November 19, 2009

Palin Derangement Syndrome: When It's Time for a Long, Long Rest

The time is long past due for certain writers to go into temporary retirement at a minimum, to engage in the process of rigorous self-assessment and of regaining perspective, and to find a new approach for commentary on current events. Perhaps foremost among the candidates for such a program is Andrew Sullivan. The only evidence I require for my judgment is this extraordinary post. I'll get back to that in a moment. First, let's consider some general background issues.

There is no question that much of the reaction to Sarah Palin, and to Hillary Clinton as well, is rooted in one of the foundational beliefs of our culture, and not simply that of the United States but of the West itself. I stated that belief as follows:
You need to understand one very simple foundational point: Women are evil. More than that, women are the ultimate source of all evil in the world.

Almost no one will admit the belief in this form, but this is what most people in the West believe, to one degree or another. Western culture is saturated with this perspective; it directs and finds expression in our films and television, in books, in our relationships, in business -- and in our politics. Whatever one may think of their political convictions (and I myself would never vote for either of them), Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both represent historic candidacies. It is the belief that women are evil that underlies the blindingly intense hatred directed at them.
As I noted, this belief is very rarely stated explicitly, but that essay discusses the source of that belief and how it influences our cultural attitudes and behavior in countless ways. I have written quite a lot about many manifestations of that belief over the last year and a half, and you'll find many of the links in that earlier piece. And here's a post concerning a recent horrifying example of the same dynamic: "A Depraved, Violent and Indifferent Culture."

I also wrote an entry comparing certain statements offered by Palin and Biden in their vice presidential debate. For our concerns here, this passage is of most relevance:
Palin speaks comparatively plainly, using straightforward, everyday expressions. But her views are clear, and there is nothing notably "stupid" about what she says or how she says it -- unless, that is, you have become so accustomed to Washington-speak that you have rendered yourself incapable of recognizing more normal human expression. Yet it is altogether remarkable how much time and concentration so many people devote to demonstrating how much smarter they are than Sarah Palin. Obviously, Palin is not any kind of "intellectual" (also an unqualifiedly admirable attribute in my view), and she is not an Einstein. So let me rephrase the point more colloquially: if you have to devote so much time and energy to proving you're smarter than Sarah Palin, how pathetic are you? Here's your answer: very pathetic. Most of those who repeatedly engage in this kind of Palin-bashing are nothing more than bullies. They're the kind of people who, given half a chance, might torture small animals or pull the wings off flies.
Apply these observations to the example under current examination as you think appropriate, and deserved.

Beyond these issues and going much more deeply, there is another one of critical importance in assessing Palin or any other candidate put forth by the two major parties in our current system. Chris Floyd explained this aspect of the problem with his usual perceptiveness and eloquence, in a post from August 2008:
I must say that I strongly disagree with the argument that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be president of the United States. Such a stance betrays a lamentable misperception of the true function of the office in these modern times. It also ignores the craven nature of our political and media establishments, which has been on such brazen display for lo these many years.

First of all, what do you think would happen in the not-unlikely-event that an aged, ailing President McCain either died or became incapacitated? The very instant that Palin assumed the presidency, the aforesaid establishments would surround her with an aura of substance, seriousness, and respect. She would become..."The President"...her title invoked with the same frisson of pleasurable self-abnegation that accompanied every utterance of the holy phrase on "The West Wing." The media would find hidden reservoirs of charisma and command suddenly coming to light. We would hear stories of her folksy charm, her steely resolve, her self-deprecating wit, her surprising grasp of complex issues.

It doesn't matter what kind of poltroon parks his or her butt in the Oval Office, or how they get in there; they will be presented to the people as a figure of moral authority and gravitas -- and be accepted as such by large swathes of the public. ...

And haven't the past eight years been a painfully glaring demonstration of the undeniable fact that the office of the presidency is -- or certainly can be -- the emptiest of empty shams, a front behind which powerful elite factions shelter as they push their self-serving and undemocratic agendas? Yes, yes, yes, there are tussles and disagreements, even blood feuds, among the elite, there are narrow areas in which marginal differences in policy approaches might come into play. But no one -- no one -- becomes president or vice-president who has not already bought into the basic package: militarism, empire and continual state intervention in the economy on behalf of the rich and powerful.
Anyone who regularly writes about current politics should have at least a minimal appreciation of how these dynamics work. To rephrase Floyd's argument in terms of any alleged "threat" that one might consider Palin to be: given the operation of the current system -- and in light of the fact that these mechanics are entrenched and embedded throughout that system in a multitude of ways -- even a President Palin would not make any difference in any significant way. This is precisely the point that I recently made about Obama and his full embrace and even expansion of all those policies of the Bush administration that he had repeatedly pledged to change or reverse. That post also analyzes the progressives' complete failure to oppose Obama's supposed "capitulation" in any meaningful manner.

