Reading Rogue: A very good book, indeed...

>> Friday, November 27, 2009

Sarah Palin seems, in Going Rogue, to attempt to go great lengths to rebut many of the criticisms against her.

Much of Chapter 1, for instance, seems to be devoted to the effort of proving that Sarah Palin is a literate, literary woman, widely read and knowledgeable about all sorts of things not pertaining to athletics or salmon fishing. And yet she manages to be both vague and specific in a way that, upon reflection, is a bit disturbing. You see, on the one hand she doesn't tell you much of what she's read beyond mentioning a few specific titles she read in childhood (specifically, John Steinbeck's The Pearl, Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull and George Orwell's Animal Farm--nothing terrible there, but low-hanging fruit, even for a little girl) and maybe some authors (so far, I think, one, actually: C.S. Lewis)--she's not going to tell you about her passion for Victorian novels or mid-20th Century French lit, for example. On the other hand, she does mention one or two people, and she has a propensity for throwing out a surprising number of quotes--she namechecks Lewis, for instance, without mentioning anything she's actually read by him, and she has quotes from Pascal, Plato and Aristotle prominently featured in her text.

It's these last three that are the cause for a certain level of discomfort. The Lewis isn't all that surprising--he's arguably the foremost Christian apologist of the 20th Century. And the Pascal quote (an allusion to a "god-shaped vacuum" being intrinsic to human nature) certainly appears to be the kind of tripe Pascal offered up. (Pascal and Lewis have in common the fact that between them they offered two of the most hideously stupid justifications for Christian faith ever presented in the garb of logic--Pascal's "Wager" and Lewis' "Lunatic, Liar or Lord" argument.) Pascal also connects easily to Mrs. Palin's childhood Catholicism, of course. But the Plato and Aristotle are initially surprising.

Only, here's the thing: I haven't dug too deeply into the Aristotle quote ("Criticism is something we can avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, being nothing," which actually appears at the beginning of Chapter 2), which could almost be Aristotle and might be, but the Plato quote sounds suspiciously unlike Plato. I could be wrong, of course--I haven't read any Plato since college, and it's been a long time. But "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," doesn't really jibe with what I recall of Plato's somewhat cynical view of human nature, and an attempt to trace the quote suggests a dubious provenance. It appears to be something that only recently was attributed to Plato, and is elsewhere attributed to Philo, and is rather similar to a more recent quotation by somebody else . Naturally, if you can point me to a text, I'd be glad to know, and if it's Plato, it's Plato. But in attempting to dig up the provenance, it's impossible not to notice that this quote, the Aristotle quote, and the Pascal quote are all one-liners that seem to have been very popular with the evangelical Christian community. They represent greeting card wisdom, inspirational poster wit, not to mention an easy launchpad for Sunday sermons and modern short essays in Lewis' footsteps.

Which leads one to the disturbing conclusion that these quotes probably aren't meant to buttress Mrs. Palin's intellectual credentials with her critics, who can dig up the Katie Couric interview on YouTube at their leisure, but rather that they're coded messages to fundamentalist Christians, the people who would presumably make up Mrs. Palin's base in 2012.

These are the lines they know, or think they know, allegedly from these reputed thinkers, and of course they're the thinkers they know--C.S. Lewis, for instance, is an author whose accessibility and generally clean prose makes him somebody who's reached for by laypeople with or without a college education who never took much by way of philosophy or religion in college. I realize how pompous, how elitist that must sound; but, you know, there was a time when being in the elite was flattering and people go to college to get educations, and C.S. Lewis is neither elite nor the acme of theological thought--his work is lowbrow rubbish from a scholar of medieval literature who was profoundly out of his depth when he turned his cleverness to Christian scholarship at a relatively late date in his life after J.R.R. Tolkien converted him by appealing to his love of mythology. Mention Lewis at a better divinity school, and I suspect professors will point and laugh. But mention him at a church social and watch people nod knowingly. I.e. mention them to the people Mrs. Palin hopes will carry her to the White House at some point.

