27 July 2009


"It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
H. L. Mencken, 1921.

Where is the modern H. L. Mencken who can do for the rhetorical splendors of Governor Palin's Farewell Address what the Sage of Baltimore did to immortalize Warren G. Harding's inaugural address? Mencken's essay on "Gamalielese" was a definitive autopsy on the bloated, nearly meaningless oratory of Harding's era, but Mencken might still have made a distinction between Harding's inept rhetoric and the substance of his policies, such as they were. For Sarah Palin, style, or the lack of it, is substance, or the lack of it. However you slice it, Palin's anti-oratory is itself a rhetorical strategy, part of her just-folks demagogy. It is useless to pass judgment on her sentence construction or other conventional details, because you'd only be falling into her trap. She's like a text-messenger or someone posting on the internet who bristles with indignation when someone points out misspellings or grammar mistakes. You know the type. They always argue that they don't have time, or that the internet isn't the place, for elitist pedantry. Pure, raw communication has priority over precise spelling or proper sentence structure for these people. Conventional rules of writing, in this lumpen form of postmodernism, only exclude the masses from taking part in the national discussion and being taken seriously. Thus does the "elite media" consolidate its rule and its right to tell the rest of us how to live. You might think that it could only grow increasingly difficult for people to understand each other if we abandon rules of sentence structure and other necessities, but that's where buzzwords come in. In Palinese, "government" means something bad, even though Palin presumably retains aspirations to participate in some form of government. Likewise, "media" itself signifies something vaguely sinister or conspiratorial, implicitly separate, like "government," from the wisdom of the people. Palin hasn't abandoned rhetoric altogether, but wants to take it in a Pavlovian direction toward the time when she could read a page of the phonebook, randomly insert the necessary buzzwords, and send her fans (many already drool, I suspect) into swoons of ecstasy. She's unlikely to accept the advice of well-meaning reactionaries like Cal Thomas who've told her to educate herself before attempting her political comeback. She'd be wise not to. She'd risk alienating at least as many of her original supporters as she'd gain with a more polished approach.

With all this in mind, I'll leave you with some choice excerpts and let you play Mencken yourselves.

And it is our men and women in uniform securing it, and we are facing tough challenges in America with some seeming to just be Hell bent maybe on tearing down our nation, perpetuating some pessimism, and suggesting American apologetics, suggesting perhaps that our best days were yesterdays. But as other people have asked, "How can that pessimism be, when proof of our greatness, our pride today is that we produce the great proud volunteers who sacrifice everything for country?"

And first [three paragraphs into the address], some straight talk for some, just some in the media because another right protected for all of us is freedom of the press, and you all have such important jobs reporting facts and informing the electorate, and exerting power to influence. You represent what could and should be a respected honest profession that could and should be the cornerstone of our democracy. Democracy depends on you, and that is why, that's why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how 'bout in honor of the American soldier, ya quit makin' things up. And don't underestimate the wisdom of the people, and one other thing for the media, our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone.

Don't forget Alaskans you are the resource owners per our constitution and that's why for instance last year when oil prices soared and state coffers swelled, but you were smacked with high energy prices, we sent you the energy rebate. See, it's your money and I've always believed that you know how to better spend it than government can spend it.[I include this only to remind people that Alaska is in one sense the most "socialist" state in the Union, a fact that some clever Republican might want to use against Palin someday.]

So much success, and Alaska there is much good in store further down the road, but to reach it we must value and live the optimistic pioneering spirit that made this state proud and free, and we can resist enslavement to big central government that crushes hope and opportunity. Be wary of accepting government largess. It doesn't come free and often, accepting it takes away everything that is free, melting into Washington's powerful "care-taking" arms will just suck incentive to work hard and chart our own course right out of us, and that not only contributes to an unstable economy and dizzying national debt, but it does make us less free. [Buzzwords emphasized]

At statehood we knew this, that we are responsible for ourselves and our families and our future, and fifty years later, please let's not start believing that government is the answer. It can't make you happy or healthy or wealthy or wise. What can? It is the wisdom of the people and our families and our small businesses, and industrious individuals, and it is God's grace, helping those who help themselves, and then this allows that very generous voluntary hand up that we're known for, enthusiastically providing those who need it.

So, we are here today at a changing of the guard. Now, people who know me, and they know how much I love this state, some still are choosing not to hear why I made the decision to chart a new course to advance the state. And it should be so obvious to you. (indicating heckler) It is because I love Alaska this much, sir (at heckler) that I feel it is my duty to avoid the unproductive, typical, politics as usual, lame duck session in one's last year in office. How does that benefit you? No, with this decision now, I will be able to fight even harder for you, for what is right, for truth. And I have never felt like you need a title to do that.

The last excerpt proves my point that Palin knows (or at least thinks she knows) what she's doing. How else can she believe that she can "advance the state" without wielding power? She clearly thinks that she can accomplish more with rhetoric (i.e. "fight even harder") than through the "politics as usual" machinery of administration. Doesn't this make her a kind of mirror image of President Obama, who is often suspected of treating the Presidency as little beside a platform to make speeches from? It does only if you assume that she is scheming to run for a higher office. If so, that'd belie her last sentence, but either way you look at it, we probably haven't heard the last of Sarah Palin. Whether we have to take her seriously after today is another story.


Anonymous said...

Isn't "advancing the State", advancing government? What is the "state" if not "government"? This woman is as much a rhetorical moron as Dubya was. And she appeals to the same lowest common denominator that seems to have infected so much of our society.

Samuel Wilson said...

I think she meant the state of Alaska, and by that not the governmental bureaucracy but the people and the economy. But misunderstandings of her statements are understandable.

Anonymous said...

So she seems to be taking her first steps towards a secessionist path for Alaska?