Sarah Palin has been in the news of late, mostly for the wrong reasons. Her much-ballyhooed special on Fox News (where else?), “Real American Stories,” played to what most describe as mixed reviews—the remarkably dim-witted Greta Van Susteren (is there anyone in the business more over-rated than she?) described them as “nasty,” although we must remember that Van Susteren’s husband is (or was) a Palin consultant/handler, and Van Susteren herself has a remarkably shallow understanding of any of the criticism.
But the Quitter-in-Chief attracted even more negative press for what many regard as an incendiary quality associated with her attempts to elect Republicans in 2010 to Congressional seats currently held by Democrats who voted for health care reform but who represent districts won by the McCain/Palin ticket in the last presidential election. Her well-publicized ad featuring the crosshairs of a gunsight on those districts and her follow-up tweet urging her followers “don’t retreat… reload” drew more than a little criticism, and not merely from the usual suspects—Rachel Maddow, Joan Walsh, the folks at Huffington Post and Daily Kos, et al. No, even Elisabeth Hasselbeck, hitherto reliable Palin supporter and possibly the only person I can think of less qualified for national office than the Wassila Hillbilly, describes Republican responses in general (and certainly Palin’s by clear implication) as “fairly despicable.”
I don’t feel the need to demonstrate my anti-Palin credentials. I think she’s an idiot, a liar, a fraud, and probably a felon. She is unquestionably the worst vice presidential candidate for any party drawing 10% of the vote since Admiral James “Who am I? Why am I here” Stockdale sucked any glimmer of credibility out of Ross Perot’s presidential bid in 1992. I think she’s reckless, amoral, self-important, and proud of her own staggering ignorance: and that’s a very nasty combination. She seeks the spotlight more than Jesse Jackson, and she’s not above being incendiary for its own sake. And… this time… she’s being attacked unfairly.
It’s true that neither Sister Sarah nor virtually any other well-known Republican has done much to stop the hateful rhetoric (and worse) spewing from the Tea Party crowd. And it’s true that her response to criticism was more than a little juvenile: her Facebook note about the NCAA basketball tournament, employing (and often italicizing) such words and phrases as “battle,” “set your sights,” “target,” “Big Guns,” etc., was titled “Warning: Subject to New Politically Correct Language Police Censorship.” OK, so she never faced anything like censorship, but she’s hardly the only politician, on either side of the aisle, to misuse the term. It’s true, too, that her commentary was obviously intended to tweak her opponents rather than to re-consider her own position. But her response was also clever in demonstrating the ubiquity of war and firearms imagery in the way we talk about sports… and, by extension, about other topics as well. I, for one, am tired of hearing athletes described as “warriors” who “go into battle” “guns blazing” and similar nonsense. There’s a difference between war and a football game.
And sportscasters as a breed are particularly tone-deaf when it comes to the appropriateness of their metaphors. (Note to idiot NBC Olympics luge/bobsled commentator: when a man has recently died in a practice run on that course, maybe you could find a term other than “stop the bleeding” to repeat incessantly about drivers who are losing a little time to the competition.) On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of sanitizing language for its own sake: any athletic contest between the Universities of Kansas and Missouri will always be, in my mind, a new manifestation of the Border War, no matter how often the PC-pabulum version, “Showdown,” is shoved down my throat by the hand-wringers.
More to the point, Palin didn’t do anything that hosts of other politicians don’t do all the time. John McCain’s defense of his former running-mate may have been inspired as much by gratitude as anything else—she’s his only hope to fend off a primarily challenge from the even more truth-impaired JD Hayworth—or it may have been simply the sort of knee-jerk any-Republican-being-criticized-for-anything-is-obviously-completely-innocent nonsense that has characterized most of McCain’s recent political rhetoric. I need hardly add that Senator Straight-talk's commentary is pompous and condescending. But it’s also accurate.
“Battleground states.” “Targeting [the opposition’s weakest links].” “In the crosshairs.” “War chest.” These are the terms of everyday American political discourse. Perhaps they shouldn’t be, but they are. Certainly folks from my generation will remember the “Buchanan Brigade” of another self-described right-wing populist; most of us recall, too, the battle cry (if you will) of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 campaign: “Lock and load.” Campaigning in Philadelphia in June of 2008, then-Senator Obama said about Republican attacks on him, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Need I continue? All Palin did was to change words into an image—the crosshairs poster. Importantly, while the incumbent Democrats’ names are all listed on that ad, the “targets” aren’t the politicians themselves, but their districts. That’s a distinction that gets lost in the foam-flecked rhetoric of the left. I have trouble looking at that image and thinking it’s in any way an incitement to violence, even to the sketchier side of the GOP base.
It may be true that these are especially tense times, with “a significant number, meaning more than 10” Democrats receiving threats and at least three reported incidents of vandalism directed against Representatives, their offices, or their families. But whereas the GOP may have been slow to accept responsibility for creating an environment in which violence is allowed to bubble towards the surface, there does seem to be a pretty clear line in the sand when the violence or the threat thereof actually crosses over from the metaphorical to the literal. Thus, Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House oversight committee, recently asked for a hearing to investigate those threats. (It's also worth noting that Republicans have been similarly threatened, and that Democrats are unanimous in their condemnation of those threats.) And that’s the point. As I discussed last time, there’s a difference between venting and actually being homicidal. And there’s a difference between targeting a political opponent for defeat and targeting that person as a prospective crime victim. The left, which is quick to flaunt its intellectual (or at least academic) superiority, would do well to understand those distinctions… because the political middle, where elections are won and lost, has a pretty keen nose for outrageous exaggeration, and what they’re smelling right now is better suited as fertilizer than as argumentation.
What’s at stake here isn’t what Paul Jenkins describes in an editorial piece in the Anchorage Daily News under the provocative headline “Left’s lynching of Palin’s cross hairs is sadly typical.” (“Lynching”? Really? Talk about hyberbole getting in the way of sense!) No, Mr. Jenkins, it’s not about “quash[ing] dissent.” That analysis is paranoid and downright stupid, even if I agree with much of the rest of your column. It’s much more about nanny-statism, the idea that everything will be better if we all sit around and sing “Kumbaya.” I’m reminded of Beneatha Younger’s wonderfully sardonic line in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun about “[hating] each other in good Christian fellowship.”
The danger for the left here is not that Sarah Palin will emerge from this little scuffle unscathed—of course she will. Rather—and here’s where Jenkins is right—they risk trivializing their own discourse. It’s a variation on the “crying wolf” phenomenon: it’s easy enough for a casual observer to believe that if the best Palin’s opposition can offer is quibbling over niceties, then she must be winning on content. Sarah Palin would come in third place in a battle of wits with a barstool and a corndog. Let her prove it, and don’t let her claim victimhood… especially if she’s got a point.