About halfway through Obama’s speech on Wednesday – I think it was just after he used the phrase “moral imagination” – I turned to my fiancé and said, “You think Palin is thinking, ‘wow, this is what I should have said.’” In truth, probably not. For such a thought to cross her mind, she would have to first hear what someone else said, something I’m not convinced she has ever done. After her resignation as Governor, Peggy Noonan wrote that Palin “displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why,” that she had “ambition, appetite and no sense of personal limits,” and that she was emblematic of an “entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.” In the year and a half since that column, I’ve never seen anything from Palin that could refute that.
Speaking from the podium Wednesday was a President; even Glen Beck said it. It was the message from his inaugural speech, when, quoting from scripture, he declared that “the time has come to set aside childish things.” This time, he challenged us to live up to the democracy imagined in the mind of a martyred child. With just a few changes in words, he could’ve gone wrong, sounding like a father scolding his squabbling children. But it was clear that he wasn’t just challenging us, he was challenging himself. And that inclusion eliminated any sense of preachiness from his comments. He exceeded the moment, even in an awkward atmosphere of whooping college students.
The woman in the 8-minute video that had gone viral hours before was a narcissist, someone who clearly concerned herself more with her personal defense (to an admittedly unfair and ugly accusation) than she was with the victims of a tragedy. She was smaller than life.
Unfortunately, much of the criticism has been centered on her completely beside-the-point choice of words. Blood libel. It’s inane; is there anyone who actually believes Palin believes she has been accused of drinking the blood of Christian children? This is exactly the kind of silly debate that robs political speech of all authenticity and spontaneity. As long as every gaffe, every poor joke, every unfortunate phrase leads news cycles, of course politicians will script every word. Even Alan Dershowitz – no ally of Palin’s – dismissed the controversy, saying that blood libel has “taken on broad metaphorical meaning.”
The worst part of it is that the debate is not only narrowed in terms of acceptable vs. out of bounds language, but also in terms of acceptable vs. out of bounds ideas. It’s easy (and true) to say, as in Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, that lessening the vitriol in politics has nothing to do with moderating positions. Easy and true, but tough in practice. At what point, for example, does opposition to immigration policies make the transition from legitimate debate to hate speech? Is everyone who denies the President was born in the United States automatically contributing to the coarsening dialogue or can that be considered a rather extreme (and hard to justify) position that nevertheless has its place in politics? Same goes for Truthers. How broad can we make the debate, and does that breadth necessarily have anything to do with destructive politics?
So many people, both in and out of the media, casually say that the problem lies with “people on both extremes.” This is actually an issue I’ve evolved on: last year, I wrote that one of my biggest issues with the Tea Party and the growing libertarian movement in this country was that “little” debate was paralyzed as “big” debate was entertained. How could we talk about health care when the entire role and purpose of government was at issue? In recent months, I’ve really regretted having ever made that argument. I’ve become energized by having basic ideological assumptions challenged, and the national debate – while certainly not the level of debate – has been richer and fuller. I haven’t been polarized or entrenched in “my camp.” I’ve found ideological intersections that I’d never thought to explore before. There is something to be said for moments of extremism.
Granted, I’ve mainly explored those ideological intersections on blogs such as this one, which is committed to respectful debate, even on issues that may be classified as out-of-bounds in more mainstream discussions. I’m sure I’d have a different take on the merits of extremism if I’d spent the last years watching Glen Beck.
My own contribution to living up to the challenge Obama laid out is to continue to broaden my own boundaries of what I would consider acceptable/unacceptable debate and to listen to other people’s views without simply preparing my counter-argument. Judgment is important; I don’t mean to suggest that all views and all ways of expressing those views (short of violence) are equally good. But I’m going to be extra cautious to judge only actual hate – or narcissism or cynicism or just blatant ambition without a larger belief – as illegitimate. If the messenger is sincere, I’ll listen to the message.