An uncle of mine used to have two male dachsunds. Whenever we went to visit him and his family, one dachsund made straight for my leg, while the other rushed for my brother’s. As soon as each one had secured his position, they proceeded to rub against the object of desire until they ejaculated, after which they dragged themselves into a corner and fell into a deep sleep.
Sarah Palin is surrounded by frisky liberal dachsunds, who are so excited by the prospect of rubbing their critical faculties against her every move and utterance that on the eve of the publication of her autobiography, the sound of scrambling paws and frenetic squeals is everywhere. Frank Rich, who recently compared Palin to Stalin because of her attempt to expel a moderate New York Republican from the party ranks—it’s called democratic politics, my smug, sanctimonious pundit friend—must be snoring his afternoons away.
As a political prospect, Palin is terrifying; as someone who embodies an American story, she is fascinating.
But, then, Rich probably does not regard Palin as having democratic instincts. That would be a strange interpretation of this fascinating, repulsive, refreshing, depressing, simple yet puzzling figure. The fact is that Palin is the democratic person par excellence. The astounding hatred of her could well be a displaced aversion to the rising tide of American democracy in general, in which hectoring mobs and comedian-statesmen increasingly drown out rationality, individuality, and wit.
I share much of the revulsion against Palin, which has several obvious sources. (Full disclosure: Palin and I possess the good fortune of having the same world-class book editor, Adam Bellow.) Palin presumed to be a heartbeat away from the White House when she was patently unqualified to hold any consequential political position; she would not accept defeat gracefully; and she has spent her post-election time making personal attacks and spreading malicious rumors—e.g. “death panels”—in order to exact revenge on the politicians and journalists she feels betrayed her.
In this personal sense, Palin is the very antithesis of a true populist candidate. A true populist challenges privilege and inherited connections with the sheer democratic strength of character. Character seems precisely to be what the undignified Palin lacks.
Or is it?
Fame used to be an exceptional circumstance in American life, now it is more like a permanent beckoning condition. The possible onset of fame—via blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc.— has become the exemplary American hope. Everybody wants to know other people’s fame-stories because just about everybody feels that, sooner or later, fame will come their way. Consider the obsession with the Gosselins, or with Balloon Boy’s father. Fame, or the hunger for fame, magnified their appetites and flaws, and deranged them.
• Tina Brown: Sarah Drops the Act• Michelle Goldberg: Palins’ Ego Trip• Shushannah Walshe: Palin’s Katie Couric Myths• More Daily Beast contributors on Palin’s book tourSudden fame struck Palin like a hurricane. Her attempt to tell what she considers the true story of fame’s deformations is no doubt driven by a pathetically relentless narcissism. It might also be the true story of what happened. Whatever its literal integrity, her story will possess an undeniable emotional truth, flattering or unflattering to the author.
The “elites” really have had at Palin—one of the richest aspects of her odyssey is that she was manhandled not just by liberal elites, but by conservative elites, too. The spectacle of her daily humiliation by moral showoffs like Rich, who stand before the mirror lovingly combing their political virtue, makes you cringe. For the revelation of Palin’s pettiness and vindictiveness was disappointing mostly because for one fleeting moment she did seem like the antidote to the clubbiness, and the cowardice, and the cautious careerism that make our politics and our journalism so mediocre.
As a political prospect, Palin is terrifying; as someone who embodies an American story, she is fascinating. She is Huck Finn in reverse. Instead of fleeing civilization and lighting out for the territory, she started in the territory and lit out for civilization. What she discovered is that civilization—our politics, and our media—is even more feral, less bound by morality, and more unforgiving than the wilderness she had come from. We know this dirty little secret of civilization theoretically—cynicism about everything is our American meat and milk. But we rarely come across a public person whose experience of it is so raw and uncontrolled.
Sometimes it seems as though Palin were being punished for her realization about what passes for civilized behavior. Just because she and some of her sleaziest defenders absurdly blame her downfall on “liberal persecution” doesn’t mean that liberals didn’t seize on her outsiderness once she stumbled and pounce all over her.
True outsiders often discombobulate the liberal mind. The source of liberal values is the idea that life’s quick changes make us all fundamentally outsiders, and that any social and political arrangement has to take the outsider, not the cozy insider, as its moral starting point. (See the liberal philosopher John Rawls’ profoundly beautiful conceit of the “veil of ignorance” in his “Theory of Justice,” in which Rawls imagines men and women creating a social contract based on their mutual vulnerability.) But powerful liberals are rarely outsiders, and so true outsiders shake their sense of self. Plenty of liberals must have felt a few minutes of alarm when Sarah Palin first appeared on the scene and challenged their authenticity. Then she imploded, and they tore her apart, perhaps in savage relief at finding their virtuous identities still intact.
I don’t share any of Palin’s politics, except her recent about-face supporting benefits for gay couples. (Too bad she can’t muster the same Christian generosity in support of a solid Christian idea like gay marriage.) Some of her positions, like her religious opposition to health-care reform and her opposition to stem-cell research, strike me as just shy of sociopathic.
But all the piling-on seems to me intended to cancel out her humanity. She is being turned into an object, and in this sense, her very presence has exposed a certain ugly attitude among the liberal elites that has always cast such a long shadow over liberal politics.
About 50 years ago, the (elite) liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling put it well: “We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes. Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”
Palin may have disgraced herself through her ignorance, childish fantasy of power, and lack of dignity as a vice-presidential candidate. But the vicious attacks on her have the effect of making even a caustic lefty nostalgic for her original promise: to explode the bubbly ego of hypocritical liberals whose “enlightened interest” and “wisdom” amount to a bullying consolidation of their entitlements. The more liberal "wisdom" that is wreaked on Palin with such self-celebration, the more "rogue" she really seems.
There I’ve done it. I’ve defended, sort of, the dangerous slouching beast from the north country. Bring on the attacks! Just watch the pants, please.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.