Tuesday, November 17

Lying With Dogs

Christopher Hitchens, "Palin's Base Appeal". November 14 via Brendan

JUST before he turns to go Hitch gives a shout-out to Edmund Burke (the quickest way to my heart, as you know, so if the rest of this gushes like a schoolgirl please forgive it). Burke, fer chrissakes, in a Palin piece.

And this is something of an entree to my own increasingly inattentive take on Hitchens: that he misread American politics long before his feet got tangled with Sid Blumenthal's, that it is in fact impossible for the rational non-American Westerner to apprehend even the murky outline of backwoods American religious mania, and hence America Herself. America's most famous Burkean is David Brooks. Burke's writings have as much relationship to the American Right as The City of God has to televangelism. Okay, a skoosh more, maybe: Brooks believes the landed gentry make the best decisions, and he'd like to re-fight the French Revolution. But the salient distinction between his teleology and Sarah Palin's is that Brooks would never use "Judeo-Christian" in print if he could help it.

Seriously, unless you grew up surrounded by this stuff I don't think you can overcome that inherent rationality that keeps telling you that people in the 21st century can't possibly be as roundly insane as your progenitors were in the 14th. To you "Christianity" is something that traces to the 1st century, through Councils and Schisms and Reformations, and the Church is something which sided, early and often, with Princes and Emperors and Lucre. That is only slightly more useful than your Daily Horoscope in understanding American Christianity.

So there's always a hedge, and you can't understand the modern Republican party as it has existed at least since the late 1940s by hedging. You assume--it's natural to assume--that when you see a "libertarian" wing or a "Hayek faction" being advertised that its devotees not only take a dim view of the magical cosmology of their Party mates but actually act on those beliefs. Then you discover they pretty much save their skepticism for scientific consensus. From the outside I think you have to imagine that grown men in the Third Millennium parading around intellectually in knee-breeches and powdered wigs, and their children cycling through town masquerading as The Rover Boys, are having a bit of a leg pull. They aren't.
To hear the woman talk, you would imagine that populism was a magic formula that had never been tried before (though Continetti and his colleagues at the conservative Weekly Standard eagerly compare Palin to the raucous demagogue and onetime Klan-fan William Jennings Bryan: remember—they said it, not me).

But the problem with populism is not just that it stirs prejudice against the "big cities" where most Americans actually live, or against the academies where many of them would like to send their children. No, the difficulty with populism is that it exploits the very "people" to whose grievances it claims to give vent.

Again: I know it's difficult to overcome the idea that people who hail from the great unpopulated sections of the country, or from regions where it is still 1809, must represent "the populace", and hence their politics amount to "populism", but they don't. They're disgruntled middle- and working-class white people whose ancestors migrated to the Republican party during the Civil Rights Movement. They are Republicans. The extent to which their barely-coherent rage mimics the occasional soot-covered European bread riot may very well confuse the outside observer, but it has the same authenticity as your average French blues singer.

This is not to say they aren't largely hoodwinked; it is only to acknowledge that they like it that way. Vehemently. They were fine with the Bush bailout of Wall Street, just as they were fine with his Daddy's bailout of the S&Ls. They were fine with the expansion of Medicare, provided a Republican did it. One had to travel to the far reaches of the careerist Republican commentariat--far indeed from our "populists"-- to find criticism of the profligate spending of Bush II; finding the equivalent with Reagan is a Fool's errand. It's conditional populism.
Look at the charges that surfaced against Palin during the past election, and then look at how they played out. It was alleged that she was a member or supporter of the Alaska Independence Party (AIP); that she had been an endorser of Pat Buchanan's "Reform" Party candidacy in 2000; that she was a skeptic about man-made global warming; that she thought God was on our side in Iraq; that she favored the teaching of creationism in schools; that she attended a wacko church where exorcism of witches was enthusiastically celebrated. Later fact-checking modified a number of these allegations—Continetti is on better ground here—and we can now say that Palin did no more than attend a couple of conventions of the AIP, of which her husband was a member, and send it one friendly video message while she was governor of the state in question. It further turns out that she attended that Buchanan rally, wearing a pro-Buchanan button, only because she thought it was the polite thing to do. As for Iraq, all she meant was that she hoped God would be on our side, or we on his. On global warming she now splits the difference: it could be cyclical or it could be man-made. As for the theory of evolution, the most she really asks is that both sides of the discussion be taught. (On the witch-exorcism stuff, not even her stoutest apologists have been able to help her out: it's all on YouTube, as is the quasi-coherent speech with which she bid farewell to her governorship without a word of warning to her voters or backers. I would urge you to scan both links and see if they don't make you feel suddenly much more elitist.)