And the truth is that Obama isn't "capitulating," for he never opposed our corporatist-authoritarian system. He's the perfect embodiment of that system, a point I have been making for well over a year. The ultimate explanation will again be found in the nature of our current system of government itself:
Any individual who rises to the national political level is, of necessity and by definition, committed to the authoritarian-corporatist state. The current system will not allow anyone to be elected from either of the two major parties who is determined to dismantle even one part of that system.
All of this applies to Obama, and it also applies to Sarah Palin.

Against all this, we have that current entry from Sullivan. I could highlight the entire post as evidence for my argument (and please consider it so highlighted), but let's note just a few critical sentences.

For example, this one: "When dealing with a delusional fantasist like Sarah Palin, it takes time to absorb and make sense of the various competing narratives that she tells about her life."

And this one: "She is a deeply disturbed person which makes this work of fiction and fact all the more challenging to read."

And then this passage:
Since the Dish has tried to be rigorous and careful in analyzing Palin's unhinged grip on reality from the very beginning - specifically her fantastic story of her fifth pregnancy - we feel it's vital that we grapple with this new data as fairly and as rigorously as possible. That takes time to get right. And it is so complicated we simply cannot focus on anything else.
I try to resist "psychologizing" about writers -- that is, speculating about a person's motives, even in the absence of or in contradiction to the available, relevant evidence -- but in rare cases, certain psychological issues scream at you from the page. This is such a case. (Along the identical lines, see this more recent Sullivan entry.)

There may be "a deeply disturbed person" involved in this controversy, an individual exhibiting an "unhinged grip on reality," but that person would not appear to be the one identified by Sullivan. As noted above, the operation of our current system of governance severely limits the effect any one individual can have, even if that person is the president. And in the case of Palin, certain evidence Sullivan himself cites argues strongly against her representing any particular danger -- for example, her high unfavorability ratings. Facts such as that one, again set forth by Sullivan himself, make one look at the intensity and comprehensiveness of Sullivan's obsession and simply go, WTF?

As to the specific reason(s) for Sullivan's obsession, I can offer no explanations at all. Given the realities of American politics and in light of critical relevant facts that Sullivan himself must acknowledge, his purported explanations make no sense at all. But all that isn't my problem, or yours. But I would submit that it is Sullivan's problem, and I wish he would take the time to try to figure out its causes, for his own sake in the first instance.

And I would not want to make the same error myself, by focusing on Sullivan's failures to a degree that isn't warranted. I address this issue and Sullivan's most recent behavior in large part because I want again to make the broader points about our deep cultural loathing of women, an issue of immense importance that should always be among our primary concerns. But I will take the opportunity to repeat that this extraordinarily peculiar obsession of Sullivan's is of a piece with his continuing failures of analysis.

I've discussed Sullivan's inability to appreciate his own ongoing errors with regard to foreign policy; as one example, see, "Undying Myths, and Sullivan's Lies on the Path of Penance." Of still greater significance is what I consider his entirely erroneous approach to the question of torture. Because Sullivan and I both emphatically condemn torture, the profound difference between my perspective and his is one I consider of special importance, so I addressed it in considerable detail -- here and here. Toward the conclusion of the second of those essays, I summarized my argument this way:
This is why, even though I agree with his ultimate condemnation, I reject Sullivan's approach and the means by which he arrives at his conclusion absolutely, and across the board. He is incapable of seeing what the critical question is: he cannot understand the roots of such violence, nor can he see that our current foreign policy itself embodies that same violence. In the end, his condemnation is irrelevant and futile. People who condemn torture for the reasons Sullivan does do nothing to stop the violence that threatens to engulf the world.
To return to this specific controversy: Sullivan's continuing, unrelenting obsession with Palin is bizarre in the extreme. I would also suggest to The Atlantic that they do no good service for Sullivan or themselves by allowing this to continue. Episodes of this kind are the sort of thing one might encounter in a textbook on psychology, one with a heavy emphasis on aberrant behaviors. It is not behavior one expects or hopes to find in a mainstream publication; I say that even as someone with a notably low opinion of the content of all such publications. Still, to hope for certain limits would not seem to be beyond the bounds of reasonable expectations.

A long, long rest is indicated, and time for some desperately needed reflection.

P.S. To dispel any possible confusion in my concluding paragraphs (although no such confusion should arise from a careful reading of my comments), I state that I am absolutely, unequivocally opposed to censorship in any and all forms. See this essay, as just one example out of many. It should be painfully obvious that The Atlantic magazine is not the government -- although I cannot resist noting that if certain of The Atlantic's writers view their role as akin to that of government propagandists, that would explain a great deal. Pointing out that a magazine might think better of providing an outlet for a continuing stream of unreasoning, frequently incoherent commentary targeted at one particular individual, and on grounds which are highly dubious -- especially when that individual merits no special concern for the reasons outlined above -- has nothing whatsoever to do with the advocacy of censorship, whatever the wretched justification might claim to be. I leave that to others; unfortunately, there are far too many others eager and willing to take up that cause.