Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sarah Palin & The Culture of Intimidation

What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.
- Sigmund Freud, 1933

While Sarah Palin and her cohorts may not yet be burning David Letterman's legendary jokebooks, they have certainly done everything but. For those who have spent the last week living under a rock, the controversy to which I am alluding involves Letterman's tongue-in-cheek quip about... well, let me just show you a direct quote. It references Sarah Palin's visit to New York City with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, and comes amidst the flurry of media attention surrounding her 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, who was impregnated out-of-wedlock despite her mother's advocacy of abstinence-only sex education (which the daughter has disingenuously decided to parrot):

"One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game: during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."

Let's look at our trusty checklist of taboo subjects:
- Politics: Check!
- Sex: Check!
- Religion: Indirect check (abstinence-only education and the national debate surrounding Bristol Palin's hypocrisy is a strong undercurrent here, after all)
- Race: No check!

Sorry, Dave. You only hit three out of the four marks. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that your joke is almost as taboo-stompingly offensive as any quip can be!

It is also, in this television era, still remarkably tame. Anyone who has turned on Comedy Central or Adult Swim can easily find material much more offensive (to say nothing of disgusting) than Letterman's line. Need proof? Try Googling "Hillary Clinton", "snuke", and "South Park". Or "Family Guy", "AIDS", and "barbershop quartet". How about "Moral Orel", "wet dream", and "God"? Or forget the three-word combinations - how about "Chappelle Show" and "black bush"? "Sarah Silverman Program" and "abortion"? Or if you're more interested in focusing on fare offered by the main networks (although "Family Guy" technically counts as one of those), look at how "The Simpsons" was accused of smearing the good name of the world's fifth largest country by Googling "Simpsons" "Brazil" and "sue"?

My point here is that David Letterman's joke, though certainly R-rated (or at least solid PG-13), was hardly outside of the norm for television. As Hilllary Clinton, Christians, Republicans, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, Brazilians, and everyone who has ever had AIDS has been forced to accept, "the sound of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear the music of our own opinions" (the quote comes from Adlai Stevenson, my political role model, during his 1952 run for the presidency, my favorite presidential campaign). In other words, whether you find these jokes to be hilarious or morally repugnant, the people who created them have the same right to speak their minds in the name of comedy as you do in the name of condemning it.

Initially this was what Sarah Palin did in response to Letterman's joke, and it was perfectly acceptable. She referred to his comment as "sexually perverted", assuming (or choosing to assume) that he was referring to her 14-year-old daughter Willow (the one accompanying her to New York City) and not her 18-year-old daughter Bristol (the one who wasn't with her in the city but whose sex life has been foisted upon the American people at the insistence of Palin's PR department). Letterman responded by pointing out that he "would never, never joke about raping a 14-year-old" and assuring Ms. Palin that "these are not jokes made about her 14-year-old daughter", before apologizing for the joke about 18-year-old Bristol as being " "ugly", "cheap", and "in poor taste". This was his right, just as it was Palin's right to continue harping over the issue well after he had offered his apology (apologies are not easily forthcoming from a man of Letterman's status either), and just as it was Letterman's right to apologize a second time, one week later, by saying that the joke was "beyond flawed" and offering sorries to Bristol Palin, Willow Palin, the entire Palin family, and everyone who had ever been offended by the joke. Finally, it was Palin's right to accept that apology, and to even accept it with phoned in sanctimony: "On behalf of all young women, like my daughters, who hope men who 'joke' about public displays of sexual exploitation of girls will soon evolve."

While my choice of language probably makes it clear whose side I am on in this debacle, the problem here is that Palin has done more than simply object to Letterman's comments: She and her supporters have used this incident as a cause celebre for the right-wing movement, orchestrating protests, circulating online petitions, and throwing their hefty political clout around, all for the purpose of getting Letterman fired from CBS. While the right to boycott and even rally against an individual whose ideas you find offensive is acceptable for private citizens, it becomes much more questionable when it is done by a high-profile political figure, former vice presidential candidate, sitting governor, and de facto leader of an entire ideological movement... especially one who has made no secret of her intention to run for president in the near future. Indeed, this is the very reason why most politicians, liberal and conservative alike, usually refrain from launching full-scale war against individuals who express opinions. Public disagreement? Absolutely. Vitriol and insults and attacks and name-calling? Pour some more on! But since the days when Richard Nixon wiretapped Woodward and Bernstein, it has generally been acknowledged by politicians on both sides of the aisle that it's one thing to merely criticize or even verbally condemn people who say things you don't like, and quite another to actually try to punish them. Once you enter the latter territory, you run the risk of creating a climate in which it is off-limits to say anything of which the government does not approve.

