Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Palin on America

In a very unusual article that I just came across, scholar Stanley Fish puts in a good word (in the NYT) for Sarah Palin on Martin Luther King Day, January 17:
Although she only mentions the Tea Party briefly in her book, Palin is busily elaborating its principles, first in the lengthy discussion of Capra’s Jefferson Smith and then, at the end of the same chapter, in an equally lengthy discussion of Martin Luther King. These two men (one fictional, one real) are brought together when Palin says that King’s dream of an America that lived out “the true meaning of its creed” would be, if it were realized, “the fulfillment of America’s exceptional destiny.” A belief in that destiny and that exceptionalism is, she concludes, “a belief Senator Jefferson Smith would have agreed with.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, I myself became a believer in American exceptionalism the first time I visited Europe, in 1966.)

Exceptionalism can mean either that America is different in some important respect or that, in its difference, America is superior. Palin clearly means the latter:

“When we say America is exceptional we’re saying we are the lucky heirs to a unique set of beliefs and national qualities” and that we are “a model to the world.” She finds support for her assertion n in the writings of de Tocqueville (“The position of the Americans [is] quite exceptional”), Crevecoeur (“What then is the American, this new man?”), John Winthrop (“We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us”), Frederick Jackson Turner (the frontier “produced a new product that is American”); and she might also have cited Emerson, Woodrow Wilson and the many Puritans who proclaimed that they were building a “New Jerusalem” on the American shores.

It is easy to see from these references that the claim of exceptionalism has a source in religion, specifically in the tradition of translatio imperii, the idea that empire and faith are traveling westward. In 1633 the English poet George Herbert announced that “religion stands on tip-toe in our land, / Ready to pass to the American strand,” where it would “draw more near” to the last judgment and the second coming of Christ.

Palin is thus on firm ground when she links “the understanding that we are an exceptional nation” with the observation, made by de Tocqueville, that in America “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom [are] intimately united.” “The Founders,” she declares, “deliberately and self-consciously constructed a government based on the belief that religion was at the root of the personal and public virtues necessary to sustain freedom.”

In her view, we are free and equal because as children of God we have an inherent dignity that is inviolate: “We are free as a consequence of being made in the image of God.” In statements like this, Palin brings together her argument for a certain form of politics (“to govern ourselves locally without waiting for any central authority to show us the way”), her claim of American exceptionalism (“we have managed to be, for the most part, the moral and upright people that our Founders hoped we would be”), her grounding of democracy in religion (the equality of men and women follows from their status as God’s children) and her admiration for Jefferson Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King and Frank Capra.

There is then a unity to the book, but it is not one Palin proclaims or works out discursively. Rather, the unity is conveyed by the quotations that carry the argument, long (sometimes two-page) quotations from an impressive variety of authors, quotations that are strong in isolation and even stronger when they are laid next to one another. The book is really an anthology. The author does not present herself as controlling or magisterial; she gives her authorities space and then she gets out of the way. Her performance mimes the book’s lesson: rather than acting as a central authority, she lets individual voices speak for themselves. Humility is not something Palin is usually credited with, but here she enacts it by yielding the stage as others proclaims the truths she wants us to carry away.
He then goes on to disagree with her meaning of 'exceptionalism' as superior to other nations, as well some partisan comments she makes about Obama.  But even so, this is very high praise indeed.  He ends with this: an account of one woman’s love for her country, it is strong enough, and to read it is to understand the appeal she has for so many, an appeal that may have been clouded, but has not been eclipsed, by what happened in Arizona.

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