20 December 2010

America by Heart: Let's get it started.

There's a lot to say about America by Heart. I mentioned before how I thought it was shallow and poorly-considered, but sometimes had a depth of feeling. But I've realized that above all, this is a very easy book. The prospective conservative will not find any uncomfortable truths, and very seldom anything that deviates from the strict party line. Every single chapter invokes Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of conservatism, and offers up countless platitudes and cliches. Palin likes nuclear families, the Second Amendment, American exceptionalism, and veterans. There is little subtlety, and almost no deep thought. The book is larded with lengthy quotations from unobjectionable sources.

In short, America by Heart is a book by an author who has pandered a lot, written little, and thought - well, not at all. It's evident from the very first words.

"Do you love your freedom? !"
The words rush out of me. It's a rhetorical question, of course.
Of course.

Today we will take a look at the Introduction, which is titled "An American Awakening."

The title is a good choice by Palin. It evokes right from the start the message she is trying to convey: the American people have been asleep, but now they're rising up from their slumber to assert their values and take back America. It's an image that has been used countless times in the past - most famously by Nixon in his "silent majority" speech - for the excellent reason that it tends to varnish over the sins of the past.

The Republicans have had a fairly consistent set of policies over the years. Their first priority is always tax cuts, followed closely by banning abortion and a militant foreign policy, and joined lastly by a host of well-known policies based around social conservatism. Another claimed priority, fiscal conservatism, generally falls by the wayside when it comes to actual governing. Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that they don't care about the size of government, only the size of taxes - that's why GOP administrations tend to run up huge deficits (Bush I excepted).

But then you get someone like Bush II comes into office riding on that message, and enacts it in flashy and obvious ways. Huge tax cuts, foreign invasions, and so on. Now maybe the GOP policies are a failure or the Bush II implementation is a failure (depending on your view) but however it happens, the plain fact is that a GOP President and Congress administered the things they always said they wanted to do, and the people hated them for it.

This is a dilemma: now the next wave of GOP spokespeople have to decide whether they want to reverse course away from the unpopular past and change their policies (and risk losing the base of their party) or continue the same message - a message the voters now associate with a disastrous couple of terms.

The best solution is the coat of varnish offered by the "sleeping masses" metaphor.

The tactic goes like this:
Listen, folks. In the past we actually failed to live up to our rhetoric. We promised fiscal conservatism and we gave you a massive debt. We promised free markets and instead we let them regulate our banks into a corner. But now we've listened to you - the common people - and you have let us know what you want. You're waking up, America, everywhere around the country, and we hear you.
That's not a quote from Palin's book, but it's not far off. Palin trumpets the "mama grizzlies" who feel threatened by government, the people who are threatened by how Obamacare was "forced down their throats." By invoking these masses, she immunizes her message from the failures of the past.

Palin relentlessly hammers this theme: it is I, she says, who am the voice of the real Americans. I'm just like you, and here is the proof.

That proof is this volume of pablum. Nothing uncomfortable, nothing challenging, nothing threatening to the demographic middle. It waxes smooth, sealing over the rough surface of the past.

The introduction begins with Palin at one of her rallies. A bit of research informs me it was this one, but it might as well have been any of them.
"Do you love your freedom?!"
The words rush out of me. It's a rhetorical question, of course. No one could look at this crowd of rowdy patriots waving American flags and chanting, "USA! USA!" and not know the answer. What's most amazing is that it's April 14, the day before Tax Day. We're in Boston, the home of the original American tax revolt. And everyone is in such a good mood. The crowd roars in the affirmative in answer to my question. And I look out on a sea of my fellow Americans: grandmas, college students, moms, dads, kids, veterans, people in business suits - even an aging hippie or two.
The mainstream media has been working overtime to portray these Americans as angry and bigoted. But I look out and see happy faces - faces of all ages, genders, and hues. The Stars and Stripes is everywhere, rippling in the spring breeze from outstretched arms and attached to wheelchairs and strollers. Dozens of yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags glow in the morning sun.

With your powers combined...
I guess we've gotten used to the television shows and advertisements that labor to display diversity, taken to its extreme in children's cartoons that have a "one of each" approach. It's not exactly a bad thing, but it gets a little silly if carried to extremes. And Palin starts to get a little silly.

This crowd includes everyone, and they're all being patriotic, and they're all overwhelmingly positive. All genders, ages, creeds, and colors support Sarah Palin are part of the rally.1 Everyone loves freedom. It's a huge love feast.

