Exceptional ignorance

Sarah Palin has made the news again, this time for joining Fox “News” (the only television Dick Cheney wants to watch). I keep thinking she will eventually recede from public view, since she has shown no ability to lead well or to grasp public issues, let alone speak about them in a compelling way. The stories about her attempts to evade public records laws by conducting government business on her Yahoo account or her abuse of power just don’t seem to matter. Well, like a zombie with a $150,000 wardrobe, Palin just won’t go away. Now she’s on a book tour. Watch this video of some of her supporters. Brace yourself to be depressed about the American electorate.

I think my favorite talking point was that we are “no longer exceptional” but “just another country.” Exceptionalism, that hallmark of Palin supporters, is both delusional and dangerous. When you believe your country is better than all the others, you begin to conceive foreign affairs that create moral disasters of epic magnitude. When your belief in your nation’s greatness is founded on fictionalized history, you are likely to continue to victimize the powerless. Aren’t you glad America’s founders made this nation a republic rather than a democracy? It turns out that James Madison called this one:

…there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind? (Federalist Papers, number 63)

While Congress is often woefully incompetent and utterly corrupt, at least the people in this parking lot are not determining our foreign policy or our taxation rates. For that, we should be grateful.

Public ballot initiatives fit into Madison’s political view, and not in a good way. For example, the “ick” factor keeps people passing initiatives to “protect marriage” even while there is no rational way to imagine how same-sex marriage would do anything other than strengthen families, including opposite-sex married families. In my home state of Massachusetts, voters very narrowly overturned a measure in 2000 that would have ended the state income tax. Had it passed, disaster would have ensued as just about all state programs (including transport infrastructure and public safety) would have been decimated. But, hey, “if I vote ‘yes’ then my taxes will go down? All righty!” That “wisdom” prevailed over reason.

Before I go back to Sarah Palin, I hasten to add that many supporters of Barack Obama would have been equally comical in the run-up to the 2008 election. What did we know about Obama, other than a few flashy speeches and a very brief Senate career? Many people on the left voted for him without very many specific policy proposals to inform their votes. Many people cheered him on just because he wasn’t a Republican and he said “Yes, we can!” However, the hatred and fear that infects many Palin supporters is rarely found among Obama supporters. You just don’t find Obama fans quoting calling for the death of their opponents through Bible verses.

I just can’t understand why anyone supports Sarah Palin. If you, gentle reader, are a Palin supporter, I hope you will say why in the comments. Her supporters seem to rally around her personality as their focus. Some Obama supporters have this same trait. Whether the personality is attached to a Democrat or a Republican, we should be wary when politicians are elected solely on charm. It’s not good for the nation. Even our founders can’t protect us from ourselves forever.

It’s hard to know how we might move to a better place in our political life. People are increasingly segmented, choosing to associate only with others who share their political views and cultural values. Perhaps the church has a role in all this. Maybe we need to encourage more conversation and deeper relationships across political lines. Perhaps we need to teach more people about a kind of national engagement that moves beyond kneejerk responses and soundbite thinking. Perhaps we need to be willing to scrutinize our own views. Perhaps we need to be willing to admit the shortcomings of those whom we support.

Whatever it takes, we need to change. The direction in our nation’s life is not good. We need to make sure that the toxic combination of anger, mistrust, fear, and self-righteousness that we see among these Palin supporters is an anomaly rather than the norm in our public discourse. In other words, we need ignorance to be the exception, not the rule.

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6 Responses

  1. I think Sarah Palin’s yet to show us what she’s really capable of; I’m a fan. I’m not an American, but I would prefer her to somebody who promised that a vote for him would make the waters recede, and hinted that he had a Christ-like epiphany to deliver. I don’t think Sarah has any doubts about her humanity.

  2. One reason I love the Episcopal Church is that it is nearly the only place I can interact with people with politically divergent viewpoints without operating in the political framework my work frequently requires.

    That said, as someone who was both on Barack Obama’s staff and is a committed Christian, it is beyond distressing to deal with people who so grossly distort religion to propagate hate and a desire for violence. People like Sarah Palin who denegrate both my political beliefs and my religion test the limits of my forgiveness. I agree with you on American exceptionalism and beyond that, the danger that those who believe in it cause. It, sadly, is enough to make me actually worry about my country. Though I am a democrat, I thank God every day our founders chose to make us a republic rather than a democracy.

  3. Bill Carroll says:

    It’s true that Obama had a message for those who decide elections based on personality and personal charisma. It’s also true that some progressives who voted for him assumed he was with them on policy issues that he was not. Obama was clear about where he stood in his policy speeches and documents, but he was not above sending symbolic messages that worked to motivate the base. Without doing this, he couldn’t be elected.

    What I appreciate about Obama is that he did provide substance for those who were looking for it, and he has remained remarkably consistent with what he said he would do, e.g. in Afghanistan. A pure panderer would have handled the Jeremiah Wright scandal in a different way, i.e. he would have distanced himself far quicker and not given a substantive speech on race.

    I’m far to the left of Obama and even party progressives. I voted for him to restore the rule of law and begin making policy decisions based on evidence. That much seems to be true.

    Palin scares me. She panders to the ugliest side of American life, including racism, anti-intellectualism, and fundamentalism. She was utterly unqualified to hold national office of any kind.

    Republicans should pray for a true fiscal conservative who believes in limited government, a strong national defense, and realism in foreign policy. (I would not agree with such a stand but it would at least be defensible by something other than an appeal to passion.) That’s the only thing that could make a dent in the realignment that Obama has precipitated. The fact that Palin is still taken seriously does not bode well for the Republican future.

  4. Matt Gunter says:

    Palin’s appeal is utterly lost on me. But, I have family who went to see her in Indiana. I have a hard time taking her seriously and unless she undergoes some sort of transformation doubt that she is electable on a national level.

    Exceptionalism is idolatrous and thus sin for any who claim Jesus is Lord. But, I don’t think conservatives are the only Americans who are susceptible to that particular idolatry.

  5. Matt, I think exceptionalism in the political arena stays political and doesn’t encroach on religion in the way that Obama’s did. For example, my belief that there’s still something exceptional about Great Britain doesn’t stop me from being a Chrstian. I also note that people who object to American exceptionalism tend to be neutral about, say, Chinese exceptionalism.

  6. Matt Gunter says:

    There is a difference between holding dear or celebrating the particular culture and history of a place/people and exceptionlism. I take exception with exceptionalism precisely because it is religious in nature. I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt once that was quite telling in this regard. The shirt had JESUSAVES on it, sharine the middle ‘S’. The first three and last three letters were blue, the middle three were red. The maker of the t-shirt and the woman wearing it blured Jesus and the USA in a way that can only be identified as syncretistic. For many Americans, America is their true church to which their ultimate allegience is pledged regardless of what formal religion they claim.

    I am quite aware that America is not alone in this. All modern nation-states cultivate a kind of worship. I saw it in China when I taught there in the 80’s, particularly in the three-self churches, but even in the Roman Catholic Church I visited (though actually that was probably detached from the Vatican and under the three-self movement as well). I’ve read of it in Chile. I don’t doubt it exists in Britain, France, Germany, etc. But America is perhaps unusually susceptible given it is a nation founded on an ideal.

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