This past weekend Sarah Palin, in return for a $100,000 speaking fee,
appeared before several hundred attendees at the for-profit "National
Tea Party Convention" to deliver a speech and sit for a Q&A session.
The most notable headline to emerge from this event was that Palin
while answering prescreened questions. I particularly enjoyed how
she had written "Budget Cuts," then crossed out "Budget" and written
"Tax" underneath, because in teabag land you can always swap in one
in place of the other even though they have exactly opposite effects
on the deficit that the 'baggers claim to care about. But I thought
I should also at least see what the takeaway of the actual speech was
supposed to be. The consensus seemed to be that the sound bite was
"We need a commander-in-chief, not a perfesser of law standing at
pallin' around with James Madison
I want to talk about that line in a moment, but first, a point about
the broader context. Backing up, here's what led up to that line:
There are questions we would've liked this foreign terrorist to answer
before he lawyered up and invoked our U.S. constitutional right
Our U.S. constitutional rights! Our rights that you,
sir, fought and were willing to die for to protect in our constitution!
The rights that my son, as an infantryman in the United States Army, is
willing to die for! The protections provided — thanks to you,
sir! — we're gonna bestow them on a terrorist who hates
our constitution?! And tries to destroy our constitution and our country.
This makes no sense because we have a choice in how we're going to
deal with a terrorist — we don't have to go down that road.
There are questions that we would have liked answered before he lawyered up,
like, "Where exactly were you trained and by whom? You—you're braggin'
about all these other terrorists just like you — uh, who are
they? When and where will they try to strike next?" The events surrounding
the Christmas Day plot reflect the kind of thinking that led to September
11th. That threat — the threat, then, as the U.S.S. Cole
was attacked, our embassies were attacked, it was treated like an international
crime spree, not like an act of war. We're seeing that mindset again settle
into Washington. That scares me! For my children! And for your children.
Treating this like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at grave
risk. Because that's not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this!
They know we're at war! And to win that war, we need a commander-in-chief,
not a perfesser of law standing at the lectern!
At first I had a giant question mark hovering over my head because she
seemed to be making two exactly opposite arguments simultaneously. We
love American justice! It's worth fighting and dying for! Also, we hate
American justice! Giving people lawyers? And allowing them to
remain silent? Horreur! Something didn't compute —
like, if she hates lawyers and Miranda rights, then what exactly
is it about American justice that's worth the aforementioned fighting
and dying? So I listened again, this time paying attention to the
emphases. "Our!" "Our!" "Our!" "Bestow?!" And this time
I was like, wait — does Sarah Palin think that justice systems
are like Super Bowl tickets? You don't get to enjoy them unless you keep
them to yourself? But no, that's not precisely right either. It's more
like she thinks that we won our courts through some sort of reality show
immunity challenge — that justice is a special privilege that
we secured through combat, so if you're not wearing the necklace you
don't get any. I wonder if anyone has ever broached the idea to her that
we call things like Miranda rights "rights" because our political
philosophy, the one embodied in the constitution she keeps name-checking,
holds that they are what constitutes justice. That, by definition,
you cannot deny them to anyone and remain just. I have to figure that no
one has. After all, Sarah Palin doesn't hang with law perfessers.
Vulcans Sea Warriors
Okay, so Palin loves the constitution but hates law. Whatever. What really
caught my attention was the end of her applause line. "We need a
commander-in-chief, not a perfesser of law standing at the lectern.
Why "lectern"? The next step was to connect it back to what she said the
week before, after the State of the Union address. Greta Van Susteren asked
her on Fox News to sum it up in a word. Palin dug deep and tried to think
of the worst insult she could come up with. And after an awkwardly long
pause, she replied, "In a word: lecture. Uh, I think that there
was quite a bit of lecturing, not leading, in that."
