Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




September 11 , 2008

While Governor Sarah Palin’s various stances on Alaska’s infamous Bridge To Nowhere are getting the most media attention these days, and is an interesting issue, it is the willingness of our Republican friends to burn any bridges over which longstanding American might be joined and healed—and the progressive Democratic response—that is the real heart of this year’s presidential campaign.

In the Rob Reiner movie “The Princess Bride”—as well as the William Goldman book that preceded it—Westley the farmboy (disguised as the Man In Black) is climbing up the Cliffs of Insanity in pursuit of three men who have kidnapped his girlfriend. Impatient for Westley to get to the top of the cliff so he can kill him in a sword fight, one of the kidnappers—Inigo—offers to throw down a rope to help him up. When Westley declines on the grounds that this might be a trick, Inigo promises not to kill him until he reaches the top of the cliff, and offers to give his word “as a Spaniard.” “No good,” Westley calls back up. “I’ve known too many Spaniards.”

With apologies to my Spanish brothers and sisters, who are no more likely to be untrue to their words than the rest of us—or less likely, for that matter—this remains one of my favorite lines of a funny movie and book.

I was reminded of Westley’s words during last week’s Republican National Convention, when Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin was talking about her small town roots, saying that “a writer observed: ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.’ I know just the kind of people… I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.” Ms. Palin out Barack Obama’s now infamous comment made to a San Francisco fundraiser that after falling through the cracks of the Clinton and Bush administrations, “it’s not surprising” that small town residents “get bitter [and] cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Ms. Palin implied that this was hypocrisy on Mr. Obama’s part, adding that “we”—meaning the people of small towns—“tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.”

I spent more than a third of my adult life in small towns, some of them so small that they were not even towns, and it took a ten mile ride to come to the nearest traffic signal. I love small town people to death, and there a part of my heart forever lies. But forgive me if I fail to fall for Ms. Palin’s frothy narrative of small town America as something like a magic kingdom out of a fairy tale, where the good an virtuous ever dwell. Sorry folks. I’ve known too many small town people. They’re pretty much like all the rest of us. Some of them half good. Some of them half bad. And some of them fairly horrible.

But the Palin small town narrative—written by high-level Republican speech writers but almost certainly reflecting Ms. Palin’s politics—is the one of the keys to understanding the Republican success in American elections over the past 30 years, and how difficult it is for our Democratic friends to overcome.

In this strategy, our Republican friends wrap themselves in some fabric of Americana, raise it to iconic status, set it at odds with some loosely-defined “other,” and use the resulting conflict to deflect any criticism of their own actions and turn any resentments back upon the critics themselves.

One of the most brilliant parts of this Republican strategy is that there is no real need for its architects to be members of the group or class into which they have identified themselves. Certainly Sarah Palin is a legitimate small town product. But many Republican leaders are actually members of the “other” of which they take such delight in attacking. Their actions and allegiances may be entirely contrary to the narrative they are promoting. But those little details are lost in the stirring of patriotic music, and the marching of many unsuspecting feet.

In addition, the Republican strategy of a constant “us against them” strategy is that neither the “us” nor the “them” need to be carefully defined or the lines closely drawn, because it plays upon the natural human desire of wishing to belong. Like the shifting ice floes in the melting Arctic, the grounds upon who the “us” and the “them” stand is always shifting, but it rarely seems to matter. Consistency has no currency in this world view.

Thus, few at last week’s Republican convention stopped to see the irony of the fact that only weeks before our Republican friends were wrapping themselves in small town values, the McCain campaign—in its famous “Celebrity” ad against Mr. Obama—was using Britney Spears as an example something to be avoided. Ms. Spears was chosen as one of the two celebrity cameos in the ad because after adopting her as our pop culture darling for so many years, America has turned on her when she cracked under the pressure of trying to live up to iconic celebrity, reeling back and forth between drug use and short-spaced marriage and erratic behavior. Ms. Spears, a rural Louisiana native, is a product of small town Southern America, and there is an implied old “white trash” anti-Southern bias in the national commentary on her travails (aren’t they always running around, getting drunk, and not taking proper care of their children?).

Meanwhile, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker correctly pointed out the double-standard conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly had over the respective unwed pregnancies of Ms. Spears’ teenage sister, Jamie Lynn, and Ms. Palin’s teenage daughter, Bristol.

Last December, reacting to Ms. Spears pregnancy, Mr. O’Reilly said in commentary, “On the pinhead front, 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant. The sister of Britney says she is shocked. I bet. Now most teens are pinheads in some ways. But here the blame falls primarily on the parents of the girl, who obviously have little control over her or even over Britney Spears. Look at the way she behaves.”

But on September 3, Mr. O’Reilly had a far different take when discussing Ms. Palin’s daughter. Certainly the public has a right to know about Governor Palin's life, and there are legitimate questions about her family's situation, but Americans are very protective of families in general. … Millions of American families are dealing with teenage pregnancy. And as long as society doesn't have to support the mother, father or baby, it is a personal matter. Once the taxpayers do have to support the young family, it becomes a public policy matter. … It is true that some Americans will judge Governor Palin and her family. There's nothing anyone can do about it. … For the sake of her and her family, we hope things calm down.”

What is to be noted here is not simply the shifting ground of standards, but the cleverly coded message-words used as steppingstones that pave the pathway to get there.

Mr. O’Reilly says the public discussion of a teenage pregnancy becomes proper “only so long as society doesn’t have to support…” That, of course, is aimed at poor people and welfare recipients, charter members of the Republican “other.” That the Spears family is pretty much dripping in money, and in no threat to ask for a government check, is conveniently overlooked in Mr. O’Reilly’s division, nor does it matter to his many listeners. In addition, note Mr. O’Reilly’s use of the word “family,” which is a major center of the conservative-Republican iconic constellation. Three times in discussing the pregnancy of Ms. Palin’s daughter, Mr. O’Reilly pairs the Alaskan governor with “her family.” But in discussing the Spears, it is simply, impersonally “the parents of the girl,” as if the Fox commentator were talking about a couple of brood sows and their piglet. It is easier to keep the Spears at arms-length and away from all sympathy if they aren’t described as a “family,” even a dysfunctional one.

Similar is the line in Ms. Palin’s acceptance speech in her description of small town America, in which she asserts that “they're always proud of America.” If she is talking about our small town conservative friends, that, of course, is not true. From the Congress to the President to the courts—at least before the courts were put in conservative Republican hands—small town conservatives forever rail against American institutions, its leaders, and its policies, in barber and beauty shops, on the steps of their churches, and in the editorial and letters pages of their newspapers. They are certainly, as a whole, proud of the American ideal and the American promise. They are not always so crazy about American practices. In that, small town Americans are pretty much like the rest of us.

But it’s a flag-and-country-wrapping exercise that Ms. Palin promotes. To criticize her, following her acceptance speech embrace, is to criticize small towns, something Democrats cannot do without surrendering the presidency for another term. And to criticize small towns is to criticize both “small town values,” whatever they are supposed to be and however they are supposed to be differentiated from “big town values”. But since Ms. Palin equates small town values with pride in America, criticism of Ms. Palin becomes the first step on the road to an attack on America itself.

It is a clever trap, and except for the Clinton years and the Carter interlude, it has worked for our Republican friends since the days of Mr. Nixon, the Great Divider.

How to avoid that trap is the great progressive challenge of our time. In the last several years, at least, we haven’t done so good at meeting it. But perhaps the times have changed.

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