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Politics of the Absurd: Sarah Palin and the mindset for war
Pandora Hopkins
December 02, 2008
Pandora Hopkins reflects on the adsurdity of the 2008 US elections, offering some insight into the archetypal "warrior" and "clanmom" figures of John McCain and Sarah Palin. Hopkins writes: "My hope is that, by using a folkloric perspective—by examining the tales told by and about Sarah Palin and John McCain (stock figures in this drama)--we can begin to find ways to promote the hope that Obama has inspired—and the satirical energy that Sarah Palin engendered."


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In the film, “My Cousin Vinny,” the protagonist, a neophyte lawyer from Brooklyn, cannot believe that wardrobe decorum –to look “lawyerly,” as the judge puts it-- can be relevant to the murder trial of two innocent college students. Much the same attitude (this can't be serious!) has recently engulfed half of the U.S. citizenry in laughter.  Here was a vice-presidential candidate—the Governor of the state of Alaska-- who didn’t know what a vice president does, who couldn’t list the newspapers she reads on a daily basis, who answered with the flip “Oh, I'll try to find you some, and I'll bring them to ya,” when asked for examples of McCain’s opposition to deregulation, and who mumbled incoherently when asked to name supreme court decisions she didn’t agree with other that Roe v. Wade.

Sarah Palin herself shrugged it off—with a smile and a wink.  (After all, she wasn’t interested in talking about those things.)  One of the churches near her home town in Alaska sought supernatural aid by initiating 40 days of prayer and fasting (English 2008), while her staff swooped down to protect her from the “liberal media.” The night after the Republican convention, one of Palin’s senior advisors confided to a New York Times reporter--over late-night beers at the Hilton--that no, they never did get around to talking to her about international issue.  Senator Joe Lieberman called her lack of knowledge an asset: it helps her “relate to regular people….This isn’t an IQ test” (Stein 2008).  Palin has retained power in the Republican Party, at least so far—although a few high-profile leaders bailed out and fled to the Democrats.[i]

While most rank and file Republicans still consider Palin a triumph, most other U.S. citizens have viewed her as the triumph of the absurd.   As the interviews exposed her ignorance of international affairs, she touched the funny bone of jaded journalists, inspired hitherto quiescent You Tube producers, and propelled composers to their synthesizers and samplers.  The result: new heights of satirical creativity—thus providing a stressed-out public with much-needed therapeutic mirth, a complement to the grassroots political activism that was just as suddenly sweeping the country. For those of us who want a peaceful world, who have no overwhelming yearning for empire or rapture, who decry the military-industrial complex, it was exhilarating to see the American public suddenly energized through an outpouring of grassroots social commentary reminiscent of the 1960s-1970s.

In this past election, voters in Colorado defeated a ruling that would have defined a fertilized egg, not yet implanted in a woman, as a person. Three states passed injunctions against same-sex marriage (California, Arizona and Florida). In Arkansas, unmarried couples—straight or gay--cannot now adopt or even provide foster care for the children who are languishing in their overburdened state-run facilities.  While some anti-abortion proposals were defeated, there seems little doubt that governmental social engineering is still alive and well in the United States.  On the other hand, I will argue that the election results delivered at least a temporary defeat to Sarah Palin, a type of military motherhood figure that ably complements the warrior image of John McCain. There is little doubt that many, if not most, voters considered the election to be a referendum on the unpopular war, and understood that Palin, in her unquestioning acceptance of the superiority of her own (family, state, country, religion), represented in cartoon fashion what I call the “clanmom” role in a militaristic family structure.  

Contrary to the voters’ expressed desire, the country’s economy remains precariously balanced on permanent military involvement, while a “three trillion dollar war” (Steele & Goldberg 2008) has wrought economic disaster on the country. Absurd? Despite the voters’ emphatic message, the imperial folk and the egg-personhood folk have not gone away; indeed, some of the former are planning to move to Washington in January, having been invited into the new administration. Absurd?

On January 31, in his last debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama, offered leadership in changing the “mindset for war”:

I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.