Yes, once all the evidence is in--provided we ignore the part which was actually caught on tape--we can plainly see that there may be room to hedge on Sarah Palin's marrow-deep crackpottery, either on grounds that no one could really be that idiotic, or that anyone savvy enough to try to wring every last dollar out of the rubes must be smarter than she sounds. Because people are always (willfully) confusing things she says or does with things she means to say or do. Whoever it was "alleged" that "she was a member or supporter of the Alaska Independence Party" had erroneously conflated her conditional support and helpmeetly appearances at the side of her politically-deranged husband with full-on membership. By the same lights, people who said she'd attended "several" times were wrong. Or "twenty-nine". As were people who said she went there in a pumpkin Jesus had turned into a gleaming white coach. For that matter, the millions of people who claim they regularly converse with a 2000-year-dead Jewish carpenter for whom--oddly--there is not one scrap of historical evidence, contrasted with the incontrovertible hokum his earthly correspondents--Sarah Palin, to name one--insist they believe, are, in fact, wrong every fucking day, and not getting any righter with time.

And there has simply got to be some special place in Hell for anyone who, for whatever reason, is willing to try to distinguish "support for teaching Creationism in public schools" from "asking that both sides of the controversy be taught". Okay, maybe Newsweek or Slate qualify.
The Palin problem, then, might be that she cynically incites a crowd that she has no real intention of pleasing. If she were ever to get herself to the nation's capital, the teabaggers would be just as much on the outside as they are now, and would simply have been the instruments that helped get her elected.

Dear Lord, you think that's not enough for them? George W. Bush's approval ratings only approached the lows of Truman or Nixon; who do you think was propping them up? Politics isn't about achieving anything for these people--not anything positive, which has proven to be too damn hard without making concessions to what Nabokov called "reality"--it's about the home team winning. It's about jabbing a stick in the eye of anything that moves differently than they do. Real populism is the last thing they, or Palin, or her PR team, would want.


Brendan said...

Burke, fer chrissakes, in a Palin piece.

Hey, Young Matthew Continetti started off by putting Hans Robert Jauss in a Palin piece.


scott said...

You've been losing me lately with incoherent Andy Rooney-esque ramblings.

This one's a home run, thus one "attaboy" whipes out ten "aw shits". At the Pentagon, it was the other way around.

Harl Delos said...

If someone had "ancestors" doing something during the Civil Rights Movement, wouldn't they still be in diapers?

After all, it was just the other day that we had those riots in Detroit. They haven't even started to rebuild yet.

Doghouse Riley said...

I meant that symbolically, or ironically, unless your question is serious, in which case the answer is Yes.

Harl Delos said...

I wasn't being serious, nor symbolic, nor ironic. Nothing that noble. I was being sarcastic, because I don't like being reminded that I'm older than the dickens.

And if you do that to me again, I'll take my cane and beat you to a pulp. The beating would be metaphoric, both because of the distance, and because I'm pretty sure you could beat me up. The can, you see, is quite real. I've been a gimp for about fifteen years.

StringonaStick said...

Hitchens, like more than a few intellectual Brits, thinks of the US and our indulgence of these dunces, as something you endure from a cute and well-loved pet.

Augustus Mulliner said...

I'll give Hitchens this: He did call her a cock tease. Schwingggg!