; we already have too much of it.
And protesting that “the Democrats” or “the liberals” or some other group of Others do the same thing — maybe even worse — is not a defense. That’s a third-grader’s retort to a true accusation. It’s a speeder who comes in to traffic court and objects to me that “Well, maybe I was driving eighty miles an hour, but this other guy was driving eighty-five.” Just plain not a defense.
So yes, it’s intellectually lazy, if not intellectually dishonest, of certain left-of-center types to suggest that Republicans want to turn the government into some kind of mechanism for funneling tax dollars to corporate fat cats. But the intellectual laziness or dishonesty of someone on the left is not license for someone on the right to engage in a similar sort of conduct. John McCain’s now-famous “No, ma’am” remark should be the model.**
I’m not critical of Palin for saying that some parts of our country are “pro” America and thus implying that others are “anti” America. Like I said before, I think she just has never thought it through. But I am critical of Palin for that lack of thinking it through and instead slipping into the same sort of “us-versus-them” polarization that has tainted American politics.
* We might revisit that issue in 2012, but I think her political fortunes have flamed out for good.
** I do not endorse the title of the linked video, which is both inaccurate and guilty of the same kind of lazy thought that I criticize here. McCain’s criticism of Obama and his platform was not then and is not now “fanning the flames” of hatred. But the video provides enough context to see that McCain is trying, hard, to distinguish campainging against someone who advocates a political agenda thought to be ill-advised and viewing one’s opponent as less than human or unworthy of respect. McCain can do it, and so should you.