Ten months later, in his victory speech, Obama gave a more muted version of this hope:

This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.  And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.

Indeed it was a call for help as he realized the limitations imposed upon the presidency. There is an urgency right now to answer his call, a window of opportunity, before too many of those imperial folk unpack their bags.

More than a year before his election success, Obama had characterized the mindset for war. In his last debate with Hillary Clinton on September 12, 2007, Obama told Iowa supporters:

Conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war….too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions….Our only opportunity to stop the war was lost.

Obama’s mindset, I would argue, is composed of what I like to call  subliminal truths, a term for the  subliminal assumptions we have internalized since infancy,  concepts that can contradict rational conclusions we have drawn from  actual experience and information.  One of the sub-truths forming the mindset for war is purification, something I have written about elsewhere (Hopkins 2008).  Obama, in explaining why congressional representatives were so quick to obey gung-ho warrior leaders, was pointing (in the above quote)  to another, equally important, component of the war mindset, one that the psychologist Stefan Ducat has termed  anxious masculinity or the wimp factor, “now an issue that dogs most men who run for public office” (Ducat 2004).  Obama called it “the fear of looking weak.” And this fear of looking weak has led to the death (in Iraq alone) of an estimated 89, 243-97, 423 civilian deaths (according to Iraq Body Count)[ii] and at least 4,202 members of the U.S. military forces (AP) in an unprovoked attack upon a small and defenseless nation.

In a very real sense, a mindset is a story line.  The relationship between reality and mystery has always been a challenge for mortals to understand.  We all tend to—perhaps need to—live within narratives, but these may or may not work for us.  When they work, they are something like Harold in the children’s story who uses his purple crayon to draw a staircase when he needs to climb one. Even children (perhaps especially children) have no trouble in disentangling the reality from the mystery in this little tale—and getting the message.  To use a dreadful word (because it has been so misused), it is an authentic communication.  Problems arise when the messages are inauthentic (sorry again!).  That is when we accept and incorporate in our own lives stories that have nothing to do with our own experience but have been appropriated without deliberation.

My hope is that, by using a folkloric perspective—by examining the tales told by and about Sarah Palin and John McCain (stock figures in this drama)--we can begin to find ways to promote the hope that Obama has inspired—and the satirical energy that Sarah Palin engendered.  It is essential that we don’t allow ourselves to fall back into the lethargy that made Chris Hedges write six years ago:  “The question is whether America now courts death. We no longer seem chastened by war as we were in the years after the Vietnam War” (Hedges 2002: 160). Let’s begin at the beginning.

I SARAH PALIN THE CLANMOM:  HER STORY

Sarah Palin is the Clarence Thomas for feminists…a breath of fresh air. ---Rick Santorum castigating women for not supporting Palin

Culture War and the emergence of Sarah Palin--

During the last 35 years or so, U.S. citizens have witnessed the gradually-increasing power of an alignment of reactionary secular and religious forces bent on reversing the progressive trends  of the 1960s-1970s counterculture The movement was sparked (among others) by two “fathers,” Irving Kristol, “godfather of neoconservatism”  (fellow of the American Enterprise Institute)–who called liberalism “a rot and decadence germinating within American society” (Kristol 1984) and Paul Weyrich, “father of conservatism”  (co-founder of the Heritage foundation), who recently repeated his  contempt for voting rights. [iii]Nearly two decades ago, James Davison Hunter published Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America) in which he predicted that the family would become “the decisive battleground”—centering on the question of “what constitutes a family in the first place” (Hunter 1991: 176-177; emphasis in original).

Openly hostile to all egalitarian mechanisms, the disparate conservative groups that made up the Republican  alliance agreed to focus on the only issue with which they were in complete agreement: the establishment of a single legitimate family type-- heterosexual, two-parent, and patriarchal--both through legislation and through the resurrection of social stigma. [iv]It is the kind of social control necessary to complement an hierarchical military social structure.  Authoritarian domestic policies and the imperial state are two sides of the same coin.