And that, in turn, I had heard before. I've even
commented on it, back in '04. You may recall that the brief flicker of
hope in the presidential race that year came when John Kerry had a
and many people seemed to realize for the first time that, hey, wait, the
current president is kind of a buffoon. The Republicans, caught on their
heels a bit, had to scramble for a talking point. Realizing that they
couldn't keep their guy from sounding like a buffoon, they only had one
choice: stigmatize not sounding like a buffoon! And so it was that
a meme was born, as a legion of GOP proxies —
Rudy Giuliani, for example — fanned out to spread the latest
meme: "Bush talked, Kerry lectured." Which worked well enough for the
Republicans to win a mandate to keep destroying the country.
As I noted at the time, I really like lectures. This semester I'm
auditing three lectures a week at my alma
mater, and am listening to two more through its kickass
webcast site. But
it stands to reason that someone who bounced from the University of Hawaii at
Hilo to Hawaii Pacific University to North Idaho College to the University of
Idaho to Matanuska-Susitna College might not be similarly enamored of the
lecture hall. The fact that neither of her college-age children has ever
attended college also hints at the lack of importance she attaches to what
professors have to say. A lot of other people make a similar assessment.
Every time I walk into a class, even one taught by a compelling speaker, I'm
surrounded by people texting, browsing on Facebook, catching a quick nap...
and these are the ones who made it into an elite university. For every one of
them, there are a hundred more in the high schools who think of school as a
prison sentence and of teachers as ambulatory bathroom pass dispensers. And
given the dominance of identity politics — i.e., voting for the
candidate you feel you can relate to rather than on the basis of
policy — it's no surprise that, like the proud C student who
occupied the White House for most of the previous decade, Palin has used her
anti-intellectualism to attract
But that's the superficial answer. It doesn't answer the "why 'lectern'?"
question, doesn't explain why "lecture" is a loaded word in a way that
"professor," or even "perfesser," is not. The deeper answer, it seems to
me, is that "lecture" has a double meaning. There's the sort of lecture
you might go to in order to learn about the functioning of the visual cortex
or the Chartist movement in 19th century Britain... and then there's the
sort of lecture you get from your parents when you've done something wrong.
And that, much more than the disdain for academia, is the resentment that
Palin and others who've learned this trick are tapping into.
86% of Louisiana Republicans approve of diaper fetishism
I've mentioned on quite a few occasions — I think
this was the first — my frustration with
the way so many voters think in metaphor, acting as though the country were
a family and that choosing a president meant picking out a dad. In a lot of
cases they're astonishingly up front about it, using the language of parenting
to explain their choices: I'll never forget the guy I heard on NPR saying
that he was voting for Bush over Kerry because "he won't just give the
terrorists a time-out." Berkeley linguistics professor
George Lakoff goes so far as to say that the "country as family" metaphor
is the key to understanding the entirety of American politics. In his account,
people's positions on the issues all follow from whether they subscribe to an
ideal of a Nurturing Parent or one of a Strict Father. Here's a longish
excerpt from one of his early essays on this theme:
The Strict Father Model. [...] Evil is conceptualized as a force in the
world, and it is the father's job to support his family and protect it from
evils [...] He sets an example by holding himself to high standards. [...]
In addition to support and protection, the father's primary duty is tell his
children what is right and wrong, punish them when they do wrong, and to bring
them up to be self-disciplined and self-reliant. [...] Once his children are
grown — once they have become self-disciplined and
self-reliant — they are on their own and must succeed or fail by
themselves; he does not meddle in their lives, just as he doesn't want any
external authority meddling in his life.
Though many features of this model are widespread across cultures, the
No-meddling Condition — that grown children are on their own and
parents cannot meddle in their lives — is a peculiarly American
feature, and it accounts for a peculiar feature of American conservatism,
namely, the antipathy toward government.
