Politics of the Absurd: Sarah Palin and the mindset for war
Author: Pandora Hopkins
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 12/02/2008
You mean you were SERIOUS about that, judge?
In the film, “My Cousin Vinny,” the protagonist, a neophyte lawyer from Brooklyn, cannot believe that wardrobe decorum –to look “lawyerly,” as the judge puts it– can be relevant to the murder trial of two innocent college students. Much the same attitude (this can’t be serious!) has recently engulfed half of the U.S. citizenry in laughter. Here was a vice-presidential candidate—the Governor of the state of Alaska– who didn’t know what a vice president does, who couldn’t list the newspapers she reads on a daily basis, who answered with the flip “Oh, I’ll try to find you some, and I’ll bring them to ya,” when asked for examples of McCain’s opposition to deregulation, and who mumbled incoherently when asked to name supreme court decisions she didn’t agree with other that Roe v. Wade.
Sarah Palin herself shrugged it off—with a smile and a wink. (After all, she wasn’t interested in talking about those things.) One of the churches near her home town in Alaska sought supernatural aid by initiating 40 days of prayer and fasting (English 2008), while her staff swooped down to protect her from the “liberal media.” The night after the Republican convention, one of Palin’s senior advisors confided to a New York Times reporter–over late-night beers at the Hilton–that no, they never did get around to talking to her about international issue. Senator Joe Lieberman called her lack of knowledge an asset: it helps her “relate to regular people….This isn’t an IQ test” (Stein 2008). Palin has retained power in the Republican Party, at least so far—although a few high-profile leaders bailed out and fled to the Democrats.[I]
While most rank and file Republicans still consider Palin a triumph, most other U.S. citizens have viewed her as the triumph of the absurd. As the interviews exposed her ignorance of international affairs, she touched the funny bone of jaded journalists, inspired hitherto quiescent You Tube producers, and propelled composers to their synthesizers and samplers. The result: new heights of satirical creativity—thus providing a stressed-out public with much-needed therapeutic mirth, a complement to the grassroots political activism that was just as suddenly sweeping the country. For those of us who want a peaceful world, who have no overwhelming yearning for empire or rapture, who decry the military-industrial complex, it was exhilarating to see the American public suddenly energized through an outpouring of grassroots social commentary reminiscent of the 1960s-1970s.
In this past election, voters in Colorado defeated a ruling that would have defined a fertilized egg, not yet implanted in a woman, as a person. Three states passed injunctions against same-sex marriage (California, Arizona and Florida). In Arkansas, unmarried couples—straight or gay–cannot now adopt or even provide foster care for the children who are languishing in their overburdened state-run facilities. While some anti-abortion proposals were defeated, there seems little doubt that governmental social engineering is still alive and well in the United States. On the other hand, I will argue that the election results delivered at least a temporary defeat to Sarah Palin, a type of military motherhood figure that ably complements the warrior image of
John McCain. There is little doubt that many, if not most, voters considered the election to be a referendum on the unpopular war, and understood that Palin, in her unquestioning acceptance of the superiority of her own (family, state, country, religion), represented in cartoon fashion what I call the “clanmom” role in a militaristic family structure.
Contrary to the voters’ expressed desire, the country’s economy remains precariously balanced on permanent military involvement, while a “three trillion dollar war” (Steele & Goldberg 2008) has wrought economic disaster on the country. Absurd? Despite the voters’ emphatic message, the imperial folk and the egg-personhood folk have not gone away; indeed, some of the former are planning to move to Washington in January, having been invited into the new administration. Absurd?
On January 31, in his last debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama, offered leadership in changing the “mindset for war”:
I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.
Ten months later, in his victory speech, Obama gave a more muted version of this hope:
This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.
Indeed it was a call for help as he realized the limitations imposed upon the presidency. There is an urgency right now to answer his call, a window of opportunity, before too many of those imperial folk unpack their bags.
More than a year before his election success, Obama had characterized the mindset for war. In his last debate with Hillary Clinton on September 12, 2007, Obama told Iowa supporters:
Conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war….too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions….Our only opportunity to stop the war was lost.
Obama’s mindset, I would argue, is composed of what I like to call subliminal truths, a term for the subliminal assumptions we have internalized since infancy, concepts that can contradict rational conclusions we have drawn from actual experience and information. One of the sub-truths forming the mindset for war is purification, something I have written about elsewhere (Hopkins 2008). Obama, in explaining why congressional representatives were so quick to obey gung-ho warrior leaders, was pointing (in the above quote) to another, equally important, component of the war mindset, one that the psychologist Stefan Ducat has termed anxious masculinity or the wimp factor, “now an issue that dogs most men who run for public office” (Ducat 2004). Obama called it “the fear of looking weak.” And this fear of looking weak has led to the death (in Iraq alone) of an estimated 89, 243-97, 423 civilian deaths (according to Iraq Body Count)[ii] and at least 4,202 members of the U.S. military forces (AP) in an unprovoked attack upon a small and defenseless nation.
In a very real sense, a mindset is a story line. The relationship between reality and mystery has always been a challenge for mortals to understand. We all tend to—perhaps need to—live within narratives, but these may or may not work for us. When they work, they are something like Harold in the children’s story who uses his purple crayon to draw a staircase when he needs to climb one. Even children (perhaps especially children) have no trouble in disentangling the reality from the mystery in this little tale—and getting the message. To use a dreadful word (because it has been so misused), it is an authentic communication. Problems arise when the messages are inauthentic (sorry again!). That is when we accept and incorporate in our own lives stories
that have nothing to do with our own experience but have been appropriated without deliberation.
My hope is that, by using a folkloric perspective—by examining the tales told by and about Sarah Palin and John McCain (stock figures in this drama)–we can begin to find ways to promote the hope that Obama has inspired—and the satirical energy that Sarah Palin engendered. It is essential that we don’t allow ourselves to fall back into the lethargy that made Chris Hedges write six years ago: “The question is whether America now courts death. We no longer seem chastened by war as we were in the years after the Vietnam War” (Hedges 2002: 160). Let’s begin at the beginning.
Bio: Pandora Hopkins taught at Yale University, Rutgers University and CUNY (the City University of New York) before moving to Mexico where she is writing a book, tentatively called House of Cards and the Subliminal Truths That Are Holding It Together. She also co-directs (with Victoria Fontan) an oral history project, “Voting With Their Feet.” A particular research focus on the political consequences of cross-cultural perception was also manifested by her book, Aural Thinking in Norway (Plenum, 1986); it is a study of the cognitive nature of aural transmission through an analysis of the Hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway.