By now you may have read Sarah Palin’s florid attack on Lena Dunham. She and her daughter Bristol both attempted the same pathetic sleight-of-hand to distract from the ongoing grotesquerie of the Duggar family values. Go take a look, if you have time and can get past the all-caps intro. The caps-lock key is the Palin family’s rhetorical open-carry, deployed in the mistaken belief that it makes the bearer seem more formidable, when really it underscores the weakness of the case.
Sarah’s tirade in particular radiates schoolyard smugness, the smirk of a lunchroom bully who thinks she’s scored a sick burn on the class nerd—she doesn’t just think she’s made a devastating point, she’s already figuratively turning around to accept high-fives from her pals.
Are you not familiar with Dunham’s perversions? She once looked at her sister’s vagina. She was 7. As sexually frustrated teenager, she masturbated while her sister slept in the same bed. I’m sure there are people who have never masturbated in a less-than-private place, but my casual sampling suggests this is within the bounds of normal. All of it is.
But, for the Palins, there’s a smoking gun. Dunham says she once bribed her younger sister to kiss her on the mouth. She was desperate for affirmation; she worried about her place in the family. In her book, she jokes that her insecurity and desire for attention drove her to try “anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl.” It’s a joke because her motives weren’t the same as a sexual predator’s—even if her behavior, superficially, was.
Whereas Josh Duggar was a sexual predator.
Equating Dunham’s and Duggar’s behavior is not the only category error the Palins made. Also in terms of comparing Dunham’s and Duggar’s places in the media galaxy, what sorts of celebrities they are, the Palins are comparing apples and some kind of fruit nobody’s ever heard of.
Lena Dunham is an author, filmmaker, actress, and, yes, political activist. While there’s no doubt that she’s benefitted from family connections and social capital not available to your average twenty-something, she’s famous because she’s good at what she does. She made Tiny Furniture and Girls before she campaigned for Obama, not the other way around. Josh Duggar’s family may not be rich, but he is famous solely because he belongs to the Duggar family. And the Duggars are essentially famous for the same reason the Kardashians are: their sex lives.
Conservatives take their celebrities where they can get them. Sure, there are actors and country music stars, snatched up quickly for pro-troop specials and benefits, but the Duggars are the rare example of a true conservative folk hero crossovers, individuals whose fame is not dependent on a celebrity-generating skill (acting, singing) but on a set of beliefs. They share that slim slice of Venn diagram (general popular recognition and genuine conservative activism) with the Duck Dynasty clan and a smattering of lesser lights: Joe the Plumber, the owners of Memories Pizza, Cliven Bundy, and Pam Geller. Military heroes are adopted quickly, and territorially. Ben Carson was raised up immediately after his one-sided “confrontation” with the president.
Indeed, there was that brief moment when it seemed like conservative America might adopt Caitlyn Jenner as an icon. If only liberals were as upset with Jenner’s stated party ID as Rush Limbaugh and the Twitteratti thought it might be. It has turned out that Jenner’s party affiliation is the least interesting thing about her. Really, that a wealthy white woman is Republican isn’t nearly as surprising as how many rural, middle-class people are.
Conservatives might argue—and they have a point—that liberals don’t need a separate celebrity culture. Liberal media darlings are, pretty much, media darlings. Their path to celebrity isn’t political because it doesn’t need to be political. Lena Dunham isn’t famous because she’s the victim of a right-wing pile-on, she’s the victim of right-wing pile-on because she’s famous.
The Left doesn’t have anything quite like the conservative folk hero, people who are neither politicians nor activists nor professional performers but simply famous for being liberals. Sandra Fluke, perhaps. Cindy Sheehan (remember her?) And when they do pop up, the liberal political ecosystem doesn’t have the same network of conferences, straw polls and candidate cattle-calls that prop up the Duggars and their brethren.
Even more than the conferences, however, conservative folk heroes find their credibility increases not via leadership but through victimhood. All criticism by mainstream voices becomes proof of worthiness—and the case of Josh Duggar exposes just how self-defeating the raising up these folk heroes via victimhood can be.
Not that the Palins would realize this. What does Sarah Palin’s own fame stand on now these days, anyway? A caps-lock key and a sense of grievance. It’s not much, but these days, it’s all any conservative celebrity needs. Ironically, it’s their grievance that makes them worthy of attention from the mainstream media as well. The Duggars’ and Palins’ off-the-map political and world views are what draw attention. Outsiders want to stare at the spectacle.
Maybe the cruelest trick that liberal elites ever pulled was luring so many camera-starved conservatives into the limelight—and out of the reality distortion field of their own devising.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story did not mention the vagina peeping or masturbation and instead focused on Dunham’s “admission” of being a sexual predator. I apologize for failing to distinguish between the non-incidents of non-abuse in the Dunham household.