But it's the hand-painted, homemade signs that say it all. They're everywhere. I see a young girl holding one that says, "STOP Spending Money I Haven't Earned Yet!" I see a
young man holding a placard that says simply, ''I'm Privileged to Be an American." One guy's sign jokes, "I Can See November from My House!" And an older lady holds up a copy of the Constitution with the message "When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions."

Just in case we didn't get her point about diversity, we have "a young girl," "a young man," "one guy," and "an older lady." Palin's really hammering it home. She doesn't want to be appealing to any one demographic. This is what I expect next:
After the speech, I smiled and joined a group of patriotic Americans having an old-fashioned picnic. One girl, a Hispanic lesbian in a wheelchair, offered me a slice of pie. I accepted it with my warm thanks, and asked the elderly black civil-rights advocate to hand me a napkin. He did so eagerly, not out of a desire to impress, but just thanks to that common courtesy all Americans hold dear. Before we ate, we paused to let a Native American rabbi say grace, giving thanks to God for the food. It was the kind of scene that makes America great.
Sadly, it's not to be.  We get inner monologue instead.
What honest, heartfelt sentiments, I think. These people aren't an angry mob - they're Americans. Why do some feel the need to demonize them?
Have you stopped beating your wife?
And then I see them, on the fringes of the crowd: the professionally printed signs held aloft by a few counterprotestors. What a difference. Unlike the humor, color, and variety of the hand-painted signs, the printed signs are all the same (with the exception of one guy, who, in an attempt at humor-or at least distraction-is holding up a lifesize photo of Levi Johnston's centerfold). Written on those signs are the gripes of Washington special interest groups. The signs are held up by their hired stooges. And suddenly it comes to me: This is the central political struggle facing America today, being played out right here. With the exception of a few crackpots, the professionally printed signs all want something more from government -more for their union bosses, more for their special interest group, more for this government program or that.
In short, the people holding the uniformly printed signs have their hands out; Washington is spending away our kids' future and they still want more. But the people holding the homemade signs are the ones paying the bills. If the mainstream media wasn't busy insinuating that they're all racists and haters, it would have to acknowledge this fact. So the media keeps the coverage based on these patriots' motives. But what these good, honest Americans are asking for isn't ugly and dangerous. It's right there, on their signs and their flags and their faces, young and old and black and white: They want their country back.
When Palin looks out on this Technicolor crowd that represents everyone in America, she can immediately tell who's real. She can pick out who pays the bills and who spends the money. She knows the hired stooges of the unions or special interest groups at a glance.

The "good, honest Americans" are her supporters and those who echo her message. They don't want anything from the government. They're not racists (how could they be, when they're all colors?) They never bring up her ugly personal life or family history. They're patriots.

So if you oppose her or her policies, what must that make you?2

What I've learned from all this traveling and meeting and talking and reading is this: the spark of patriotic indignation that inspired the Americans who fought for our freedom and independence has been ignited once again! Americans are reawakening to the ideas, the principles, the habits of the heart, and disciplines of the mind that made America great. This isn't a political awakening. It's an American awakening. It's coming from real people - not politicos or inside-the-Beltway types. These are the Americans who grow our food, teach our children, run our small businesses, help out those less fortunate, and fight our wars. They've seen what is happening in America, so they've decided to get involved. They feel like they're losing something good and fundamental about their country, so they've decided to take it back, because they love this country and are proud to be Americans!

There are problems here, but the biggest is that there is not an ounce of subtlety in this paragraph.  It reminds me of this Married to the Sea cartoon:

Another problem is that the above paragraph is kind of Newspeak-ey. What does it mean to say that the Tea Party is not "political," but rather "American"? It's clearly - blatantly - just an attempt to make this particular political movement somehow better than predecessors in an undefinable way. Guys, we're not just a political movement - we're an American movement. How does someone write that without blushing?


A friend sent me a perfect illustration of this mind-set. It was a copy of the U.S. Constitution that was purchased with this warning label printed on the back: "This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work."

That's right: a warning label attached to the Constitution of the United States! It's outrageous, but in a sense it's a perfect reflection of the thinking of those who believe America needs a "fundamental transformation." They believe that the ideas of limited government and personal liberty that are contained in documents like the Constitution are dangerous and outdated. They honestly believe that our founding ideas and documents are obstacles to their vision of America. The Constitution doesn't reflect their values because it is a document that fundamentally constrains government. So they work to get around those constraints. They put warning labels on those constraints.

Wow, that's pretty crazy. And this dastardly publisher represents liberals like me, you say?

Wow, this publisher must be pretty major.  Let's see who he is. Ah, here we go: Wilder Publications. Clearly a major publishing company, selling such books as Leviathan by "Thomas Hobbs" and The Great Book of Tarzan by "Edgar, Rice Burroughs".

