St. Sarah of Wasilla
Sarah Palin's latest buzz accompanies the publication of her campaign memoir, Going Rogue. But the book is a ghost-written collaboration, making it a poor measure of the singular marvel that is Sarah Palin. To better get the drift of this woman's weird, wonderful career, I go back to her star-spangled, lightning-bolt Fourth-of-July resignation as governess of Alaska.
Within minutes of that shocker, talking heads everywhere struggled to make sense of Palin's rambling series of excuses, rationalizations, platitudes, dares and non sequiturs. Every last analyst staggered away, mystified.
But Palin's followers - without exception - understood, intuitively and completely. They rejoiced in the inspiration of what she had said, as well as what she hadn't said and what she was incapable of saying.
Even they, however, did not know what she meant. No one did, nor will anyone ever really grasp her meaning that day. And that's the point. In the Zen universe of Sarah Palin, meaning is the most meaningless thing of all!
Anyone who has tried to fathom the Palin phenomenon is eventually surprised that she bothers to speak at all. But she loves talking, to the delight of her fans and to the utter befuddlement of anyone who regards languge as a serious medium of communication.
Words are not Sarah Palin's currency, nor would she command her immense army of ardent followers if she had a "way with words." When asked about "issues," Palin either recites an irrelevant aspect of her biography (looking across the Bering Strait at Vladimir Putin, covering high school hockey games for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman), or she rattles off a mind-numbing series of talking points, seemingly memorized off a laminated card handed to her by Grover Norquist.
Asked about any domestic problem - education, unemployment, breast cancer, etc. - she invariably advocates cutting taxes. Given problems of a more metaphysical nature, she will come around to invoking Jesus.
Respond to her that even Jesus approved of taxes - "unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" - and she will answer with only a smile that says, "You're trying to trap me with words again, but I can't he-e-ear you."
She's pro-life, she says. But the only branch of government that she and her followers approve is the military, which is in the business of killing. Is this not a profound contradiction, an ethical dilemma that merits reflection and moral anguish?
Nah. It's words. Just words. To hell with words.
Conservatives claim Sarah as one of them. She tolerates the linkage. But she's not, really, if you figure that modern conservatism proceeds in a historical line from Adam Smith and Edmund Burke to Ayn Rand, William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol, George Will and smarty-pants guys like that. Conservatism has always been stirred by intellectual ferment and lively discourse, bestowing on its current adherents traditions, policies, positions, unsettled arguments and great books. Conservatism has a literature.
But Sarah Palin doesn't read - at least not snooty stuff like "literature." None of her people read - except for Scripture. Reading, after all, is just a lot of words.
Sometimes, Palin comes off as a sort of lumpen-populist, metaphorically defending the trailer-park gates against an army of tree-huggers and bleeding-hearts who want to break up the annual all-Alaska spotted owl and dolphin roast. But her style, her clothes, her hair, her lack of butchness - these are not populist. They're petty bourgeois. She wears makeup even when she's dressed in waders.
When Going Rogue came out, her ex-friends in the McCain campaign called Palin a liar. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann went to considerable pains to cite passages in her book that were contradicted either by facts or by past statements Palin had made herself.
Olbermann missed the point. There are no lies in Sarah's book; nor in her life, nor in her heart. Utterances that seem untrue are not lies, because Sarah believes them true. If she says one thing, then later forgets what she said and says the opposite, Sarah Palin is neither lying nor mistaken, nor forgetful, because at each moment, she believes what she has said. And a minute later, she will believe something else, if she says it. Whatever she says, if she says it, will be true. But if it's not, so what? It's words, only words.
Sooner or later, words fail everyone. This goes double for Sarah and her faithful. Sarah Palin is the voice - and the embodiment - of the inarticulate.
When Sarah Palin says something that doesn't seem to make sense to most of us, her people - the tongue-tied and frustrated - understand perfectly, because that's exactly what they would have said, if only they could.
What Olbermann and the word-obsessed, meaning-seeking media cannot grasp is that Sarah Palin is not someone you believe. She is someone you believe in.
She is not a politician. She is a prophet.
She is the earthly incarnation of an ideal beyond earthly comprehension that only those who believe in her believe in, although it's beyond their comprehension. Like all prophets, she is the answer to questions her followers are incapable of expressing. She is what they are, and she is what they would be if they weren't what they are.
Watch Sarah Palin with the audio turned off. You will sense what her followers feel. In her ill-controlled face, there is sheer amazement at being so high for so little reason. There is defiance of all those equally amazed. And there is a smugness in the assurance that there ain't nobody gonna knock her down and she never has to explain how she ever got there.
As if she could.
In her gestures and in her gaze, one feels the spirit of another people's prophet, equally indifferent to coherent speech, equally disdained by the literate and the elite, but equally beloved of the insulted and injured. His motto was: "I am what I am."
His name, as any real American knows, was Popeye.