Yet Palin's movement goes on unabated. With the aid of sympathetic conservative radio host John Ziegler, she has created a website,, which serves as the focal point of her booming movement. Already Olive Garden Restaurants and Hellmann's Mayonnaise have pulled their advertising plugs from Letterman's show, in response to Palin's pressure. When Letterman, who apparently has learned nothing of Palin's character by now, offered them a time slot on his show to address the matter more directly, Palin's family spokesperson responded by saying:

"The Palins have no intention of providing a ratings boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show. Plus, it would be wise to keep [14 year old] Willow away from David Letterman."

This incident would be disturbing in its own right, but it fits neatly into a pattern that traces all the way back to when Palin was mayor of the remote Alaskan village of Wasilla (population 9,000). While there she attempted to fire a local librarian for refusing to ban books that she, Mayor Palin, deemed unfit for the shelves, among them Pastor, I Am Gay by the Reverend Howard Bess (she was only stopped when a town outcry forced her to back down; the family has since "discredited" the story by pointing to internet rumors that exaggerated its details and claiming that those individual fabrications made all reports of the matter unreliable). As Governor of Alaska she fired a state official, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, for refusing to take action against a an ex-brother-in-law she resented. The church of which she is a member is well-known for condemning anyone who doesn't share the specific political and religious views of its practicioners as being not only dissenters, but outright espousers of evil to be shunned and punished.

What I am basically saying are two things:

1) David Letterman needs to stop apologizing and start taking the offensive. Maybe the joke was inappropriate, maybe it wasn't; that is a matter of personal taste, and thus subjective. That said, it was simply a joke, did not harm the Palin family in any measurable way, and therefore should not be responded to with punitive measures, such as those for which the Palins are now pushing. For that to come from any group constitutes intimidation; for it to come from a family with lofty political ambitions comes perilously close to censorship. Censorship IS wrong, and objectively harms not only Letterman, but everyone else, for once it is made punishable for one man to speak ill of the Palin family, the precedent is set for similar consequences to be incurred by anyone else who in the future incurs Sarah Palin's wrath. For his own sake as well as for that of some of America's most basic values, David Letterman needs to put his deferential technique to a close and start fighting.

2) Sarah Palin's behavior here cannot be dismissed as relevant only to this specific incident. In light of her other activities - as mayor, governor, and now the leader of a national movement - it is a clear precursor to how she would handle any form of dissent if she became president.

America has had leaders with that mindset before, most notably John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon (George W. Bush, while breaking Constitutional freedoms with the Patriot Act, to the best of our knowledge abused it primarily for the purpose of achieving foreign policy and national security goals, not domestic political ones). When Adams decided that criticizing the president was wrong, and made his opinion law with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, hundreds were thrown in jail merely for speaking out against the president. When Woodrow Wilson did the same thing with the Sedition Act of 1918, hundreds more were thrown in jail, including perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who even remained incarcerated while running for president in 1920 (an election in which he picked up almost one million votes, or more than three percent). The consequences of Richard Nixon's efforts to stifle media opposition are well-known, from his hounding of Watergate-breaking reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to his attempts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg (the reporter who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers that exposed government deception in promoting the Vietnam War to the American public) by having secret agents break into his psychiatrist's office and expose files on his mental illness.

Yet behind each of these past presidents, as well as today's presidential aspirant, was a force that most people would rather ignore - the ardent support of an outspoken and zealous bloc of supporters. John Adams had in his corner the entire Federalist party (now long defunct), which had control of the American government at that time but which feared the rising popularity of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Woodrow Wilson had the support of Americans who were whipped up by our involvement in World War One into a frenzy of misguided patriotism, the kind best rebutted by Robert La Follette at the time when he remarked that "I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But sir, the right to control their own Government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war." Even Richard Nixon had the support of the right-wing zealots in his own base (many of them the ideological antecedents of Palin's current followers), who felt that Nixon was protecting America from the cultural and moral degeneracy of the countercultural movement and the New Left, and decided that any measure which could be undertaken to stop them was thus appropriate.

Thus what frightens me about Palin is not merely the evident brazenness of her conviction that all who say things that she doesn't like ought to suffer a penalty; it is the fact that she has so many devoted followers who believe precisely the same thing, and are willing to take action to see to it that her will is done. In light of recent events, I'm not sure what prospects is more terrifying - that of what would happen to America with Sarah Palin as president, or what it would say about America if it was willing to elect her in the first place.

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