What's that? You say this publisher has a Livejournal?3

It seems that our edition of the U.S. Constitution has conservatives up in arms. We have a generic disclaimer on all of our PD books that points out that values have changed since the book was written. Back when we first started we got a lot of letters from people who were pissed off by some of the language and values that were presented in the classic books that we were publishing. So we put the disclaimer together and placed it into our template. The letters stopped coming and we forgot about it.

To give a bit of background. Wilder is not the actual publisher of the book. A&D Books is, we just distribute it. The reason this matters at all is because the publisher of A&D Books is a card carrying member of the NRA and quite conservative. So despite what Fox News and the conservative blogs want to say about this it's not really a liberal Vs conservative issue.

I'm not sure what's stupider here: making a guy who seems to operate out of his garage into a bogeyman of liberal malevolence, or drawing the conclusion that liberals think "personal liberty" is dangerous and outdated.

So then Palin spends a while talking about how great the Constitution is, another dangerous radical position that is sure to strike analysts as insightful. Her bold and innovative position will stagger the world. We can imagine the news reports from Tokyo:

アメリカのニュースでは、今日の知事、サラペイリン氏は、新しい本の中で発表 彼女が憲法を憎んではいませんでした。この驚きの発表がある の新しいアメリカの優位性を見越してNikeiの急落を送信 イランのアハマディネジャド大統領は強制的に市場では、とに頼る 自殺。 [In American news, today former governor Sarah Palin announced in a new book that she did not hate the Constitution. This surprise announcement has sent the Nikei plunging in anticipation of a new American dominance of the markets, and forced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to resort to suicide.]

Palin goes on about the Constitution:

When we take the time to actually read them, the instructions for America are pretty straightforward. They are the truths of our founding and more. They are the principles that have made our country great - keeping our government limited, our markets free, and our families strong. But the thing is, these principles, like all fundamental human truths, are not self-reinforcing. They have to be remembered, cherished, and taught to new generations of Americans.

Really? It seems to me that if they were pretty straightforward, then there wouldn't be any problems. The problems mostly arise where reasonable people can differ, like with the Second Amendment. That text clearly says that everyone has the right to bear arms, but it also strongly implies that it's for the purposes of a well-regulated militia; that caveat is so strong that it's actually the primary and initial clause of the sentence. Reasonable and intelligent people can and do disagree on what that means.

But not Palin. There's no subtlety, and no question of meaning shifting between the time they wrote and we read. To her, the very minds of a committee that met and hashed out a document 223 years ago (then sent it out to be ratified in thirteen areas, individually) are transparent and straightforward. It's simple: the Founding Fathers agree with her.

When I was preparing for my debate with then-vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden during the 2008 campaign I came across a quote from Ronald Reagan that perfectly expresses our need to preserve and protect American values. I quickly memorized it so I could use it for my closing statement, knowing that seventy million viewers would listen and learn from Reagan's wise words:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.

It's true, Reagan said that. Do you know when? In an ad attacking the pending passage of Medicare! Medicare, now one of the most sacred cows of the GOP! Remember that whole "death panels" thing about Medicare rationing and how terrible it would be?

Deep thinking here.

President Reagan's call for us to fight for, protect, and pass on to future generations the sources and meaning of our freedom is both a political and a personal call; it is a challenge, both for our country and for us individually. I take this challenge seriously. Passing on peace, prosperity, and liberty to the next generation requires a strong military, a free market, and a healthy constitutional order. But none of that will be sufficient if our children are not taught to have a reverence for the ideas, ideals, and traditions that are central to the American experiment.

This is my America, from my heart, and by my heart. I give it now to my children and grandchildren, and to yours, so they will always know what it was like in America when people were free.
This sort of rhetoric is consistent throughout the book, and as much as I make fun of it, it is probably the most well-crafted part of the work.  Palin is unobjectionable, rabble-rousing, and yet obviously patriotic.  She may not be thinking very much about these things she believes, but there can't be any question that she does believe them.

But it's very clear that Palin has no policies or ideas to offer.  There is not a single original thought in the book, and the introduction just serves to set the standard.  This is in keeping with her message ("We just need to return to the true principles of yesteryear!") but not in keeping for someone who wants to be taken seriously.  The whole book is a brainless puff piece for shallow reactionaries.  The introduction has given us a taste of the vapidity.

And there's a lot more of it to come.  Stay tuned.

1. As it happens, the tea party movement is generally reflective of one demographic in particular - conservatives - and to some extent older, male, wealthy, and rural voters. It's not especially representative of the public at large.

2. You must hate America.

3. Livejournal: hallmark of all great publishing houses.

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