Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What's the Matter with Sarah?

Reading the trifecta of 1) Anthony McIntyre's post on "The Pensive Quill," 26 Oct. 2008: " "A Pitbull with Lipstick", and 2) commenting on it yesterday and 3) getting a pair of e-mail response from his partner on my comment, I expand, inevitably, the circle here. My own partner posted "Trick or Treat" yesterday to which I of course posted too. So, my entry here may be a précis or a rehash, depending on your critical level.

First, a snippet from "The Pensive Quill":
Ultimately, I don’t really care who wins the US election. I don’t believe it will seriously lessen the threat posed by the country to world peace. McCain/Palin value the supremacy of the free market whereas Obama/Biden would place some cosmetic curbs on it. After the result the poor will stay at the bottom and the rich at the top. The charge that Obama is a Marxist is nonsense but only in economic and philosophical terms. There is a disturbing dictatorial style to the Democrats’ campaigning so in tune with the Marxist mind. The character maligning, censorship, vote rigging, the cult of the personality are all reasons to feel alienated from Obama.

I reacted to this favorably, from a true radical in the "root" sense and certainly his own sort of community organizer in a far tougher neighborhood than even Southside Chicago. On his blog, my comment followed an earlier reader who hailed Obama. The man posting feared a loss on the part of voters of "moral courage" which would fail to grant Obama victory. My own musings proved predictably more acerbic. A sample:
"Moral courage" is not the only issue facing educated voters; it's sheer lack of experience on Obama's part-- I predict another one-term Jimmy Carter nice guy in over his head-- vs. utter disgust with the usual rich white guy-- of either party.

Any idealism in McC has long vanished as he kowtowed to the pro-Palin crowd. Yet, the majority of the U.S. media has done its damnedest to both paint any who speak out logically against placing too much confidence in the Dems as sort-of covert racists who cannot stand a (half-)black man in charge. Similarly, the massive hero-worship-- from my vantage-point-- has distorted Obama from the lesser of two evils into the next messiah, although the near-universal jubilation in his First Coming will surely lead to Calvary for millions soon enough. He's beholden to so many powerful people that he will not be able to act on his own. Same as it ever was? I'm tired already of the idolatry.

From my correspondent in Ireland, her perspective had been filtered through the intimidation faced by her and her family as they stood up to a double threat: the British security state and Sinn Féin's own manipulation of the people on the street, whether they supported or opposed the party. For, with the leadership who bullied and cajoled their way into power-sharing with the establishment they once had sworn to overthrow, their co-option and craven co-operation became marks of shame that few in the media dared to expose. She perceives, in the domination by the Democrats of the press, and their own determination to force the Fourth Estate towards perpetuating the reign of suits and securocrats, a sinister mirror of what she and her family faced for years when they defied the party line, literally, in West Belfast.

This does, I find from our e-mails this evening, align with some of my inchoate suspicions, largely dormant until I half-articulated this on my keyboard. My wife again (vociferously if more gently than in the past) disagrees, as is her wont and common riposte. I think my class origins crossing wires with my professional skepticism entangle me, mixing metaphors, onto two horns of a proverbial dilemma.

There's no way in hell I could support the Republicans. Yet, why do I feel so patronized by the Democrats? My Irish correspondent noted about Palin: "If she'd been a Democrat, she'd be canonized,"-- not as an ideological but a demographic counterpart, I assume. As seasoned journalists who politically reside far from the right wing, she and her partner bring a nuanced awareness I lack to the force of media artillery aimed at Palin. And, I add, a valuable reminder of fairness to whomever's getting their message through a medium that obscures as often as it reveals. We disagree with Palin's stump speech, but has she been unjustly pilloried?

She shared this link that analyzed the slant this current month against Palin by the U.S. networks: "A Study in Character Assassination: How the TV Networks Have Portrayed Sarah Palin as Dunce or Demon,"
Colleen Raezler and Brian Fitzpatrick, Culture and Media Institute.

I tend to balance this article's assertion of bias against my own objective judgment that Palin's far less qualified to be president than Obama. But, with the relentless mugging on SNL, I weary of Palin-bashing. I argue that the mainstream media's been excoriatingly snobbish to Sarah in a manner that they would not have dared even for Hillary-- whom I will insist would have been a better choice for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, I add since writing this blog draft that my dear friend Bob, who was snapped with his Obama cap in the crowd of My Morning Jacket concert, snips at my wife and I that either we've been down South too long or he's been too long up North. This hurts me, and I sense his bewilderment. We feel that he feels we betrayed his trust.

