Monday, February 21, 2011

Palin Jeopardy

[February 21, 2011: As you’ll see from my preface dated August 3, 2009, this has been written for a long time. I got as far as writing this; putting together what I knew about some of the Palin stories; and putting some of my existing posts about Palin into the “Palin Jeopardy” category; but I never really closed the deal. Life intervened; polishing up the posts seemed like a lot of work; whatever.

Then over the weekend I wrote a post about Kathleen Parker's assumption that the Palin type of women would never call herself a “feminist” and I realized I was, once again, writing a Palin Jeopardy post. So I decided to resurrect this and to call my Parker post “I’ll take Feminism for $200, Alex”. Whether any of the other Palin Jeopardy posts I wrote back in 2009 ever see the light of day depends on what they look like when I review them; the time I have; and whether my interest in blogging flags again.

This isn’t strictly about Palin, of course. The eagerness to believe the worst, to let things that seem awfully unlikely pass the smell test, occurs on both sides of the political divide with regard to all kinds of issues and people. What is interesting about the Palin case is that it seems to me to be extreme; it often involves actually ignoring facts rather than simply interpreting them in a particular way; and it is so, so prevalent among a group I hoped would treat Palin decently - liberal women. That they would hate her politics is expectable; that they would be so eager to believe the worst about her is sad and, even after all this time and all the theories offered up, inexplicable to me.]

[August 3, 2009: I started writing this several weeks ago and put it aside when other issues caught my interest. Even when I wrote it I wasn’t sure I’d post it; after all, Sarah Palin is gone from the political scene (right?) and who really cares if the old stories about her are true or not.

However, one of the things I set this aside for was taking a look at Section 1233 of the House health care bill. Realizing how determined people were to believe the worst about that, regardless of evidence to the contrary, made me decide to go back to the Palin stories. They’re the same thing, really: stories spun from flimsy evidence (no evidence in the case of Section 1233 and many of the Palin stories) that both fit a preconceived notion of reality and serve a useful political purpose. In fact, some of the concepts I wrote about in my posts on Section 1233 were born here, especially the idea of “emotional” truth and the willingness - nay, eagerness - to believe those we oppose are first monstrous and then simply monsters.]

Reclusive Leftist has noted a post over at I Blame The Patriarchy that began as a discussion of the feminist issues at work in the Letterman/Palin brouhaha but ended up spending a lot of comment pixels arguing about whether or not Sarah Palin was awful and, if so, how awful. The IBTP comment string fascinated me for a couple of reasons, not least because the commenters managed to regurgitate so many of the Palin attacks launched over the last 10+ months. It was stunning to see them all trotted out and arrayed like a virtual battalion of scarecrows to keep that terrible, terrible woman away from decent feminists.

I’ve repeatedly started to comment at IBTP but once I start explaining why what some of the commenters there believe isn’t exactly so, I end up with way, way too many words for a blog comment. So I figured I’d cover the ground here - and maybe post a link to this post over there. We’ll see.

I already had a lot of background on the rape kit smear which was a major bone of contention in the comment string and I had information on some of the other issues that were raised. In addition, some of the attacks - like the Wayne Anthony Ross one - were ones I always meant to find out more about one day. However, once I started digging through the comments at IBTP, finding all the Palin attacks that were buried in there, and figuring out which ones were valid and which ones were simply nonsense, I realized I’d taken on a huge task - there were a lot of attacks baked into those comments and the information trail is quite cold on some of them. Thus what was originally planned as a somewhat lengthy single post is now going to be a series of posts.

I originally planned to call the single post “I’ll take Sarah Palin for $200, Alex” hence the name of this post. Instead, I’m creating a category called “Palin Jeopardy” and each post in the category will cover a particular Palin attack or a group of related attacks. I don’t imagine I’ll hit them all but I’ll see how far I get.

Besides the volume of Palin attacks in the IBTP comment, I was also fascinated by a couple of particular comments. One was this:

i always just assumed that the story conflated several actual facts - that it conflated the fact that Palin is *very* anti-choice and anti-woman, and the fact that Alaska has a *horrible* track record when it comes to rape.

*shrug*. it seems like the sort of story that is meant to be “true” at an emotional level. and while that means that the story is, in fact, a lie - it is a *very* used, overused, tactic. look at the fact that so many people are still agitating to see Obama’s “real” Birth Cert! Obama wasn’t born outside the US, but the story is really that he “is different”, and that is true, so “truth” to some people becomes NOT “Obama is an america who isn’t white” but rather becomes “Obama isn’t an American”.