At first, Sarah Palin seemed to be a Godsend, quite literally, to the Republican Party, most of whose evangelical base, unhappy with the nomination of John McCain,  had been threatening to stay home or worse (vote Democratic). Palin is a conservative evangelical Christian, hunter of animals, a life-long member of the N.R.A., anti-choice, anti-abortion even in the case of rape or incest, pro-abstinence-only education, pro-teaching creationism, anti-environmental constraints, and pro-drilling anywhere. Televangelist Pat Robertson declared, I am astounded at her abilities”(WCVB TV-Boston). Paleo-conservative Patrick Buchanan wrote: “Palin has become, overnight, the most priceless political asset the movement has” (Buchanan 2008).  Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) sang, “A sea-change in the mood, in everything. It is nothing but positive....I cannot even describe to you what this has done to our prospects of winning the White Houase” (Mascaro 2008).  James Dobson, leading figure in the Dominionist movement (Hedges 2005), returned with enthusiasm: “I have not been so excited about any candidate since Ronald Reagan” (Munro 2008). And finally, the libertarian pseudo-sociologist Charles Murray was in love with Palin: “Truly and deeply in love”  (TrackBack 2008).  The coalition was back—for a time.

Absurd changes of heart--

On September 1, Sarah and Todd Palin issued the family’s official statement on their daughter’s pregnancy: "Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family." To almost everyone’s astonishment, Palin’s base of support only solidified when the Governor of Alaska-—announced that her 17-year-old, unmarried daughter Bristol was 5 months pregnant.  At one time, the above-quoted Ensign had lobbied his legislators to “bring back stigma” for out-of-wedlock sex.  Reminded of his former views, a reporter at the Republican Convention asked him: “…should that child [Bristol] be given a stigma?”  Ensign replied in the negative: “The difference is….that the Alaska governor’s teen daughter plans to marry the father” (Compare Henry 1997 with Mascaro 2008)     Despite the young man’s disinterest in having offspring-- as noted on his personal website (now unavailable),  the Palin family and their supporters have stoutly maintained that their announcement of the impending liaison was not a “shot-gun marriage.”

The point is important because during the 1990s, humiliation was successfully used—and hammered into legislation (most especially through the welfare “reform” bill)—to win public support for recognizing only one kind of family, the heterosexual, two-parent, patriarchal structure favored by right-wing social engineers.  Insistent demands to “bring back stigma” involved reviving the concept of illegitimacy for out-of-wedlock sex and retrieving the threat of the “shot-gun marriage.” Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s views of sex outside of marriage used to be so extreme that he didn’t believe rape victims should be permitted to use either the “morning after” pill or RU 486.  However, in this case, he called the Bristol story ”a net positive”; after all, he said, “Social conservatives are not puritanical. They are not people who think people don’t sin (Hamilton 2005; Horowitz 2008). President of the Family Research Council Gary Bauer, who used to think that increasing rates of “illegitimacy,” indicated that a society was “headed for the rocks of decline,” found the story “endearing” (Horowit0z 2008).

Top Gun theater—

Palin’s acceptance speech was written by staff writer, Matthew Scully,  before he, or anyone else on McCain’s staff, knew who  the vice-presidential nominee would be.  His original assumption that the candidate would be male, he said, forced re-writing from scratch, but he refused to elaborate.  We can assume that the attacks on Obama probably needed no rewriting, and we notice the absence of Palin’s more radical  religious beliefs.   (or her hunting prowess; Scully is a vegetarian and an animal rights activist).  At any rate, Palin demonstrated an uncanny ability to bond with thousands of delegates in the hall, virtually none of whom had ever heard of her before.  Her speech was punctuated with cries of “Sarah!--Sarah!” from an audience that had been pumped up by earlier speakers.    In retrospect, it was a rather chilling foreshadowing of demagoguery to come when her words were to incite swarms of infatuated followers to shout violent and racist epithets against Obama  (“Traitor! –“Kill him!”).  At the end of her acceptance speech, when her whole family, including husband, future son-in-law and four of her five children joined her on the stage, a gleeful John McCain jumped up to hug her and photographers snapped the tableau that would circulate around the world.  Then McCain grabbed the microphone, shouting: Don’t you think we have made the right choice for the next vice president? And what a beautiful family!” (CNN)