Well, Bob, if I could vote for "none of the above," I would've. Always, I strive to be honest with myself even at the cost of suspicion of others. My family's raised me in an insular, peering, and second-guessing fashion, and I acknowledge my tendencies towards begrudgery. Yet, I cannot believe what those four figurines on the hustings ventriloquize my way.

(As an aside: as I revised this post, my wife watches Obama "live" as interviewed by a rather subdued Jon Stewart; Obama's as wonky and button-down as Bob Newhart, and less funny. It seems that he'll never allow himself to reveal what he believes, deep down. Maybe it's impossible for him to be candid. His make-up? Nearly as orange on our new TV screen as the pumpkin Niall's carving.)

I feel abandoned by this election. Whatever demographic I reside in must be narrow indeed for Carville and Matalin combined. A decade ago, I took a quiz that matched me to the pols closest to my own leanings. Mine must have imitated poses for Twister, as I turned out to be residing in a purple state of mind, the tiniest Venn diagram subset ever. Ralph Nader meets Pat Buchanan.

After teaching for twenty-four years this autumn, I note my vantage-point distorts regarding any debate, even as my own critical faculties warp. I find myself saying to Niall as he blasts stormtroopers in "Medal of Honor": can you alter the controls, to play the game from the other point-of-view? I mean, I blurt out in professorial drone, could you reverse the first-person shooter and fire back as the Nazis defending against the Allies? My nascent interest in opposing myself, or Niall, in chess may be a related urge to turn battlegrounds around. My patient son responded to my query in the negative; my wife shrugged as if resigned to my (in)sensibility.

In the coverage of Sarah Palin, I discern again another perceptual distortion-- of the log-cabin myth. She's lambasted by most for being like us, yet praised for this by a few stalwarts, depicted by most as doltish in this as she herself's caricatured. Do we want a leader who rises from our ranks? Or, as with McCain, Biden, and Obama, one who's thanks to a combination of merit and privilege, attained or inherited, by now far above whomever we'd meet at the gas station or bus stop?

We expect our politicians to rise from humble origins, yet without capitulating to the Wall Street or Pentagon or Capitol system. Yet, if they do run as true mavericks, they meet the acclaim not of Capra's Mr. Smith, but the neglect of Jerry Brown (the only candidate I ever allowed Layne to send money to) not to mention Nader, the vegan's Pat Paulsen. Such outliers will never afford to run for major office, let alone win. As I typed this in draft, Obama's infomercial ran on CBS and ABC; he's outspending McCain five-to-one. So much for campaign reform.

The money comes, we're persuaded, from millions of my awestruck neighbors, rather than fat cats. Yet, by not following the restrictions that his admittedly wealthy rival enacted in Congress, Obama's set a cynical tone for his campaign and future idealists. He's shown that no matter his complexion, his true colors run along the same greenback hues as always. The relentless rewriting of Obama's rise through a conflation of a tragedy of a "single mother," our century's adaptation for Horatio Alger's plucky protagonists, erases his networking, from the age of twenty on, to enter the Ivy League realm of the new-old boys cabal that is about to purchase for him the votes, the exposure, the press, and the PR that will earn him the Oval Office. He may not have been born with the connections of a McCain or Hillary, but he has bonded irrevocably with those as tied to the powerful as Bushes and Kennedys.

Will he change us? Anthony McIntyre and his wife doubt it. My wife hopes so. I remain unconvinced. Yet, Bob, I do concede that at least environmentally, his policies may make up for eight years lost under Gore, time we desperately must regain. On this issue alone, the most crucial of all, I admit I'd back Obama.

From my wife's "Trick or Treat" entry, a representative observation:
I doubt that Obama would be where he is today if he had attended an inner city high school and community college. He truly appears to get it about education. I have been listening to endless NPR interviews with swing state voters and it occurs to me that the chasm in America isn't a cultural or ethnic or religious one. Education nurtures tolerance and open mindedness. There certainly are highly educated people of faith who would have the government adopt their personal religious views, but generally what polarizes America more than race or culture is education. It doesn't matter what friggin' wars we win or if the economy rebounds. The state of our current educational system is a the gravest threat to the next generation and I think it will be good to have a president whose own life experience reinforces the dire need to fix it. But, it saddens me to think of how many God damn bake sales the three million bucks being squandered on air time could have averted.

