Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Stop Making Sense

Sarah Palin is arguably the biggest rockstar in America at the moment. It might be easier to become a rockstar these days, but that doesn't detract from her accomplishment. This may not be true next month or next year, but the wheels of articles-and-hype continue to churn.

During the end of the 2008 election, when Obama's election appeared imminent, Sarah-as-identity finally eclipsed Sarah-as-politician. I'm not talking about the so-called scandals (shopping sprees, expensive hotels, etc.) - that's par for the course. Instead, our media outlets figured out that more viewers would rather watch Sarah address questions about Bristol and snow machines than discuss foreign policy.

Her heavy-handed foreign policy statements were bullet points compressed into bullet points. It was like launching Powerpoint to display a single slide. She only had a few major points, which fits in nicely with modern news reporting facilities. People still loved her grandstanding rhetoric of hard power, and especially its juxtaposition to Obama's nuanced wonkishness. Obama's oratory skills took on a throwback quality in an age of 140-chars-or-less-plz.

The thing I wish I could figure out is what exactly the point was where everyone's opinion became valid. This development has been (somewhat unfairly) tied to Oprah Winfrey, who underwent a transformation in the mid-90s from a talk show journalist into a feel-good juggernaut. Give the people what they want, and the people were tiring of the cheating spouses, transvestites, and druggie kids. People want uplifting, positive, "I'm a special snowflake" stories that they can take parts of and apply them to their own lives, not cast judgment on the lives of others. This is why I actually kinda like Oprah - who else can inspire soccer moms to read Tolstoy? Positive personal stories became cool again, and Oprah was there to slip our country a much needed Xanax.

Maybe this is a strawman argument, but Palin supporters seem to consider most any attack on Sarah unfair. This is what's wrong - everything can be justified if enough people feel the same way. No one should be forced to fail, and our current state of public discourse demands that coverage be balanced. (That's actually the bizarre development - things were not always this "fair," until Reagan's second-term focus on deregulation [w/r/t media and the FCC] and Clinton's Telecommunications Act of 1996.)

Palin's campaign was built for signing books. Think about what the act of book-signing entails - a supporter spends 10 dollars for 10 seconds to explain to Sarah why she is wonderful (one bullet point per customer!), then is cast aside, perhaps to be reincarnated as an insightful anecdote in the next book. Joe the Plumber is a special snowflake!

The YouTube videos of her supporters stumbling over their own words - they're entertaining, part of the spectacle - a vain attempt to define "foreign policy." It's little more than a demonstration that we are right, and they are wrong, and that's really all it aspires to. We can't believe "those people" also line up in polling places (let alone bookstores!) to make their voices heard. Our response is little more than passing the link around, and pretending to wonder where these people come from.

I was recently reading an article written a few years ago about Iraq's political climate. The author recalls a discussion with an Iraqi who thought the way American media portrays the conflict was incorrect, referring to the Sunni vs. Shia binary. He said the real problem is city vs. village - the villages and countryside are self-sufficient, distrustful of outsiders, and taken care of by those who naturally rise to power (for context, this of course refers to Saddam's mindset). Politics becomes simply a way to maintain and wield power.

By contrast, cities know less of this tribal loyalty. Living in close proximity and dependent upon outsiders for basic necessities, politics is a way of getting things accomplished. Cooperation and compromise is a requirement to getting things done, a display of collective self-interest, rather than a show of weakness as some would believe.

I'm not sure the Iraqi political conflict is so different from our own. We all expect different things from our leaders, and our leaders have differing thoughts on how they are supposed to act.

Sometimes I feel torn on which group has the least understanding of the human condition - Palin's supporters or her detractors. At least I got in a good laugh while pretending to figure it out.

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