Conservatives speak of the government meddling in people's lives with the
resentment normally reserved for meddling parents. The very term "meddling"
is carried over metaphorically from family life to government. [...] It
appears that the antipathy to government shown by American conservatives
derives from the part of the strict father model in which grown children
are expected to go off on their own and be self-reliant and then deeply
resent parents who continue to tell them how they should live.
Here Lakoff seems to cover the right-wing objection to lecturing: "We're
old enough to know that we don't want any changes to health insurance law
or the student loan system, so stop herding us into the House chamber to
tell us why we should!" But I don't find this explanation entirely
convincing. If conservatives are so averse to "government meddling," then
back a massive expansion of the reach of government under Bush? Why is
the use of tax money unconscionable unless it's trillions of dollars for
wars of occupation? If government is so maleficent that it's itching for
an opportunity to set up "death panels," why was it fine for the Bush
Administration to wiretap phones on its own say-so? Lakoff's answer is that
in the strict father model, "it is the father's job to support his family
and protect it from evils," including "enemies." How about other "government
meddling" such as restrictions on who can marry whom? "The strict father [...]
expresses his devotion to his family by supporting and protecting them, but
just as importantly by setting and enforcing strict moral bounds," Lakoff
writes. All right... but, uh, I thought the crux of our resentment was that
we were off on our own and self-reliant! So which is it?
In addition to this internal contradiction, it seems to me that Lakoff's
account fails to correspond to reality. He says that the strict father "is
morally strong, self-disciplined, [...] sets an example by holding himself to
high standards" and avoids "self-indulgence." Hewing to this ideal may have
seemed like an important part of the conservative identity back in the days
when you had blue-noses like Rick Santorum and Gary Bauer railing against that
dissolute satyr Bill Clinton, but now? In 2007 Republican senator David Vitter
was revealed to have been a repeat client of a prostitution service while
serving as a congressman; Republican voters didn't care, and he's cruising to
re-election. In 2009 Republican senator John Ensign was revealed to have had
an affair with the wife of one of his top staffers, then
and tried to steer work toward her husband; Republican voters found nothing
unseemly about any of this, and he also leads in the polls. One of the
first things the country learned about Sarah Palin after John McCain chose
her as his running mate was that her underage daughter Bristol had gotten
knocked up by her redneck boyfriend; this only helped to cement Palin as a
rising star. The empirical evidence screams that moral strength, high
standards, and self-discipline are utterly unimportant to the conservative
base... at least, so long as you're a Republican. On the Democratic side,
getting caught in a similar scandal means the end of your career. Ask Eliot
Spitzer or John Edwards about their prospects.
I want to be the girl with the most cake
So what can explain both the
phenomenon and why "lecture" is a dog-whistle word? I think Lakoff actually
does hit on a better answer elsewhere, but first I'd like to turn to
Steven Fish of the political science department. His course on comparative
government begins by exploring the microfoundations of politics: what do
people want? The founders of social science have had different answers:
- Power. The ability to assert your will upon the world and make
others obey you. This was the answer provided by Friedrich Nietzsche and
- Possessions. It's a material world and everything boils down to
economics. People only want power, for example, insofar as it affords them
the opportunity to grab more stuff. This is Karl Marx's answer.
- Status. Max Weber's answer. People don't want power per se,
or riches per se — these are just routes to the top of
the social hierarchy and the esteem that comes with it.
- Liberty. An expansive term that Benjamin Constant took to mean
not only freedom to pursue pleasure and freedom from obligation, but also
freedom from public scrutiny.
I don't see the need to select one of these as paramount — most
people want all of them to different degrees. Take Sarah Palin, for instance.
Her tenures as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska were marked by
arbitrary firings of officials she disliked, bizarre "loyalty tests," use
of her position to pursue private vendettas — there's power.
