Thursday, September 04, 2008

American politics: the whiter shade of Palin

It was all Republican image politics yesterday evening. I forced myself to listen to the speeches leading up to Sarah Palin's make-or-break debut, beginning with Mitt Romney's embarrassingly stupid one.

He slammed "liberal" Washington: you know, the place where George W. Bush has ruled for two terms, where all but two
Supreme Court justices have been Republican appointees, and where both houses of Congress have been controlled by Republicans for six of the past eight years. The crowd lapped it up. There's one born every minute, and it looked like all of them were cheering in the Xcel Energy Center last night.

The personable Mike Huckabee was next, much of whose speech consisted of a bizarre tale about missing desks finally returned to perplexed schoolkids at the end of their first day of school by a squad of veterans. I guess this was what the Red State folks, when they aren't pushing creationism, prayer and flag-waving, call a "teachable moment."

Rudy Giuliani followed, with a jabbing and forceful speech, mocking Obama's "cosmopolitanism," and actually taking several minutes--I was on the edge of my seat--before he mentioned 9/11.

And then The Moment.

It must be said that Sarah Palin performed well. With an army of spinmeisters at work, she might even stay on the ticket. She knows how to deliver a speech. She had her timing down, and she clearly enjoyed every minute of it. She connected with the audience, which is precisely what these events are all about. It was a polished performance. All the Repub talking points were there. She was impossibly, dazzlingly white, addressing a sea of white faces, the very model of
Kinder, Küche, Kirche, right down to the moose stew whose main ingredient she shoots herself.

She soft-pedaled some of her more controversial positions, talked at length about what a mensch John McCain is,
took the obligatory shots at Obama, spoke of her family, and generally made herself look like the champion of the little guy/gal, bravely going up against Big This and Big That. As John Ibbitson put it, "Ms. Palin blithely melded the media and Washington's power elites into a single, malignant foe, and then declared war on them, or it."

Which is, of course, what Republicans do. There must always be an enemy. It's Us vs.Them, and "Them" is a sticky amalgam of everything they don't happen to hold dear. It's a shambling monster composed of gummint, terrorists, the media, and the latte-sipping, surfboarding, immigrant-loving, pro-abortion, sex educating, soft-on-crime, Godless, anti-war-protesting, arugula-munching, anti-gun, polar-bear-hugging, anti-offshore-drilling liberals.

And that behemoth, its coat stained with blood and soy milk, shedding nuts and seeds in its wake, is slouching once again towards Washington to be born. It must be brought down. Sarah, get your gun!

I never thought I'd offer Margaret Wente praise, but she wrote some fine lines in the Globe and Mail
this morning. Subject: the unbearable lightness of American politics.

This was deft:

"The media doesn't understand life membership in the NRA; they don't understand getting up at 3 a.m. to hunt a moose; they don't understand eating a mooseburger; they don't understand being married to a guy who likes to snowmobile for fun," said Representative Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican. [emphasis mine]

And she concludes:

I think we're witnessing the Republican Party in meltdown. The soap opera is sort of entertaining, in its way. But it makes American democracy look fundamentally unserious. Vladimir Putin is probably in stitches. And somewhere, Osama bin Laden is grinning in his cave.

Soap opera? Not totally. John Doyle makes a convincing case that we have been watching another instance of that currently fashionable oxymoron, "reality TV."

This is So You Think You Can Be Vice-President? A sequel to the Alaska-only reality TV show So You Think You Can Govern? See, the reality-TV genre can be defined loosely as "shows featuring ordinary people instead of professional actors." Here we've got ordinary people instead of professional politicians.

He can't avoid the soap-opera meme entirely, but he makes a good case for the non-non-fiction of the Palin choice:

Look at the Palin clan - a moose-hunting, snowmobiling couple with a bunch of kids who have soap-opera names: Track, Willow, Bristol, Piper and Trig. There's the knocked-up teenager daughter, the gun-totin' mom and even if it seems the teenagers are at it like rabbits, there's the declaration of deep conservatism and the assertion - later withdrawn in a sort-of manner - that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. They're straight out of Survivor, Big Brother, Wife Swap, Love Cruise, Temptation Island, Married by America and Are You Hot?

But Doyle hits the nail on the head here: "Over the past few days, it has been striking to see so many pundits try to explain the Palin phenomenon in the context of TV."

Precisely. Because, in this era of the hyperreal, the "real" is always inflated, expanded, varnished, polished and transformed into saleable images and carefully-crafted "narratives." In Jonathan Freedland's words,

A race that began as the West Wing now looks alarmingly like Desperate Housewives. Six months ago, you couldn't help but notice the striking similarity between Barack Obama and Matthew Santos, the fictional but charismatic ethnic minority candidate who promised to heal America's divide. Now, you can't help but feel you're watching an especially lurid episode from Wisteria Lane, as the real-life Sarah Palin fends off rumours of a fake pregnancy - and the accusation that her son is actually her grandson - by revealing that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter is expecting a baby and will soon marry the father, a young hockey player. Meanwhile, Palin has hired a lawyer to beat back a state investigation into claims that she abused the power of her office to remove her sister's ex-husband from his job as a state trooper, a man who has admitted tasering his own 10-year-old stepson! Would even America's trashiest daytime soaps dare squeeze that much action into just the first four days of a new storyline?

This is all, quite frankly, a post-modernist's picnic. The fantasy, the realer than real, illusion masking only further illusion. "Life imitates art," says Noah Richler, "and the message is frightening."

We are on the brink of a dangerous, philistine age. The Sarah Palin story is not about gender but about all sense of refinement and propriety having been lost. In these most difficult of times, in which the greater human lessons of the last century have already been forgotten, content and intellect matter not one bit. We have been reduced to vacuous idolatry of telegenic images, whether in Williams-cum-Costner-cum-Palin, or in Barack Obama ("not since the Sermon on the Mount has so much been promised by one man," my mother said), or in our host of vapid reality shows that masquerade as culture.

But this is not a case of life imitating art, pace Richler. The two are now one: welcome to The Matrix. Feeling a mite uneasy? Relax, pass the popcorn, and prepare to be entertained.

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