Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The illusion of substance

A student sent me this, possibly in retribution for something—one way or another, it made my head hurt.

I have little doubt about two things here: first, that it is entirely likely there were any number of answers of substance and intelligence that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overall narrative; and two, that one could have easily cobbled together a comparable series of interviews at Obama’s election night rally in which people vapidly spouted empty rhetoric about hope and change. However, there is a third thing I have little doubt about as well, and that’s that the Palin supporters who can speak substantively to the issues are always going to be vastly outnumbered by Obama supporters who can.

I can claim this with confidence for two reasons. The first is simply the law of large numbers: whatever spin has been put on Palin’s popularity, she is actually a lot less popular than she has been made out to be; and her favourability rating is significantly lower than Obama’s (see Christopher Beam’s astute distinction between “favourability” and “job approval” here—he makes the point that Palin’s job approval rating can’t be measured because, well, she has no job). Hence, the proportion of naturally-occurring intelligence translates into higher numbers for Obama.

More importantly however, the number of Palinites able to speak substantively to policy issues will be significantly less because Palin herself has no substance. None. And it has been exasperating and baffling to read a series of op-eds this week and see otherwise intelligent people falling victim to the illusion that Palin’s largely media-driven persistence on the American stage is evidence of substance. Rex Murphy in The Globe and Mail and Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich in The New York Times all opined that people on the left (and some on the right) claiming that Palin is a “joke” need to rethink their position—that she does in fact possess political wiles and savvy well in excess of what people imagine. Dowd states that Palin “reigns over thrilled subjects thronging to a politically strategic swath of American strip malls” and that “Democrats would be foolish to write off her visceral power.” Rich claims, “Palin is far and away the most important brand in American politics after Barack Obama, and attention must be paid.”

It was however Rex Murphy’s column in this past weekend’s Globe that most dismayed me, as whatever issue I might take with some of his positions, I can usually count on him for good contrarian common sense. His column was particularly irritating because he made some spot-on observations, but framed them in assumptions about the character of Obama supporters, and brought it all to an embarrassingly (for him) wrong-headed conclusion.

He says, “It will make Obama fans perspire to hear this, but Ms. Palin has a more forceful bond with her supporters than he with his.” This observation is exactly right, but I wonder why he feels the need for the caveat—Obama supporters are well aware of Palin’s forceful connection with her base. Indeed, it is one of the key things that worries many people about Palin: the bond is not intellectual but instinctive, proceeding not from the mind but the gut, and it is a manifestation of the most troubling elements of American reactionary nativism. In this she is not, as Mr. Murphy suggests, a unique new force in American politics, but the latest of American conservative politicians (following the likes of Dick Armey, Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee) to achieve a radioactive half-life balanced somewhere between actual elected officials and pundits like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. She is, to coin a term, a politainer: a political actor concerned not with policy or governing but her own specific brand, and when she pronounces on policy delivers what Jon Stewart (always the voice of sanity) calls “a conservative boilerplate mad-lib … delivered as if it were the hard-earned wisdom of a life well lived.”

It is his conclusion however which is most egregious: “Ms. Palin has rare gifts and stamina enough to give them play.” Certainly, she has a keen ability to cater to in reactionary American nativism; whether that counts as a “rare gift” is doubtful. But stamina? This is the governor who quit well before her term was up, just when tanking oil prices put Alaska’s economy in a spin; who didn’t actually write her own book; and whose political pronouncements emanate from Facebook and Twitter, not exactly forums that allow complex or nuanced thought.

Yet, Mr. Murphy observes, people respond to her intuitively and viscerally, and where there’s smoke there must be fire—forgetting, presumably, that in politics where there’s smoke there’s more likely to be mirrors. The abject loathing not just from the left but from the conservative intelligentsia equates presence, apparently; he writes, “A truly dumb and witless person would not have the demure columnist David Brooks hissing dismissively, angrily in fact, on a Sunday morning talk show that Sarah Palin ‘is a joke’ … Empty vessels do not inspire such venom and fury.” With all respect, Mr. Murphy needs to take a longer look at the culture of celebrity today—empty vessels fire the popular imagination as they never have in the past, and the heat they generate is no evidence of light.


Jon said...

I'm always wondering where she goes to have her fangs blunted

Chris said...

So, if I hear you correctly, Blake predicted the coming of The Palin:

Albion is sick. America faints! enrag'd the Zenith grew.
As human blood shooting its veins all round the orbed heaven
Red rose the clouds from the Atlantic in vast wheels of blood
And in the red clouds rose a Wonder o'er the Atlantic sea; Intense! naked! a Human fire fierce glowing, as the wedge
Of iron heated in the furnace; his terrible limbs were fire
With myriads of cloudy terrors banners dark & towers Surrounded; heat but not light went thro' the murky atmo-

(from America, A Prophecy)