Sarah Palin missed the mark

I just finished watching The Social Network. If you've seen it, you know that the action and drama come not from violence or explosions but from its machine-gun dialog.

And it's in the context of firearms and words that I find myself in the unhappy position of defending Sarah Palin. Just a little bit.

In case you're about to leave, my conclusion here is that she's a massive pussy.

But, let's start from the beginning.

This past week we've seen people attempt to excise "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn, pick and choose which parts of the Constitution to read, and now, tragically, attempt to assassinate politicians.

A common to the discussion of each of these is the power of words.

Do you believe that words are powerful? Or do you believe that rhetoric affects only the mindless and the deranged? (Those tweets via @gruber.)

I think that denying ourselves language does no one any favors. Huck Finn will not be a better book without "nigger;" you do not improve a story by whitewashing its setting and vocabulary as you would a fence.

And if you skip over parts of the Constitution, you are ignoring that it was and is an imperfect document written by people, people who not only make mistakes, but who also can learn from them.

Words are powerful. If we think some are more powerful than others, we should ask ourselves why that is. Our differences in opinion should be an invitation for discussion and understanding.

Which brings me to Sarah Palin, she of the gun metaphors and crosshairs. If you followed Twitter or the blogs at all over the weekend, you'd think she's to blame for the attack in Tuscon.

Obviously, that's a stretch.

As Jack Shafer of Slate points out, if you think Sarah Palin caused this, you're answering yes to the following questions:

  1. Is it easy to categorize any or all anti-government sentiment as vitriolic?
  2. Is saying anything of the sort is the same as putting out a hit on politicians?
  3. Did Loughner see Palin's little map and decided to act on it?
  4. Did fiery rhetoric cause this?

Those are some loaded questions. Who do you trust to answer them for you?

And, please, the internet suddenly has a problem with violent imagery? Get real: here I am agreeing a little bit with (shudders) Michelle Malkin, but I'm willing to bet that one hundred percent of the people calling for Palin's head right now had a good laugh at some of these over the years. Hell, I have. I just did. Man, I don't like those people.

And as David Weigel (also of Slate) writes, the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks are scarcely the only source of crazy:

If someone like Jared Loughner wants to develop bizarre ideas about government based on obscure online theories—or based on nothing at all—no amount of civil dialogue will prevent it.

Now, do I like what Sarah Palin says? Hell no. I think she's a human TMZ, gathering fame and fortune from the lowest common denominator. You can count the number of issues on which she and I agree on the fingers of a diamond miner in Sierra Leone with no hands.

But, please, let's not say that she can't use violent rhetoric. If we start doing that, where does that stop?

As Shafer concludes:

The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again. With the exception of Saturday's slaughter, I'd wager that in the last 30 years there have been more acts of physical violence in the stands at Philadelphia Eagles home games than in American politics.

Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

 

So she uses violent imagery. Yeah, so do a lot of people.

At its best it can be spicy, shocking, and funny. At its worst, it can be lazy, pointless, excessive, divisive, or in poor taste. However, you could say the same things about most episodes of South Park. I'm not going to tell them they can't do what they do.

I kind of like extreme rhetoric. I'll keep my level of rhetorical vitriol at the same level as before, thanks.

All that said, I still think she's a massive pussy.

I say this because I hate everything that Palin says, but I find myself asking where she is during all of this.

John Gruber, linking to this tweet, says:

She’s not responsible for what happened. Jared Loughner is. But she is responsible for her own words and campaign material.

Right. Anyone that wants to sit at the grownup table and use such violent language or imagery should be ready to defend their choices. That's the deal with this whole freedom of speech thing.

You would think that anyone that likes the sound of their own voice as much as Sarah Palin would be thrilled for the attention. And so far, Palin has been silent on the issue. Her team has only tried (and failed) to quietly remove her crosshair map, keep her Facebook page tidy (with tragicomic results), and spin that those crosshairs were "surveyor symbols."

Yeesh.

If she were the leader that she so clearly wants to be, right now she'd be at a podium in front of an clear Alaskan lake and a pristine blue sky, talking about the power of words, the glory of free speech, the clarity of hindsight, and, above all, the unspeakable sadness of pointless deaths. She'd be leading the conversation about how our words and actions can explain, arouse, entertain, surprise, unite, and divide us all.

It's not an opportunity for spin. This appears to completely and thoroughly resist spin. Good. Instead, it's an opportunity to have a conversation with the American people and move forward, wiser, and more mature.

Instead, she's gone into hibernation. Mama Grizzly, indeed.

Update

January 12, 2011: Palin has finally responded. Could be worse, I guess. I'd question the use of "blood libel" but, as Weigel points out, she isn't the first to do so.

But this quote seems like a weird thing to say when the standard Republican line item is that government can do no right:

In an ideal world all discourse would be civil and all disagreements cordial. But our Founding Fathers knew they weren’t designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government.

Am I doing it wrong?

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