Over Thanksgiving, I was hiking with my brother-in-law when he commented that he only knew two kinds of people: those who loved Sarah Palin and those who hated her. Nobody was in the gray zone. While I didn't consider myself a "hater," I also knew that she had triggered intense reactions in me when she joined the Republican ticket. After Obama's victory, the fear of her becoming President subsided along with the negative charge, but I had to confess to a lingering prejudice beneath the surface.
One week later, I bought her autobiography, Going Rogue. Why? To dissolve my own prejudice and to better understand how we as a culture can go beyond the extreme political polarizations that have so paralyzed our country. What I know from years of psychological and spiritual explorations is that whenever we judge or fight something in the world, there is an aspect of ourselves that we are battling against. In creating walls of separation in the world, we reinforce them within ourselves, which is ultimately to our detriment.
I truly believe that everyone has their divine role to play in the world, even those with very different politics, beliefs, and values. While I have held that truth, though, I still had a visceral reaction to Palin - a sure signal that some work remains.
So reading Going Rogue was something of a test for myself - could I find the place of appreciation, respect, and even love for Sarah Palin?
What I found is that it wasn't really that hard, actually, simply by taking the time to meet her on her own turf rather than through sounds bites, spin, and polarized media battles. Reading someone's personal memoir is an intimate journey into their inner sanctum, and I developed a real appreciation for Sarah in reading the book. Aspects of her that seemed coarse, simplistic, or combative during the campaign were revealed to be a product of frontier values and growing up in a culture that is faced with subzero temperatures and constant tests of survival.
Her journey from high school basketball captain to Governor revealed itself as an impressive triumph of hard work, resiliency, and willingness to challenge the status quo. Many of the most caricatured and vilified aspects of her history turned out to be lopsided depictions and sometimes gross misrepresentations.
For example, while her belief in God is deep and sincere, she wasn't fanatical about it or dismissive of others. I found a real appreciation for the spiritual depths she went to when first faced with having a Down's syndrome child. Her ultimate celebration of the beauty and perfection of that child, a child that 90% of people would have aborted according to statistics, was profoundly moving and it led hundreds of thousands of special needs children to feel championed through her campaign.
On other fronts, her pro-development views on energy and oil did not exclude a deep love for the environment and even an appreciation for alternative energy and reducing our carbon footprint. She wrote in moving terms about her husband's indigenous ancestry and connection with the natural world, as well as the devastation wrought by the Exxon Valdez spill. Despite being pro-business she was heroically willing to face down the oil industry when it was corrupting the government of Alaska, a kind of bravery we need more of on both sides of the aisle.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of the book is the way in which she never waivers in her family commitments throughout the political journey. She passes up an opportunity to contest a Senate seat in order to manage her son's hockey team. She breast feeds in front of a taken-aback lawmaker. Team Palin is a part of every campaign and a constant presence in her official roles. Her family is at the center of her life in a way that feels whole and balanced, which is both impressive and commendable as we all seek to balance competing demands on our time.
In reading the book, I started to see a lot more of myself and my upbringing in Sarah. I too had grown up in a frozen land - Northern Minnesota - a place of unpretentious, middle-class, hardworking people who believe in personal responsibility and straight-talking integrity. We, too, had our sled dog races, subzero temperatures and a spirit of camaraderie to make it through. I began to see her political values as a natural extension of those tough-minded virtues, enabling her to take on daunting tasks and succeed at each level of life.
My developing appreciation of her formative years in the book led to a different view of the pressure cooker of national, presidential politics - I felt far more compassion for the ugly way in which she was attacked by the press, dismissed by the opposition, and muzzled by patronizing campaign bosses. She faced strong prejudices from people like myself who were scared that her more black-or-white, provincial-seeming perspective would someday be in the Oval Office. We were also worried by her folksy appeal and ability to attack Obama aggressively while appearing quite charming. The result of that reaction was a barrage of distorted stories, inflated fears, and downright misrepresentations, some of which were quite damaging to her family. After reading in her own words what she went through, I felt more compassion for her and dismay about the meat grinder that we've created for political leaders - an occupation for which we truly need our best and brightest.
Reading Going Rogue makes me understand that Sarah is not the ruthlessly ambitious and cutthroat caricature we feared; she is a woman who has befriended Democrats personally and professionally, shown real leadership in fighting corruption, and taken a more nuanced position on several issues in which she seemed far more polarizing. She seems quite sincere in her desire to serve in whatever way the universe calls for that service.
All that said, I still bristled when she launches in the final part of the book into a diatribe about what our country needs, which is strongly colored with right-wing platitudes and a self-righteous air as well as the tendency to portray liberals as the enemy rather than fellow allies in evolving our country. I would love to see more thoughtful reflections on positions and values, a deeper understanding of history, and less of the combative edge, all of which would make her a more unifying leader (and likely lead to fewer arrows back at her and her family). But that may not be her role. She is more of a super-charged Mom of the great white North, flashing into action to fight for what she sees as right, inspiring the Everyman and Everywoman to take personal responsibility for their lives and their country. She has the same qualities as a mother bear, with a fierce love that is eager to protect her cubs (or her country). If she's on your side, that can be exhilarating. But it can also reinforce the kind of partisan warfare that the book ultimately demonstrates is so destructive. My prayer is that this admirable woman can more fully embrace the idea that we all are on the same team here on planet earth. It's an all hand-on-deck moment for humanity and both conservatives and progressive values and people are needed.
Most of all, I come way from the book seeing Sarah as a woman who loves her family deeply, seeks to live a life of integrity, and wants America to be strong, successful and vibrant. While I may disagree with some of her policies and perspectives, I can better respect both her sincere patriotic intent as well as her willingness to take on hard fights in the service of democracy, in addition to her championing of the everyday people who often feel marginalized in our political process. I still would not vote for her for President, but I do respect her more as a person and as a leader of an important base of Americans.
I come away from reading Going Rogue feeling that it would be a useful act of citizenship for all those who feel prejudice towards her to read her book and meet her on her own turf in order to heal the lingering prejudices. I feel more balanced for having done so. I would also urge conservatives who hate or fear Obama to read his autobiography to better understand the man behind the political leader and thus heal their own biases.
The way I see it, healing the rift between Democrats and Republicans helps to heal the rift in our own hearts. The truth is that each party tends to champion one side of America's core values and we need both to operate in complementary and respectful ways for us to address the challenges we face. As each of us heals that prejudice in ourselves, we truly become part of the solution.