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 actually wrote crib notes on her hand which she consulted 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 the lectern!"

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 to remain silence! 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.

go Vulcans Sea Warriors Cardinals Vandals

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 strong performance in the first debate 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 a sizeable constituency.

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 why did mainstream Republicans 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 had his parents pay her $96,000 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 IOKIYAR 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 another Berkeley professor, 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 Bertrand Russell.

  • 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 was quitting.

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 the Decider. 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 side..."

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 listen.

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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