Obama's practically deified already. The scorn, however partially earned due to her bumbling bravado and oblivious opinions, of Sarah Palin by the mainstream media ironically clashes with the earnest anointing of dutiful Joe Biden-- grandson of a wealthy oil executive who blew it all on yachts before the Depression wiped him out-- as nothing but a Irish laborer's son, Scranton's hardscrabble lad. I muse about comments I read in "The New Yorker" (which displays on its current cover a host of ghosts fleeing from a pair clad in McCain and Palin masks) from a nervous campaign worker in the Rust Belt insisting to her screen-door listeners how Barack Obama too hailed from a "blue collar" background.

Perhaps briefly, but I doubt if his anthropologist mother had to survive on food stamps for long; she remarried soon, he was sent to private schools in Indonesia and Hawai'i (and I can attest to its expense via my frosh year roommate in college who graduated with him from pricy prep Punahou) before even more elite institutions. Places that few of any ethnicity, from the working class, enter. Richard Rodríguez dissected the life of a scholarship boy with enviable eloquence; I wonder what Obama'd make today, if asked, of "Hunger of Memory," a book he probably read in college around the same time I did. When I assigned it to the affirmative action "bridge" program students I taught at UCLA, I earned suspicion from my colleagues.

Meanwhile, as my correspondent reminds me, Sarah Palin, from a colorless blue-collar family, has been relentlessly ridiculed. We bicoastals reliably snicker at her "Fargo"-Canadian (the Mat-Sun Valley she's from settled by Minnesotans in the 1930s) accent and her Mary Kay cosmetics coiffure and wardrobe. I despise her antediluvian (in a double sense) ecological views, eccentric from the daughter of a science teacher. I cannot figure out her garbled Pentecostal "spiritual warfare," me being a lapsed Papist. I do sense significant class snobbery rallied against her.

Palin represents the brassy self-made woman, a clunky go-getter, chatty and annoying. Yet, somebody you'd recognize as uncannily resembling that lady down the block-- if you're the elusive, courted only every fourth year, Average American. If her party affiliation had been reversed, would she be pilloried? As my correspondent (if not my wife) interprets Palin, she stands for feminism.

In all its unwanted permutations. Not as a secular, pro-choice, bisexual yoga teacher. In its contemporary manifestation, where even a right-wing red-stater can stand up for herself and earn the living she demands. Foolishly or bravely, as with so many millions like her, she's not at home raising her brood. As feminists fought for, so she benefits. She's busy as a woman with five kids (not that I'm thrilled about her latest spawn, or Levi) who pursues what even the most NOW-committed liberal would agree achieves what most women since the '60s want: a career, a chance to tangle with the big boys, and an ambition that no one can deny this product of nondescript higher education. From such a place not far in spirit from where I teach, closer to my own resumé than Harvard Law or Columbia or even, four miles away from where I sit, always tony if now resolutely multicultural Occidental College.

Obama went there two years before transferring to Columbia. I'm sure many boast about him at both colleges. Nobody seems to remember Sarah in school, contrary to the log-cabin myth of the village that raised a marvel. Intriguingly for me, but understandably, her professors when interviewed stay stumped when her name's mentioned. Like them, I have taught in my twenty-four years thousands, and I doubt if I'd recall such as her either. Maybe if she batted an eyelash! More of us toil in such institutions than at the Oxys or Ivies. We face that factory model, that banking metaphor, no Freireans we: far from seminars, Ivy Leagues, or liberal arts colleges. This, too, shows the humdrum America that Palin's from: where people like her and me manage to wrangle degrees, work for a living, and to pass in and out of classrooms with the ambiance of an offramp office park rather than the glow of a shady quadrangled bower.

This anonymity, and the force with she, somehow, rose from PTA mom to mayor of a small town she ruined by courting big-box chains and tract homes, carries with it the contradictions of the average American who strives to break out today to make it. I bemoan the exurban devastation and franchise homogeneity that Wasilla symbolizes. It's not a place I'd live, but my sister certainly would love it there, and those with whom I was raised.

Does this make me complicit in the vilification of Palin? Where do my loyalties lie, far away from Biden if also from an Irish Catholic upbringing whose culture's receded into TV clichés about cops and criminals from Providence or Southie? Producers and screenwriters have never noticed in reality my own native stretch only half an hour from Hollywood-- I'm from the dull patches east of L.A., half-barrio, half light industry, all totally neglected by the media, by college recruiters, by those fortune favors. Where I grew up, rarely even those a few minutes by car away had the slightest idea of my neighborhood, unless I identified the freeway exits closest, on the way to San Bernardino or Pomona or the County Fair. One valley over from what a radio shock-jock derided as "The Valley of the Dirt People," not without justification!

