Sarah Palin has sold a lot of books, magazines, newspapers and drawn millions to websites and newscasts, but I have written almost nothing about her on the TerryReport. Call me foolish, brave or just willing to give up any chance I have to reach a wider audience. Maybe all three.
I am breaking that long silence tonight. This little essay would be titled “the problem with Palin”, if it had a title. I don’t care if she is good looking or sexy in a tight dress walking across a stage or if a certain percentage of America thinks she’s wonderful or any of the other stuff that people talk about in regard to the Palin phenomenon. Here’s what I do care about: what she says doesn’t make sense. No, I don’t mean political sense in that, “Hey I see the holes in her argument”, what I mean is that she doesn’t make basic, fundamental sense as in language and logic.
She spoke at the celebration marking the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, for example, and she came up with this little gem of nonsense about Reagan::
“He refused to sit down and be silent as our liberties were eroded by an out-of-control centralized government that overtaxed and overreached in utter disregard of constitutional limits.”
There are so many problems with this one sentence that it boggles the mind. How were “our liberties eroded” by an “out of control” government? Which liberties did she have in mind? The right to vote? The right not to be taken off to jail without good cause? The right to a speedy trial? What? If the government got “out of control” who let it and why? Why were the Constitutional balances not effective in bringing government back into “control”? How did our democracy fail? If it failed, what, besides electing Republicans, who, after all, are just another part of the system, can we do to make sure it doesn’t ever happen again? When was Reagan asked to “sit down and be silent”, something no presidential candidate ever does anyway?
Moving on, what is the definition of “overtaxed”? Anything that she says it is? Is she aware, as pointed out by a well researched article by a respected historian, that Reagan raised taxes, in one way or another, in six of the eight years of his presidency? Is she aware that the national debt was at 700 billion when he came to office and at 3 trillion when he left? Is this her definition of getting things under “control”?
So, in the last little bit of the sentence, we are supposed to believe that what happened under Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter represented not just a disregard for Constitutional limits, but an utter disregard. Why didn’t the courts fight back? If the Supreme Court was under the sway of dirty liberals, why didn’t the lower courts speak out and issue hundreds or even thousands of opinions over turning what the government was doing? What is the apparently evil “centralized government” that, even more than two hundred years ago, the states decided we needed in order to have a functioning nation?
What Palin is doing is amazing. She is raising Reagan into something he was not, she is slamming the entire developmental history of the Federal government going back to, say, Hoover in the 1920s and, if she were to be believed, she suggests that her own party was asleep at the wheel, because they were making no such exaggerated charges at the time Reagan came into office. Reagan’s famous statement that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” was preceded by the words “In the present crisis” (whatever that means). It was not a blanket, cover all statement, it was limited to that particular moment and era, even if not clearly defined.
Further, Reagan did not shrink the Federal government while he was in office. It grew at about 2 percent per year and there were two hundred thousands more Federal employees when he left than when he came in. Bill Clinton, of all people, shrank the government back to the levels it had been at before Reagan, not Reagan himself.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have been to more political speeches than most cowboys have been to rodeos. I don’t really expect politicians to adhere to some kind of high academic standard for making sense. They throw things out. People buy it or not. Shouldn’t it be grounded, somewhere, in fact? Shouldn’t we, the voters, be able to check what we are being offered and find out if the speaker has facts to back up the broad claims? Otherwise, what’s the point of even listening?
Here is the question: do any facts matter? Do we want potential candidates for president to mash up history like cooking ingredients, mix them all together and bake? Just say something that sounds good, appears to fit within the mythology of the times and listen while the applause grows and grows?
Perhaps there is an inverse rule about politics that no one has thought of previously: if you are running for a low office, like Mayor of Bugtussle, you have to really make sense. You have to talk about how you are going to get the stoplight fixed and repave First Street, but if you are running for president, you just have to spout vague generalities, true or not true, that appeal to your core supporters and seem to make sense to other people. Maybe Palin is on to something that other more serious, better educated and more experienced political figures don’t understand until it is too late.
Back during the time of the presidential campaign in 2008, Palin came on like a rocket ship fired in a dark night. She was controversial from the moment she was picked, but she was also on fire, hotter than hot, a candidate who made the aging and bland appearing McCain look like the past, walking. Again, however, there was that little problem with making sense.
When Palin speaks extemporaneously, she speaks in a fractured syntax that, when carefully examined, is a kind of sophisticated gibberish. That is to say, her words don’t add up to what I think she might be trying to say. The listener can put sense into the words if so inclined, but it takes a force of will, or suspension of disbelief.
The best way her speaking style can be described is small outbursts of incoherence, followed by sustained incoherence. If you doubt this, try listening to her sometime and see if what she is saying makes literal sense to your ears. Try to block out what you think she means and listen to the actual words. For someone who was trained in journalism and served as governor of Alaska (for over two years), her speech patterns are wonderful to behold.
One of my favorite parts of the campaign was her address to the Republican National Convention. She said, “Of course, John McCain will end the greed on Wall Street”. Well, that makes sense, except for the fact that it can’t be done. You might as well close up shop here and now. That is the reason Wall Street exists, greed.
I don’t put the blame for the debasement of our political and cultural dialog in America all on Palin, at least not entirely, because we have been headed in this direction for a long time. I do say this: if you like what you are hearing, if you listen just for what you want to hear rather than the sense of what is being said, get ready. You are going to get a lot more nonsense presented as wisdom in the future.
For those of us who believe in language as the bedrock of shared understanding, someone like Palin raises a painful question. Is there sense behind what she is saying, even if she can’t speak that sense clearly? Is her thinking as muddled as her syntax or does she make sense inside her own head? The great, underlying fear is that the way she speaks is the way she really is.
What I believe is she doesn’t know what she is saying herself, that she hasn’t traced out the patterns of her beliefs and assertions to any sort of logical connection with fact. This is highly dangerous, because if she were in a position of great power, she wouldn’t have the ability to sort out assertion and truth. In common language, she wouldn’t know how to cut through the bull. She would put the same blinders on that she and her advisors put on when they gin up a stump thumping speech.
Her stated hero, Reagan, was a far different person. In the years since his presidency, we have learned that there was a lot more behind his movie star grin and off the cuff comments. We have learned that there was a decent, caring human being behind the Reagan facade who, although he might have been some sort of nominal president, was at times willing to go against the advice of his handlers, staff and wife. The distance between Reagan and Palin in character, humanity and life experience is incalculable.
Doug Terry, 2.5.11