She told Charles Gibson that, when offered a spot as John McCain's running
mate, she "thought yes right off the bat" and "didn't hesitate" in accepting
it, even though she'd confessed days earlier that she didn't actually know
what the vice president's job entailed. Who cares? She knew enough to know
that it'd mean a giant leap in her status. As for possessions,
who can forget that one of her first moves as VP nominee was to go on a
$150,000 shopping spree, piling up bills at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman
Marcus? And the cash grab that followed, from the book deal to the Fox News
gig to the $100,000 speech that started this article, was made possible by her
resignation from the governorship of Alaska and the liberty that
provided her — the freedom from the obligation to do her job, and
the freedom from public scrutiny that she mentioned as the primary reason she
All of these pursuits involve competition. Where material wealth is
concerned, the problem is scarcity — there's only so much stuff
in the world and not everyone can have everything. Power and status are
inherently limited by virtue of the fact that they're relative: having high
status, by definition, means that those around you have lower status, just
as exercising power requires that those you command have less. Even liberty
isn't unlimited, insofar as one person's freedom from obligation increases
others' burdens. (Historically, the liberty of a small group of men has
been supported by the enslavement of others, the subjugation of women, and
the conquest of nations.) So which of these is the true battlefield matters
less than how you feel about the battle. Take power, for instance. As noted
above, both Nietzsche and Russell considered it the motive force in human
relations. And yet Russell was an advocate of social democracy while
Nietzsche was the darling of the Nazis. That is, one thought it vital that
societies take active steps to make sure that power is diffused, while the
other contended that it's in harnessing and exercising power that humans
become their best — it's how you get the
Pyramids, how you get the Taj Mahal. What accounts for this difference?
Consider the old cake-cutting problem. Two people both want some cake, but
there's not enough cake available to satisfy both of them. How should they
divide it up? The classic answer is to have one person cut it and the other
choose a piece. Say I'm the one with the knife. Naturally, I'm going to
make the two pieces as close to equal as I can...
...because I know I've lost the competition.
If, on the other hand, I've won — if I know I'm going to pick
first — it's in my best interest to cut a piece as big as I want.
You'll be lucky if you get anything.
This is the difference between left and right.
Nietzsche supported the polarization of power because he assumed that he'd be
one of the winners. A small brotherhood of omnipotent aristocrats lording it
over the wretched masses sounds great if you identify with the aristocrats.
You don't have to actually be an aristocrat — Nietzsche
wasn't — so long as you consider the winners your team. Many have
noted the tendency among middle- and even working-class Americans to consider
themselves "pre-rich"; you have truck drivers making $18,000 a year phoning
into right-wing radio shows to call for the repeal of the estate tax because
that 35% bite after the first $5 million is just too much to bear. But
if, on the other hand, you identify with the losers — if only
because there are a lot more losers than winners and you have to play
the percentages — then polarization is your enemy. If you assume
that while there is a lower class you'll be in it, then you'll support as
equal a division of power, of wealth, of status, of liberty, as you can get,
so that winding up with the last piece isn't so bad.
insert Charlie Brown wah-wah-wah sound here
It's pretty well attested that Chinese leaders greatly preferred George W.
Bush to Barack Obama, much as they preferred Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter.
Not that Bush was friendlier than Obama to China, as such. On the contrary,
under Bush America threw its weight around to an alarming degree, launching
invasions, building military bases, gobbling up resources. This brought it
into strategic conflict with China, which countered American moves into Iraq
and Afghanistan by cementing a warm partnership with Pakistan. But at least
they were playing by the same rules! What does a country want? Access to the
world's resources, the military superiority necessary to secure that access,
and unrestrained use of those resources at home (driving Hummers in our case,
building coal plants in theirs). This might mean the occasional American
spy plane over Hainan or the occasional Chinese cyber-attack on Google, but
hey, that's the game, and may the best superpower win. But under Obama, it's
been much harder for the Chinese leadership to figure out what America wants.
Obama gives stern speeches about human rights, his secretary of state blasts
censorship of the Internet... what's their angle? They can't actually want
power and liberty more equally distributed — that kind of talk is
for losers, and as leaders of the world's most powerful nation, they're
winners, right? So what's with the lectures?