The crowd’s roar of approval was not just for the beauty of the family tableau. The Palin family portrait established the credentials for this vice-presidential nominee: She began her family introduction by describing her oldest son, a soldier about to be deployed to Iraq, a circumstance that not only attested to her patriotism and respect for the military but also to appropriate training of a male offspring; the youngest son’s very existence was proof of her commitment to “life” principles (She had knowingly brought this Down-syndrome baby into the world.); and the presence of her obviously pregnant daughter attested both to her “pro-life” principles and to her redemptive method of dealing with a child fallen from grace.  In humiliating Bristol before the entire world, wasn’t she following the following the prescriptions of right-wing pundits who have been demanding “bring back stigma!” lo these many years?   And the marriage to come was quite in accord with the spirit of Bush’s “marriage initiative” which also treats marriage  as the solution to sin.

The rank and file of her public were solidly behind her.  They gave one of two reasons: either they focused on her decision to choose life and welcomed the upcoming marriage as a purifying agent; or, secondly, they said they related to her as a normal, a person just like them with problems just like theirs (as Senator Lieberman predicted although in a different context; see above).  Clearly, Palin had qualifications that suited her constituency, although perhaps not exactly the credentials most people have in mind when they talk about vetting a candidate. She is the quintessential role model for the female part of what members of the religious right choose to call “the traditional family” that espouses “family values,” or simply “values.” The term has been used ad nauseam , but the public well understands  that its meaning is restricted to certain specifics and has nothing to do with ameliorating poverty or promoting peace.

The clanmom--

Palin’s stage-managed propulsion into the political arena at the Repulicanan convention reminded me of George W. Bush’s Top Gun landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. To adapt the words of Stephan Ducat to the feminine situation, “Rarely in the history of political stagecraft has there been a more coherent spectacle, by which I mean a unity of clanmom form with clanmom content….…she became for a while the principal iconic figure for resurrected American woman” (Ducat 22).[v] 

I have had to resort to a neologism to express a feminine type that is, nonetheless, familiar:  clanmom.  There simply is no equivalent to the original word phallic with its host of both biological and metaphorical connotations; indeed “clanmom” cantains within it the phallic principle because this kind of mom provides coach-like support to  both male and female children and her husband.  She is not a feminist, rejecting the concept of gender equivalency; on the contrary, she is a firm advocate of dichotomous gender roles—which she transmits to her children.   She tends to disparage intellectual discourse  as a waste of time.  As a conservative maintainer of  family morals, she usually is active in a religious institution.  She wields actual power through maintaining the social calendar, performing as a stylish and gracious hostess for her husband’s business associates, and frequently controls the check book.  Like a football coach, she commonly directs from outside the playing field but can choose to appear on the playing field if she so wishes. The term “clanmom” suggests the “blood” loyalty that can inspire fierce hatred of others, a one-sided, irrational allegiance to the clan that can lead to a competition far deadlier than team sports; thus the image is integrally related to family feuds, belief in retribution--and acceptance, even promotion, of warfare.  The extreme focus on her family can lead to racism.

Sarah Palin exhibits a remarkable number of the foregoing characteristics.  The author Susan J. Douglas calls it “Feminism Without Feminism” and, with a nod to Palin, “Pit Bull Feminism” (Douglas 2008).

The clanmom is not the only feminine ideal with a time-honored pedigree.[vi] However, there is no doubt that the family structure is the most convenient “building block” upon which to construct an hierarchical warrior state.