Which goes to say that Thomas Frank's theory, in his "What's Wrong With Kansas?" a few years back, I find half-true. I reviewed it on Amazon and received a noticeably biased amount of negative votes simply because, as a product of a family where I was the only non-Reagan Democrat, I contested Frank's simplifications, packaged for a bi-coastal audience. Frank, from the upper-middle class, at least, suburb of Overland Park, hardly represented the toiling Kansan of yore. He's far closer to the upscale suburb that Palin wants Wasilla to sprawl into. Yet, after superficial profiles and clumsy condescension towards the wage slaves he forced himself briefly to chat with, Frank figured he'd gloss over the real fears of ordinary folks. In his reduction, they all voted against their wallet but for a return to traditional values, brought to them by a calculating GOP determined to pander to Joe Lunchbucket and Josie Waitress while profiting from their gullibility.

Point taken, but I also recognized my family, cartoonishly exaggerated, in such depictions of idiotic Middle America. I welcomed, all the same, Frank's publicity for the rhetorical pitches often tossed at stereotyped Middle Americans. I support his castigation of a cynical capitalism eager to package morality within exploitation. Yet I bristled at his condescension towards Kansan obliviousness.

As more recent economic tremors shake us up, perhaps we can understand the jitters felt by those of us outside the chattering classes of the urban(e) twin coasts, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the Beltway or Hyde Park-- U. of Chicago's tenured Weather Undergrounders meets FDR's patrician New Deal? I live close to the heart of the film industry, if it has any geographical center in this era of Romanian, New Mexican, and Vancouver productions. I feel, however, as if it mocks my past. Yet, my own uneasy background within a house with "Reader's Digest" on top of a TV that never seemed silent reminds me that it's dangerous to romanticize anywhere, the Lower East Side, Scranton, exurbs of the Last Frontier, or a mansion in sunbaked Sedona or gentrified Chicago, as a hallowed repository of true-blue values.

I accept Sarah Palin's drive, and Joe Biden's endurance; I respect John McCain's courage, and Barack Obama's determination. Yet, none of them make me feel that they'd respect me. At least on that morning after the polls close. Palin, perhaps, might be closest in that her origins (more than Biden's despite the alleged Hibernian manufacture-- he's obviously lace curtain!) careen nearest mine, but my (over)education-- and the fact that the former "Barry," class of '79, might well still remember unlike a professor his classmate from high school who crossed my path that same first year of college we share-- might tip me towards Obama, if momentarily. I'm not sure if I'd want a person just like me to be president. Palin reminds me of folks I grew up with, but I don't hang out with them now. Obama's resembles glad-handers who swept past me, thanks to their charm and convinction. Those classmates rushed off to law school. I teach everyday students from generations far longer humble than Biden's purported upbringing, and youths who, often still in treatment at the local V.A. hospital, share McCain's veteran stint if, thankfully, not his prolonged torment.

When it comes down to it, then, I tend not to see myself in any candidate. I'm only five weeks older than Obama. As I've repeated here ad infinitum, nobody my age should claim he can be a capable president-- anymore than Palin should. Obama's ascendancy will, in a few days I predict, come to pass. He and the majority concur he's tanned, rested, and ready. A man my age, ready to rule. My own maturity will be reflected, like it or not, in a peer about my height and weight, at two degrees of vague separation-- through that classmate about whom I still wonder. What does Dennis Bader, from Rosecrans Hall 314, recall about Barry?

[Our Lady cradles her practical contribution towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, while exercising in her other hand her right for suffrage-- voting for whom?]


Anonymous said...

"Nader, the vegan's Pat Paulsen." Perfect. And thanks for all the rest of it too.

Interesting, by the way, that though I'm (to judge from your cultural references) perhaps 15 years older than you, we've been teaching exactly the same length of time, thanks in my case to the draft and then the academic job depression. We seem to have pretty much the same kind of job, though. And background, though mine is Prod. It all fosters a certain resemblance in outlook.

Rodger Cunningham

Anonymous said...

I meant to add, did you mean the poster as a comment on our media, with its caption "I'm voting for the Communist and Nonpartisan Bloc"? Nonpartisan indeed. RC

Fionnchú said...

How in blazes, non-anonymous I think Rodger or his erudite echo, did you decode the Cyrillic? A Russian scholar to boot! Спасибо, comrade!

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, there was a TV course in Russian in Huntington, WV at 7 AM when I was in ninth grade. I followed it as well as I could in a very busy year. As I was taking Latin that year from a teacher who also taught Spanish and always had some on the board, I learned comparative and historical linguistics at the same time.

By the way, I wonder why they've started using captchas that are actually pronounceable, like "constine," as opposed to, say, "qfwfq"? (Who was, I think, a character in Italo Calvino?) RC