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Sarah Palin: The Face of Ugly Americanism

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I know, I know: Sarah Palin is receiving rosy plaudits for her speech last night. She is being heralded as the savior of the GOP, someone with enough moxie to sustain the party's unholy alliance between the oil plutocrats and the oily preachocrats.

Many pundits in reviewing her polished performance claim to see an unflappable and gung-ho winner on stage. My honest-to-goodness visceral reaction was quite otherwise. What I saw on that stage was the personification of small-minded smugness, an utter lack of humility, a kind of self-righteous entitlement based on little more than puffed-up narrowness. She struck me not as plucky but, rather, as stunningly immodest--to the point of arrogance. Some people are arrogant and maybe deserve to be. They know it, and flaunt it, while everyone else thinks they are jerks. But there's another kind of arrogance, perhaps harder to spot at first, an arrogance that apparently doesn't even recognize itself as such, a sanctified, self-satisfied presumptuousness that flows from sheer naïveté about oneself and the world and manifests itself in giddy ambition.

Hey, I'm all for hockey teams, motherhood, snowmobiling, and small-town virtues. I grew up with such charms [indulgent personal digression here along those lines: Forty some years ago, whenever my family visited my grandparents' farm in Ossian, Iowa, that "event" would always make the front page of the Ossian Bee, right next to a story about someone's canned tomatoes going bad, which was positioned right next to the Ossian Bee's front-page obituaries column. Or, one time, among many, when we visited my father's parents' farm in Coggon, Iowa, we asked, fishing poles in hand, a local young boy for directions to a Bait and Tackle shop, and he gave us elaborate directions, about turning at this corner, and then at that stump, and then winding around some bend in the road, and looping back at the half-mile marker--directions that were almost comically complicated for such a small place. And then he ended his on-the-scene peroration: "But I don't think it's open today." As for snowmobiling, my daredevil cousins used to run snowmobiles on the (hopefully) frozen Cedar River, jumping over cracks and breaks in the ice if they encountered such. Heck, as for credentials, I still have my NRA shooting awards from Cub Scout summer camp.] Such small-town charms and virtues notwithstanding, I also recognize--especially when it's beaming right at me from my Chinese-manufactured television screen--small-town thinking when I see and hear it. What the world--what this country--doesn't need more of right now is Sarah Palin's defiant brand of self-assured provincialism.

Palin and McCain want the United States to consume more and more of the planet's energy resources--in the names of God, country, and industry. Palin believes that the Iraq War was God's will, even though she admits that she hasn't been paying close attention to that war (oh my Lord!). She believes that drilling in Alaska's natural splendor is blessed with Providential Approval. She promotes policies based on her unshakable belief that she herself has a direct pipeline (no pun intended) to the Almighty's intentions. What hubris! How dare she hijack and besmirch true belief for the sake of her particular economic predilections.

She mocks community organizing in Southside Chicago--but has she ever set foot in Chicago? She has no idea what it means to organize on the south side of Chicago--nor, I imagine, does her slickly sarcastic speechwriter. How many African-Americans lived in Wasilla during her tenure as mayor? She hasn't traveled through this great country of ours. She doesn't know its people, doesn't know its amazing and oftentimes vexing diversity. She hasn't traveled anywhere in the world, except one place. She presents herself as an all-American gal, but does she genuinely understand--beyond her own PTA-to-Juneau story--our country's rich and varied and complex history? She recently confessed that she doesn't even understand what the Vice President of the United States does, and her admirers heartily approve of her perversely willful ignorance.

Yes, she can bring a bunch of white people to their feet chanting USA, USA, USA. Good for her. But true leadership in these difficult times will require actual knowledge, not just personality. This world of ours, the past hundred years, has too frequently witnessed the dangers--nay, the evils--of compensatory nativism. Citizens in our own country should have learned one of the major lessons of these last eight years, namely that conviction should not serve as a trump card over competence. To me, Sarah Palin's grin looks like the grin of someone who doesn't feel she needs to think twice before pulling the trigger.

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