It was an idealized form of the clanmom image that captivated two sets of right-wing movers and shakers when they met, and were entertained by, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska during the summer of 2007.  According to a fascinating account in the New Yorker, two separate luxury cruises offering tourists lectures by prominent writers stopped in Juneau, Alaska: the first from Rupert Murdock’s The Weekly Standard and the latter from the William Buckley-founded National Review.  Upon his return, Fred Barnes, Executive Editor of The Weekly Standard  published the first major national article specifically promoting  Palin, “The Most Popular Governor,” but the other powerful journalists used hyperbole, too: striking, pretty, a combination of Annie Oakley and Joan of Arc,  former beauty queen, a honey,  a heartthrob.  This last came from the computer strokes of Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard’s Washington-based editor.  Back in June, this neo-conservative pundit had declared: “I don’t know if I can make it through the next three months without her on the ticket” (Mayer 2008). Clearly, the Christian right was also involved, and when Rick Santorum, on Fox News announced his selection of Palin from a short list, it was June 22, three months before September—at the same time Kristol couldn’t stand waiting for her to be chosen.

Unfortunately for at least some of these Washington insiders, they underestimated the clanmom.  Perhaps they should have been aware of an example from nearly a thousand years ago that could have served as a warning.

Absolutes that cannot be questioned--      

The clanmom is found in the 13th century Icelandic Njals Saga or Burnt Njals Saga (Brennu-Njáls Saga). It describes the beginning of a cycle of violence that leads to the self-immolation of the good Njáls, his wife and sons; the tragedy had been initiated by Hilkigunna when she demanded blood vengeance for her murdered husband.   The distraught official arbiter, Flosi, unable to persuade her to accept peaceful retribution, is described as “blood-red in the face and sometimes ashy pale as withered grass and sometimes blue as death,” but he cannot go against the power of the woman he describes as “the greatest hell-hag” who wishes “…that we should take that course which should be the worst for all of us” He tells her: “It is well thou should weep for a good husband….But women’s counsel is ever cruel” (Njáls Saga: Chapter LXVIII).

Of course, Palin is not Hilkigunna, and there are differences.  We are not told by the saga author whether Hilkigunna was “a babe,” given to outrageous spending sprees or winking flirtatiously while presenting her case.  However, Hilkigunna is depicted as both a gracious hostess and goader of her menfolk— tough enough to toss her late husband’s still-blood-soaked coat over the startled Fossi’s shoulders to prove her point. More importantly, in both cases, decision-making is not dependent upon weighing pros and cons, but on absolutes that cannot be discussed or questioned but are handed down from previous generations.

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[i]  Most notably, they include David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, and Colin Powell.  The first post-election Rasmussen Poll   (Nov. 7) reported that 91% Republicans viewed Sarah Palin favorably, only 8% unfavorably. Since then, a deep split within Republican leadership has been revealed.

[ii] Washington does not keep track of civilian casualties in Iraq.  The IBC figures have been criticized as being far too low; however, it is the only recent estimate I have been able to find. A research team from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, United States estimated in July 2006, that  654,965 Iraqis had died then as a consequence of the war.  See Michel Thieren, “Iraq Deaths:How Many, Why It Matters.”  Available:http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflictiraq/iraq_deaths_4011.jsp

[iii] Compare his 1980 address available on www.youtube.com with Weyrich 2008).

[iv] This perspective involves the non-recognition of many existing families, the rejection of working toward providing greater economic and educational opportunities, the retraction of liberal attitudes toward sex, a desire to control the ethnic and racial makeup of the country, the rejection of a woman’s right to control her own body, as well as the demonization of single moms and homosexuals.

[v] I was interested to see that Frank Rich, in his insightful article on Palin in the New York Times, made this same analogy.

[vi] There are at least three others types recognizable today: the peacemaker, the victim of family honor, and the ecofeminists’ conception of the feminine principle.


Pandora Hopkins taught at Yale University, Rutgers University and CUNY (the City University of New York) before moving to Mexico where she is writing a book, tentatively called House of Cards and the Subliminal Truths That Are Holding It Together. She also co-directs (with Victoria Fontan) an oral history project, “Voting With Their Feet.” A particular research focus on the political consequences of cross-cultural perception was also manifested by her book, Aural Thinking in Norway (Plenum, 1986); it is a study of the cognitive nature of aural transmission through an analysis of the Hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway.
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