Saint Sarah of the icy wilderness

In his latest piece for the Wall Street Journal Thomas Frank neatly captures what I believe to be the essence of Sarah Palin's charisma:

Indeed, if political figures stand for ideas, victimization is what Ms. Palin is all about. It is her brand, her myth. Ronald Reagan stood tall. John McCain was about service. Barack Obama has hope. Sarah Palin is a collector of grievances. She runs for high office by griping [emphasis added].

Frank rightly considers Palin's constructed identity a political achievement:

This is no small thing, mind you. The piling-up of petty complaints is an important aspect of conservative movement culture. For those who believe that American life consists of the trampling of Middle America by the "elites" — that our culture is one big insult to the pious and the patriotic and the traditional — Sarah Palin's long list of unfair and disrespectful treatment is one of her most attractive features. Like Oliver North, Robert Bork, and Clarence Thomas, she is known not for her ideas but as a martyr, a symbol of the culture-war crimes of the left.

The "victim" is not a politically innocent category, for it has been an authoritative symbol throughout the post-Civil Rights era, one that has driven American militarism ("overcoming the Vietnam Syndrome"), the reaffirmation of racial segregation (epitomized by the white flight to the suburbs which marked the post-war era), the mass incarceration of the poor and the not-white (the wars on "crime" and "drugs"), the many anti-tax movements across the country (the middle class taxpayer as the victim of "big government") and much else. Indeed, according to Jonathan Simon (p. 75), the victim became the paramount symbol of the post-New Deal era. As a symbol it proved to be sufficiently effective that using it enabled the then emerging New Right to displace the New Deal political system and its progeny, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs along with the Civil Rights and New Left movements which pervaded the politics of the 1960s. In the United States today being labeled a victim does not by this means spoil the identity of the "victimized." The victim as thus described and known does not carry the burden of having a stigma. Rather, the label points to what some if not many Americans now consider the authentically American political subject, as Simon contends (pp. 75-110). It is a kind of honor badge!

Behold: Saint Sarah, the right-populist icon of a nation-state heading for trouble.

So, did Palin cultivate this persona? Or, did historical circumstances fashion her into what it needed? Frank clearly believes she actively sought to embody this specific image:

To become a symbol of this stature Ms. Palin has had to do the opposite of most public figures. Where others learn to take hostility in stride, she and her fans have developed the thinnest of skins. They find offense in the most harmless remarks and diabolical calculation in the inflections of the anchorman's voice. They take insults out of context to make them seem even more insulting. They pay close attention to voices that are ordinarily ignored, relishing every blogger's sneer, every celebrity's slight, every crazy Internet rumor.

But he also believes that the GOP image makers imposed this identity on her.

This has been Ms. Palin's assigned role ever since she stepped on the national stage last summer. Indeed, she has stuck to it so unswervingly that one suspects it was settled on even before she was picked for the VP slot, that it was imposed on her by a roomful of GOP image consultants: Ms. Palin was to be the candidate on a cross.

For my part, I believe that Saint Sarah was at least partially complicit in the imposition of this symbol upon her life! I also believe it to be a role to which she is suited to play.

Perhaps Palin has a few of her fifteen-minutes to spare….

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