(And have no doubt, if you entertained any at all: every page of Going Rogue has "I should be President" seeping between the lines like a toxic sludge. Damn John McCain to the cold black heart of a deep dark hell for giving this woman a taste for things--with her sense of entitlement, she thinks it should be hers now as if the elderly Senator wouldn't have had to win the election and die first.)

Earlier this evening, on an earlier post, Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station (if you're new here, or in the unlikely event you're a regular but you aren't following Jim, that's a blog you should be reading, by the way) wrote:

I warned you before, Palin isn't well educated, but she is shrewd and calculating and has an innate ability to connect with the lowest common denominator - criticize her book and you're criticizing the "brave men and women who keep us free blah blah blah." This is about them, not Palin. She's ignorant, she's not stupid. Every kneejerk patriot's heart will swell with pride and love when they read that dedication.


And there it is, everything I just wrote, and part of the reason I'm posting this tonight instead of saving it to write and publish tomorrow. Mrs. Palin isn't stupid, but she is ignorant. Her theology may be tripe cribbed from sermons and motivational posters and the kinds of religious books they sell in supermarkets and airport kiosks, but you can be sure as hell that nearly everybody predisposed to like Mrs. Palin is reading it and understanding the code words like it's coming across out of a telephone receiver. And you can be sure as hell that at least some of Mrs. Palin's critics will miss that fact at their peril--I don't know that I've seen a review from a liberal or mainstream media source (no, they're not the same, trust me) that's acknowledged the clever, scary little thing that Mrs. Palin is doing.

(What's scary? Well, if you don't mind small-minded, fanatical ideologues wed to a primitivist 19th or possibly even 17th version of Christianity, there's nothing scary at all, move along, nothing to see....)

Which brings up one more thing, the deliberately provocative title of this post: there are several ways you can rate the quality of a book. By the lights of most of them, Going Rogue fails the test in its first few pages. It's not well-written. It's not lucid. It's not compelling. It's not original. It doesn't do anything new and exciting to the English language that the English language actually deserved or saw coming. But there is the standard of whether a book does what it's meant to, whether it has its desired effect on the audience. By way of illustration: by most standards, John Grisham's books are just awful, full of ridiculous plots, unbelievable characters, sloppy prose; but insofar as Mr. Grisham's books are not meant to be virtuoso displays of the creative art, but are instead meant to keep people (most of them on airplanes) reasonably entertained for a few hours, Mr. Grisham's books are, largely, brilliant successes. Even people who don't like Mr. Grisham's work rarely are actually upset enough to feel they should get their time or money back.

In that regard, I'm afraid Going Rogue is a very good book indeed. It's meant to stimulate and encourage a certain small but vocal percentage of the country that believes certain ridiculous inconsistent things, and to convince them that the one, last, best hope for them is to adore and follow and help Mrs. Sarah Palin. Perhaps even to the leadership of the Free World, though I'm not sure they have the numbers to do more than split the Republican Party in twain and exile most of its current leaders to the wilderness (a situation that may not be healthy for democracy, in the long run, as much as I would like to see many of these people not just exiled to the wilderness, but shot into the sun). In terms of its effectiveness to a receptive and indeed hungry audience, Going Rogue is as brilliant as Shakespeare, even if its unlikely to be remembered as long.

Hope you'll sleep better tonight than I will.


3 comments:

Nathan Friday, November 27, 2009 at 10:47:00 PM EST  

I'm going to sleep fine Eric. I'm sticking with the thought that Palin's following (tied with the platform the RNC is floating), will be enough to fracture the Republican Party. They're not all nutbar crazy.

I have to believe that there's a sizable portion of the tribe who are going to disassociate themselves from this simplistic, fundamentalist view of where the country ought to go.

Or, if I'm wrong...uh...I got nothin'.

Oooh! I know! There's always Quebec!

Jeri Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 2:20:00 AM EST  

There's always the UCF enclave against the zombie apocalypse - wasn't it Brierwood or something like that we were going to take over with our impressive ground forces? ;)

Nathan Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 10:09:00 AM EST  

Thanks Jeri...I forgot all about that!

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