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Thursday, September 04, 2008


alaskan mythology

vis-a-vis the education of sarah palin -- conservative commentator reihan salam at his blog american scene on the anti-society that he perceives is alaska. i think, however, that he's examining only that part of alaskan self-definition that accompanies those who have recently migrated there. the reality of what it means to be alaskan is more complex, as i commented:

i have family in alaska -- not sure that qualifies me to comment, but compunction isn't fashionable on the internet is it?

alaska is like any other place but moreso in this way: it has constructed and carefully cultivated an enabling myth -- in this case, rugged "frontier" individualism -- in an effort to quash homegrown insecurities, gratify egos and allow utopian fantasies of self-definition to persist unmolested. and it gets a lot of help from the lower 48, which clearly harbors a deep insecurity about american "toughness" in fearful times (so much so that playing off of it has become the primary staple of republican politics, much to this erstwhile republican's disbelief).

the unvarnished truth about alaska is that no state in the union is more dependent on government dispensation, graft, corruption and redistribution of wealth. most of the state is on the dole -- either working for a government department, working in an industry heavily subsidized by government or on the dole itself.

and that's as it must be. real american frontier living died out early in the 20th c, and few modern alaskans would be prepared to adopt, much less willingly accept the dyspeptic third-world conditions of a sincerely frontier existence. without the huge federal largesse alaska is famed for receiving, its population would be a tenth or less of what it is. it is the only one of the actual states that still functions mostly on the imperial model, where government funds a thoroughly uneconomic level of occupation and settlement.

most alaskans, like most people anywhere, are completely unprepared for an incisive examination of their true condition. i've been fortunate enough to meet some longtime alaskans who are more honest with themselves than some others, mostly more recent arrivals, for whom living in alaska is mostly about redefining themselves in the sort of "journey of self-discovery" that has become the rage to mock -- and rightfully, because it is less about discovery than denial.

what that says about sarah palin i'll leave to the reader. maybe it says nothing at all. but i would simply caution against going too far in accepting the alaskan mythology at face value and allowing it to color our judgement of palin. she and her party are, like any politico, trading in myths to hide from some uncomfortable truths.

at the end of the day, this is all about the "political bullshit about narratives". unfortunately, i've less faith than peggy noonan about its lack of efficacy -- indeed, i think it plays directly to capitalizing on a different lack of efficacy.

palin made her first national political speech last night, and she made clear what might have been evident well before, as the economist picked up. it seems the mccain campaign has all but given up a pursuit of the pragmatic center. her speech was an ideological piece of pure cultural warfare -- void of policy, full of veiled derision and venom and not a little promulgation of enabling mythology. it surely appealed to the rabid "conservative" base which i equate less with classical burkean conservatism than a form of jacobin fascism, but it likely went down extremely poorly with the middle, as kevin drum notes. nate silver may have got this exactly right.

it is the silly season, and of course one can hardly expect access-obsessed institutional media to remain above the fray. i was nevertheless aghast to watch CNN's assembled personalities praise her invective to the heavens. perhaps they are so inured to the culture wars that this is what they expect of political speeches. to my mind, however, this surrender of the center and independent voters is a probable death knell for the mccain-palin ticket after eight years of george w. bush. not because these wild-eyed republicans won't follow -- they will -- but because some more pragmatic republicans and many centrists will be utterly repulsed.

i hate to agree with ben stein, but he's right to point out that palin undermines everything his campaign advertised as good about itself until july and even more recently, much of which revolved around centrist themes. it looks rather a naked sop to the excitable fundamentalist-fascist quarters of the right, and as such is a cold political calculation that mccain being mccain simply can't win. palin's speech confirmed it -- this is now a complete return to the base politics of karl rove, under the auspices of rove acolyte steve schmidt.

UPDATE: more from the economist, which one must remember is essentially a tory magazine which recalls the british empire with a certain nostalgic swell of pride, and which has quietly plumped for mccain since the days when rudy giuliani looked the probable nominee.

THE most audacious move of the race so far is also, potentially, the most self-destructive. ... The political calculations behind Mr McCain’s choice hardly look robust. ... Nor is Mrs Palin well placed to win over the moderate and independent voters who hold the keys to the White House. ... The moose in the room, of course, is her lack of experience. ... Inexperienced and Bush-level incurious. She has no record of interest in foreign policy, let alone expertise. ... This not only blunts Mr McCain’s most powerful criticism of Mr Obama. It also raises serious questions about the way he makes decisions ... The contrast with Mr Obama’s choice of the highly experienced and much-vetted Joe Biden is striking. ... Mr McCain’s appointment also raises more general worries about the Republican Party’s fitness for government. ... Mrs Palin’s elevation suggests that, far from breaking with Mr Bush, Mr McCain is repeating his mistakes.

this is about as damning as the economist can possibly be of a republican nominee for the presidency.

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