It is an actual fact that Alaska has a horrible track record when it comes to rape (although that’s hardly Palin’s fault) and it is an actual fact that Palin is very anti-choice (opposed to abortion). That Palin is anti-woman, however is an opinion that probably rests on three legs: her opposition to abortion (an actual fact); her opposition to contraception (an actual falsehood); and her billing for rape kits (an actual falsehood). You see the circularity here: the rape kit story is “true” emotionally because it supports a preconceived notion that rests partially on the very story to which it imparts emotional truth.

More generally, this comment seems to me to sum up much of the reaction to Palin. For some reason, people became convinced that she was a monster. After that, any monstrous story was accepted because it fit what people believed about her.

It’s interesting this commenter compares the “Palin billed for rape kits story” to the “Obama isn’t a United States citizen story” since the level of support for both stories is about the same; that is, enough for a determined opponent to spin into a narrative that falls apart when examined closely. I’ve written about why people might want to believe that Obama is not a United States citizen and I think it fits in with the idea of finding dubious “facts” to support preconceived notions. What this commenter does not make clear and what I believe is vitally important is this: facts matter. They matter morally because it is simply wrong to lie about, slander, and libel actual living breathing human beings. They matter politically because when we are deciding who is to run our governments, we will make better decisions if we have more information and more accurate information. I would argue that facts are the basis of a working democracy. Most importantly, facts matter individually because rationality is better than blind belief.

The final reason the IBTP comment string interested me so much was this comment by the blog holder:

Is Sarah Palin a politician who unequivocally embraces the radical feminist worldview? No. Does she publicly support the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression? No. Does she support a woman’s right to an abortion? No.

All true and surely that's enough reason for any like-minded feminist to oppose Palin. More generally, Palin does oppose abortion both personally and politically: she has said she would like to see Roe v Wade reversed and decisions about abortion made by voters in the individual states. For anyone who believes supporting abortion is a must for a politician that should be enough reason to oppose her. More generally still, Palin is a rock-ribbed conservative Republican. Her positions on the economy, the environment, the Second Amendment, global warming, energy policy, and a whole host of other issues should be enough reason for any liberal/progressive to oppose her.

All of this is why I find it so puzzling that those facts do not seem to be enough. In some cases, the attacks on Palin are based on information that is ambiguous at best; in other cases, they are outright lies; in still others, they rest on the unsupported testimony of one person who is - by their own admission - anti-Palin. I simply do not understand why so many people who have so many perfectly legitimate reasons to oppose her are so eager to seize upon reasons that are shaky at best and untrue at worst.

I oppose Obama's policies and his tactics and that's sufficient for me. I do not need to believe all the dubious claims about his birthplace, his religion, his allegiance to Alinsky, his narcissistic disorder, or any of the other stories that have been spun about him with little or no basis in order to justify my opposition. I have no need to make Obama a monster simply because I disagree with his politics. Why make Palin one?

Finally, let me make it clear that I have no illusions my going through the exercise of examining each Palin attack, assessing its truth or falsehood, and providing sources for my assessment will ever change the mind of anyone who is determined to believe the worst about Sara Palin - any more than people refuting the Obama birth certificate story has changed the mind of those determined to believe it. No, the reason I stuck with my sifting and sorting was for my own benefit. Partly to sort out fact from fiction in stories I had never researched before; partly to collect together all the little scraps of information I’d been accumulating over the last 10 months. Mostly, though, to help me understand how these stories started, how they grew and - usually - mutated, and how they spread.

The hatred of Palin and the adulation of Obama, the willingness - even eagerness - to ascribe all evil to her and all good to him, are two sides of the same coin, two symptoms of the same unbalanced emotional state. However this amalgam of bandwagon effect, black-and-white thinking, groupthink, and confirmation bias originated, the cure for it - and for the somewhat milder Obama hatred and the possibility of Palin adulation - is having the facts, being willing to consider them with an open mind and an unclouded eye, and understanding that everyone has both virtues and vices.

If we cannot accept this cure then we will find we are truly living in a postmodern world where - as Brad Holland - put it:

Postmodernists believe that truth is myth, and myth, truth. This equation has its roots in pop psychology. The same people also believe that emotions are a form of reality. There used to be another name for this state of mind. It used to be called psychosis.

Or, more pithily, reality-based, my great aunt fanny.