May 29, 2010


Sarah Palin: An American Nightmare

Edited by Richard Kim and Betsy Reed
Health Communication, 336 pgs

Review by SF Winser

-Warning: May contain half-baked political opinions -

Well who would have thought that a collection of essays solely designed to show exactly how stupid/dangerous/ridiculous this woman is, could have the effect of making me realise that Sarah Palin is not as big a ditz as I previously thought, and that I have some actual respect for her?

How did that happen?

In fact, I live in the wrong country. Why the hell am I reading a book that's all about attacking an unsuccessful, B-grade politician from a land very far away?

Second thing first.

This was trainwreck reading, plain and simple. Sarah Palin reminds me of a few wingnut politicians that we've had come and go in Oz. Loved by the media for their story value, appealing to the base fears of knee-jerk political thinkers. They begin believing their own publicity before crashing and burning when they find out that the extreme devotion they are used to is only coming from a very small group and most of the rest of the voters are sane. I'm glad it's not us this time and I'm glad America managed to avoid a nasty possibility. But let's enjoy picking over the wreckage and replaying the footage, over and over.

Also, did you notice that battles in the US have a habit of accidentally wounding the rest of the world? Australia dodged the Global Financial Crisis better than almost anyone else, but it kinda sucked that we had to dodge it at all. Keeping up with the neighbours and their internal spats means you know when to put in the earplugs and lock up the cat.

But mainly: Trainwreck.

And I learned more about Sarah Palin than I want to know, need to know or actually even care about. One thing I did learn: she's not as dumb as some on the left like to believe. She's also good at politics. However, she's also not actually VERY smart, and nor does being good at playing politics make someone a good politician. From what I could put together from this book, she's probably smarter than average and knows very well how to game systems and play people. This doesn't work well for anyone else, though, when she's also as ignorant about policy and law and science and economics and … God knows what else

There's an odd, recurring theme throughout the pieces in the book about how right-wing pundits were forever admitting this aspect of Palin's abilities (or lack of them) while trying to pretend that it would be temporary: 'She can be taught! Ignorance can be cured! And meanwhile, she'll have experts to guide her!' Now, let's ignore the fact that anyone claiming to try to undo politics as usual – to run for the Vice Presidency on the basis of being a 'Washington Outsider'—who then is planning on relying on the usual bevy of politicians and Washington INsiders to tell her what to do is failing in logic and intent. And Feminism. But what about the fact that anyone who has become governor of an entire state, but has so-far been uninterested enough in all these areas to NEED this outside input despite, apparently, being smart enough to understand them, betrays a fatal and downright scary lack of imagination, intellectual curiosity and basic political competence?

This book showed that Palin is not a backwoods bimbo. She's no 'Caribou Barbie'. She's good at gaining trust, playing people and just outright lying to propel herself forward—including lying to her own supporters, assistants and allies. (My goodness, the woman is a master of misinformation! 'I'm not saying there'll be Death Panels... I'm not saying Obama is a Socialist...' kind of crap. No one had even thought those phrases until she 'didn't' say them. Obama, the corporatist-Centrist who lists Republican Lincoln as his biggest hero, is a Socialist? Hilarious. No one ever thought so or said so... but now that Palin 'hasn't' said it, everyone else has started to. And deliberately inferring that palliative-care consultation and grief counseling is equivalent to eugenics is a piece of downright evil.)

And that's where the respect comes in. Not for some dumb OH MY GOD! A WOMAN WITH POWER! THAT'S SO COOL! crap. I'm from the Margaret Thatcher generation and I've had female bosses in about 80% of all the jobs I ever held. I'm actually annoyed that there aren't more women in power. But a woman with power doesn't impress me just by having power any more than a man with power does.

After reading this Going Rouge, I respect her like I respect a blindfolded shark, in a tank of ink, in the dark, and I've just gone swimming. The woman described in this book is strong, ignorant, malicious and dangerous. She wants to feed, she's good at feeding and some people are even attracted to her sleek lines and power. I'd be a fool to ignore the fact she is a strong woman with many political strengths. But I do NOT want to be in the same tank as her. I sure as hell don't want her in charge of setting law or as Commander In Chief of even a very small armed forces. Even if her (claimed) political leanings were in the same rough direction as my own – and there's some suggestion in the book that in many ways, Palin is more willing to embrace Socialist ideals and regulation and earmarks when she can gain political points from them - she'd scare the crap out of me. You wouldn't be electing Palin, you'd be electing her advisers and her ambition and who knows where that would lead? Not Sarah Palin, because even some of her supporters admit she doesn't know what the relevant facts are – so who could predict how she'd react to them? The same scary thought would work for a left-leaning Palin as much as it does for a right-leaning one.

But the book itself is, well, kinda bad. It's a collection of essays, blogposts, opinion pieces and journalism. There's been almost no effort to update the stuff that was written pre-election. The 'editors' appear to have allowed the writers of the submissions to do their own copy-editing – it's the only way to explain the spotty formatting and typos. The quality of the material is mixed. Even though my sympathies lay with the writers, I still get annoyed at straw-man arguments, shoddy reporting or opinion-pieces that claim to be journalism. Yes, it's a screed. A polemic. But, screw it, I want integrity even in my attack-pieces. Opinion pieces should stick to opinion, fact pieces should stay close to the facts. (Perhaps book reviews should stick to the damn book?)

Now this is unfair – most of the sections are okay. There are plenty of smart, thoughtful and well-researched essays. Honest opinion and good fact-checking are here. But they're padded out with 'Grrr! Sarwah Palin Baaaaaad!' puff that simply annoyed me, even as I agreed with it. I wanted to have to work at this book, get in-depth and explore ideas. I did have to work, but more because I was wading through the mud to get to the facts. To get to the conclusions about Sarah Palin I have above, I had to spend too much effort in sifting the chaff, a job I had expected the editors to do.

My bad, I suppose – I wanted something more academic than this book set out to be. The fault lies as much with the reader as the editors and writers. The facts were there, but they were sometimes presented in a way that didn't always meet with my tastes. I wanted a discussion of the facts, the editors - much closer to the realities of the situation than far-away me – wanted facts... but they wanted to burn off some anger, too, and so included more fire-breathing rhetoric kind of material than I was really happy with. But I find that can't really blame them for that. After all, this woman was very nearly VP.

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