The same is true domestically. Viewed from the right, the rules of the game
seem pretty straightforward. What do you want? Oh, y'know, maybe
seven or eight houses, a fawning press to praise your emanation of
little starbursts and/or your
manly characteristic, the occasional week off to take a stroll down the
Appalachian Trail to
fuck your Argentinian soulmate, and of course the sheer fun of being
More broadly, since you're a winner — or can feel in your bones
that someday you're going to be — you want to increase the share
of wealth, power, status, and privilege that goes to the winners.
You don't expect that the losers will go along quietly. It's perfectly
understandable that they'll fight you for a bigger piece of the cake.
You're no more surprised by that than you are when children misbehave.
And now it's time to wheel Lakoff back in. Under the strict father model,
misbehavior is punished. Say that little Glenn and little Beck are tearing
around the house shrieking and knocking things over. You might send them
to their rooms, or take away their favorite toys for a week, or maybe even
break out the spanking paddle. Lakoff suggests that ultimately this is a
form of conditioning, as the child associates the disapproved action with
punishment and stops doing it, or at least stops getting caught. Ultimately,
though, it's an exercise of power. They want to run around making a mess;
you don't want them to; you're bigger and stronger and control their access
to food and shelter and entertainment; you win.
The nurturant parent model is different. The goal is not
punishment, which is simply retribution for the child's misbehavior, nor
even discipline, which aims to prevent future misbehavior by forcing the
child to think strategically: "yes, I want to run around the house shrieking,
but if I do I'll get in trouble, so I'll exert my willpower and resist."
The goal of the nurturant parent is correction. So if little Rachel
and little Maddow are running around the house shrieking and knocking things
over, the goal of the nurturant parent is to convince them that they shouldn't
even want to do that, through reasoned discussion — in
Lakoff's words, to "teach them empathy." To take them aside and say, "You
wouldn't like it if you were playing with your blocks and someone came in and
screamed and kicked them over, would you? Well, that's what it's like for me
when you carry on like this. You need to try to see things from the other
Conservatives HATE this sort of thing. It. Drives. Them. Nuts. Why?
Let's look at some items in the news recently:
- When Republicans held the majority in the Senate, they accused Democrats
of obstructionism and threatened to abolish the filibuster. "Up or down vote!
Up or down vote!" was their mantra. Once they were reduced to the minority,
however, they themselves started to filibuster virtually everything that came
to the floor, forcing the Democrats to round up 60 votes to invoke cloture as
a matter of routine. Last week Richard Shelby (R-AL) took this a step
further, issuing a unilateral blanket hold on all pending nominees until his
earmarks were approved.
- When House and Senate Democrats were holding off-camera discussions to
reconcile their two health care bills, House minority leader John Boehner and
other Republicans demanded that Obama keep his campaign pledge to televise the
meetings on C-SPAN. Obama then invited Republicans to a health care summit
which would be televised on C-SPAN. In reply, Boehner reversed course
180 degrees to charge that the presence of the cameras would prevent a "real
conversation." As Talking Points Memo put it,
"Boehner: How Dare Obama Televise The Health Care Debate After I Demanded He
Televise The Health Care Debate!"
- Naturally, one of the most blatant examples of this sort of thing came
from Sarah Palin, who called for Rahm Emanuel to be fired for, five months
earlier, having called progressive plans to pressure conservative Democrats
into backing the public option "fucking retarded." Rush Limbaugh responded
by characterizing Emanuel's comments as "calling a bunch of people who are
retards 'retards.'" Asked why she didn't condemn Limbaugh in turn, Palin
replied, in her own inimitable fashion, "He was satirical in that! [...]
I didn't hear Rush Limbaugh calling a group of people whom he did not agree
with 'effing retards.' And we did know that Rahm Emanuel, as been reported,
did say that. There's a big difference there."
First of all, Palin doesn't know what "satirical" means. Second, Limbaugh
was the one who actually applied the word to people he disagreed with rather
than to plans, so she's flat wrong. But third and most importantly, this is
obvious sophistry. Her rationale is so flimsy that it's laughable on its face.
There are only two explanations that make sense, and both of them boil down to
calculations of power. The first is that Palin actually was offended by
Limbaugh, but unwilling to say so for fear of fracturing the Republican base
into warring camps, undermining its power. The second, and more likely, is
that Palin wasn't actually offended by Emanuel, but instead saw an opportunity
to attempt a power play against the Democrats. Either way, her argument is in
bad faith, as were Boehner's and the Senate Republicans'. And since
Republicans are virtually never sincere, they assume no one else is either.
In 2002, Trent Lott (R-MS), then Senate majority leader, wished aloud that the
segregationist candidate had won the presidency in 1948 and prevented the
civil rights movement. The subsequent outcry forced him to step down from his
leadership position. The Republicans viewed this as nothing more than a power
play. They'd tried much the same thing not long before, when Bill Clinton had
been caught having an affair with a White House intern. Were the Republicans
actually offended? Nah — as we've seen, Republicans don't
really care about affairs, even if they involve prostitutes or hush money, if
their guys are the ones involved. Heck, the Republican leader at the time,
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was himself having an affair at that very moment
with a staffer 23 years his junior. But it seemed like a good angle and it
did consume the end of the Clinton presidency. So when the scandal fairy
paid a visit to Trent Lott, Republicans figured the same sort of fake outrage
was to blame. Surely no one could have been genuinely upset at the
notion that the leader of the Senate Republicans longed for the days of Jim
Crow! Don't we all? And so they cast about for an opportunity for payback.
They thought they'd found it when current majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was
quoted in a book using the word "Negro," which went out of fashion when Reid
was in his 30s and is now considered a pejorative. Fake outrage time! Only
this time the outrage was a bit too transparently fake and the move fizzled
out. They tried having RNC chair Michael Steele lead the charge, but the
fact that Steele had less than a week earlier busted out with the phrase
"honest injun" undermined his case a bit. Maybe next time!
The point here is that if you subscribe to the nurturant parent view of the
world, then just as parents should convince children to adopt good behavior
by making a persuasive case about its merits, politics should be a contest
of ideas, and may the best ideas win. But if you subscribe to the strict
father model, then parenting is about the imposition of power, and so is
politics. Political argument is sophistry used to dress up power plays.
And while both sides of the political aisle have been acting as if the
Republicans' 41 Senate seats give them a majority, the fact is that the
Democrats control both the presidency and both houses of Congress. This
puts the Republicans in the position of sulky teenagers whose parents still
control their access to food and shelter. Anything their parents say becomes
just another lecture to tune out, and they resent having to sit there and
And finally, what if they did listen? The worst part of having Barack
Obama "lecture" at you is that it's not just a power play. The
Republican playbook is pretty simple: foot on the enemy's throat when you're
in power, knee to the enemy's crotch when you're not. So it'd be one thing
if the Democrats were ramming through legislation, raising tax rates on the
rich, diverting that money to the middle class and the poor. That they'd
understand. What drives them up the wall is the insistence that they
should want those things too. That they should be more empathic. That
they should become different people. For a political philosophy so
egocentric as conservative capitalism, that's beyond the pale. Recall that
in Nineteen Eighty-Four what was so
terrifying was not that the Party wanted to be a boot stamping on a human
face forever, but that the Party wanted the person being stamped to love the
boot. When conservatives are asked to share, they feel like they're on the
receiving end of that boot, and when centrists and progressives try to
explain why sharing is good... why, that's brainwashing. So the reason Sarah
Palin can't stand Barack Obama is not that he wants to take away her power,
her wealth, her status, or her liberty. It's that he wants something far
worse: he wants to change her mind.
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