It has often been said that today’s rank-and-file conservative is “anti-elite.” I’ve always been uncomfortable with that characterization because — in my experience — conservatives are quite respectful of certain kinds of elites, like elite soldiers, elite athletes, and talented musicians and other artists (provided those artists don’t believe that their abilities also provide them with unique insight into, say, health-care policy or war strategy). The elite that conservatives tend to disdain is the contemporary intellectual (or academic) elite, not because intellectual excellence isn’t obtainable or worth respecting but because we look at what what passes for academic thinking these days and, frankly, it’s remarkably unimpressive.
Nowhere is this high-minded mediocrity on better display than in the near-universal disdain for Sarah Palin. And today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a tremendous gift, a near-perfect example of condescending nothingness masquerading as insight. Called “Palintology,” the column, by Scott McLemee, begins:
Important as it was, the campaign of Barack Obama was not the only history-making element of the 2008 presidential election. With Sarah Palin, we crossed another epochal divide. The boundary between reality television and American politics (already somewhat weakened by the continuous “American Idol” plebiscite) finally collapsed.
Her campaign’s basic formula was familiar: members of an ordinary middle-class family turn into instantly recognizable national celebrities while competing for valuable prizes.
This is good stuff. Let’s begin with a shot at reality TV and then deliver the ultimate insult: that Sarah Palin is like one of “those people,” you know, a member of the “middle class” desperate for fame. How her emphasis on her humble roots is any different from John Edwards’s “son of a millworker” schtick, or Joe Biden’s emphasis (sometimes false) on his blue-collar ancestry, or even our own prep school- and Ivy League-educated president’s emphasis on the challenges of his upbringing is left unexplained. I guess intelligent people should just know that Sarah Palin’s emphasis on her “every(woman)” identity was somehow worthy of contempt.
But that’s not all, of course. I love this part:
I’m not sure what Sarah Palin’s favorite work of postmodern theory might be (all of them, probably) but she seems to take her lead from Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction. Other political figures use the media as part of what JB calls “production.” That is, they generate signs and images meant to create an effect within politics. For the Baudrillardian “seducer,” by contrast, the power to create fascination is its own reward.
What is Joe Biden’s favorite work of postmodern theory? Nancy Pelosi’s? (I’m pretty sure that Barack Obama has a favorite postmodern theorist because he seems to be that kind of guy.) And as for the power to create fascination being “its own reward”: What evidence is there that Sarah Palin enjoys this more than, say, virtually any other public figure? Politicians are notoriously addicted to crowds and the limelight. But I suppose other politicians are mostly motivated by a desire to serve the public, generating “signs and images” for “political” ends — but not Sarah Palin. She has to be more cynical, more self-regarding, right?
Watching Palin respond to questions about her book Going Rogue (or not respond to them, often enough) is, from this perspective, no laughing matter. She grows ever more comfortable talking about herself.
Forgive me, but I thought the book was an autobiography.
Is this too cynical? I fear it may not be cynical enough. For it assumes that Palin will eventually be integrated into her party’s apparatus and turned into a mouthpiece of old-school Republican electoral politics — a basic platform of tax cuts for the rich and unregulated handgun ownership for everybody else.
Yep, that is the “basic” Republican platform. Tax cuts and guns. I thought we were all about “guns and religion.” Tax cuts replaced religion? I’ll have to update my talking points. Of course Republicans have nothing at all to say about foreign policy, health care, abortion, marriage, banking regulation, energy policy, or any other relevant topic — it all goes back to the “basic platform.” Lower taxes and Glocks.
At this point, the column takes a bit of a turn, lionizing the publishers of Going Rouge, a collection of critical essays about Sarah Palin. Why lionize them? Because — hold on to your hats — they don’t have much a budget, so they’re creatively using the Internet to publicize their book. That’s a novel idea. Please, tell me more.
But one can only lionize marginal left-wing publishers for so long before returning to the bogey(woman) of the moment. I loved this bit:
But she is busy demonstrating a strong intuitive grasp of how mass media can be used — among other things, to change the subject.
An example is the item Palin posted on Facebook in early August: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
This was fantasy. But it was effective fantasy. To borrow again from Baudrillard, it seduced — abolishing reality and replacing it with a delirious facsimile.
I hate to “borrow again from Baudrillard,” but this is a rich irony — coming from a writer who just reduced the entirety of Republican thought to “a basic platform of tax cuts for the rich and unregulated handgun ownership for everyone else.” Who, exactly, is “abolishing reality and replacing it with a delirious facsimile”?
The column ends thus:
Well, consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of tiny minds. Sarah Palin is playing the political game on a much grander scale — with rules she may be rewriting as she goes.
With a first printing of 1.5 million copies of her book, I don’t know that the intervention of an upstart press can pose much of a challenge. But OR Books deserves credit for trying. Someone has to speak up for reality from time to time. Otherwise it will just disappear.
Let’s see . . . a politician rises from a small town, governs a small (by population) state, and then runs for high office in part by emphasizing their humble roots. Nope, that’s never been done before.
I guess she really is “rewriting as she goes.” Thanks, Mr. McLemee, for speaking up for reality.