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The Hopey Changey Stuff

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Sarah Palin asked at the Tea Party convention, "How is the hopey changey stuff workin' out for ya?"

The country has become divided into people who find Palin's question flesh-crawling creepy, and those who do not. That division has become too wide to bridge; the gulf is permanent, the abyss impassable. You are on one side or the other. You either believe that Palin's question is nothing but pseudo-populism and fake folksy or differently that the question to be evidence she is a woman of the people.

Palin is the Fort Sumter of a new Civil War. As in the previous engagement between the North and South, we have split into two Americas beyond bridging our differences with conversation.

Our electorate has reached a critical point in history in which eliding (or elidin') and inability to pronounce the word "you" qualify a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. We may well elect the most powerful person on earth on the premise that ignorance is preferable to knowledge. Palin's popularity in segments of American society indicates that a substantial portion of the voting population has come to disdain science, objective truth and the many benefits resulting from our waning period of enlightenment. We have come a long way, circling our way back to a dark age in which intellectual advances are viewed with suspicion and fear.

The year 2010 is the new 1200. The preferred candidate in this environment is one who reads no newspapers and is uncertain about how many branches we have in the government she hopes to lead. People celebrate her lack of knowledge as somehow making her more "authentic." We have come to admire those who embrace insularity and xenophobia. We disdain mental acuity. A thick resume and experience prove only that a candidate is not of the people. In this new era, rationalism is considered a problem to be conquered with faith under the false pretense that we are a Christian nation. Science is a liberal plot with no more validity than the uttering of a bloated talking head spouting an opinion unsupported by fact. Intelligence is an ominous sign of elitism.

Dropping the "g" and using unspecific nouns like "stuff" have become the symbols of the new populism, creating a seismic shift in voter expectations. Compare the prideful anti-intellectualism of a Palin to the carefully crafted ideas articulated by Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1896, Bryan got up to argue against the gold standard (in favor of the fee coinage of silver) with words like:

"You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."

Compare the grating "hopey changey thing" to Bryan's rhetoric and immediately the decline in our political lives becomes sadly evident. Remember that Bryan was representing interests that Palin now claims as her own, that is Western interests against an Eastern elite, rural America (the "real" America according to Palin)) versus urban America. Ironically, the idea of Populism in Bryan's time included strong support for the income tax, whereas today the term implies being against virtually all forms of taxation. But consistency is rarely a constraint when rational thought is considered a form of elitism. Proof that consistency is not an admired trait is in the fact that Palin calls for Rahm Emanuel's resignation for using the word "retard" but simultaneously supports Rush Limbaugh's use of the same word the next day. That blatant hypocrisy and transparent double standard could only survive in an atmosphere of blind faith, anti-intellectualism, and demagoguery. The popularity of hate-mongers like Hannity, Beck, O'Reilly and Limbaugh bear further witness to this truth.

Voters profess attraction to Palin because of her anti-Washington language and image as a down-to-earth working mom. These are the same voters who without irony deeply hate Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, politicians like Palin doing double duty as working moms. But Palin unlike Clinton or Pelosi is "down-to-earth" because she speaks English badly and doesn't know the name of Russia's leader. Therefore she is one of the people. No matter that she is a wealthy politician flying around in private $10 million jets with a husband who supports Alaskan succession while claiming the mantle of patriotism. No, she is a woman of the people because of her fractured syntax and willful embrace of populist ideals that she herself has never actually lived.

I have been ignoring Palin, hoping that like a small scratch she would eventually heal and go away. Instead, she has turned out to be a drug-resistant staph infection intent on destroying our body politic. I now accept that reality. So be it. So I have changed my mind and welcome her to the political scene. We must lance the wound. Palin makes my skin crawl, but I fervently hope that she is the Republican candidate for president in 2012. We need to find out once and for all if the infection is going to kill us or if we can fight and reclaim our health. As with the first Civil War, we must now decide between two radically different futures, between an enlightened democracy and an oppressive theocracy. We either embrace our secular origins or willfully become a Christian nation. We either embrace science and rationalism or rely on faith for our guidance in both public and private life. We either take actions to protect the environment or consider climate change a liberal hoax. We either institute serious health care reform or allow medical costs to destroy our economy. These issues are not amendable to a middle-ground, parse-the-difference, mediate-the-dispute approach. The voters must decide between two completely incompatible visions of our future. And those radically divergent views are perfectly represented in Palin and Obama.

I once deeply feared another Palin candidacy, hoping that our country would never again be put in peril with a candidate so clearly unqualified for the presidency. But I now welcome and embrace the idea. The fact that anybody even believes she could serve as president means we have to test the hypothesis. This Civil War must be prosecuted, for we must choose one path or the other. Just as in 1861 we can no longer solve our differences by meeting half way. One side must prevail, and the only way to precipitate that victory or defeat is to engage in the battle. So let's rumble. Bring it on, and let's give the American people a clear, stark, unambiguous choice for what this country will become.

Let us hope then that the election in 2012 is between knowledge and ignorance, between rationalism and faith, between hope and hate; between Obama and Palin. Let's have the contest and make our choice. Whoever wins should then do what General Grant did when commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman to crush the defeated so that we might not fight such a war again. The victor should take the people's mandate and politically destroy the opposition. I make this plea fully understanding that the side I support might well lose. But I will finally know if the American people believe "hopey changey thing" is the language of a president or of a candidate that will be lost to history. Whatever the outcome I prefer that to a slow death.