I didn’t mean to write about Sarah Palin again so soon. And I guess that technically, I won’t be writing about Palin so much as about Peggy Noonan, once a dear and reliable voice of conservatism. And perhaps, indeed, not even so much about Noonan as about some of her comments in an 11 July column about Sarah Palin. (H/T: Doctor Zero at Hot Air)
I’m having to coin a new word – “Sarahnoia” – to describe the visceral antipathy some of our erstwhile conservative columnists seem to have for Palin. It’s a combination of annoyance at Sarah, and paranoia about her supposed effect on the image of the right, as perceived by the left.
And, of course, by some on the right as well.
Palin does nothing if not reveal the rifts and fault lines in conservatism. One of the ones that keeps recurring is this business with “class,” whose parsing seems to be a near-obsession with the commentators who don’t like Palin.
[Palin] continues to poll high among some members of the Republican base, some of whom have taken to telling themselves Palin myths.
To wit, ‘I love her because she’s so working-class.’ This is a favorite of some party intellectuals. She is not working class, never was, and even she, avid claimer of advantage that she is, never claimed to be and just lets others say it. Her father was a teacher and school track coach, her mother the school secretary. They were middle-class figures of respect, stability and local status. I think intellectuals call her working-class because they see the makeup, the hair, the heels and the sleds and think they’re working class ‘tropes.’ Because, you know, that’s what they teach in ‘Ways of the Working Class’ at Yale and Dartmouth.
Well, except that if you make a distinction, in America, between “working class” and “middle class,” you’ve already swallowed the Yale- and Dartmouth-taught tropes, hook, line, and sinker.
It’s a Marxist distinction, “middle class” – bourgeoisie – versus “working class” – proletariat. It had to be imported into America, because the quintessential Yankee roots are in freeholding yeoman farming, self-employed craftsman occupations, and small-community commerce; not the societal arrangements of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, or those of feudal serfdom that preceded it.
In America, “working class” is “middle class.” If you don’t get that, you really don’t get America. You are stuck in the European weltanschauung of a century ago, believing that “the working man” is, by class, downtrodden, ignorant, and exploited, and needs political advocacy to help him put his boots on in the morning – not to mention defend him, with constant gulps of self-righteousness, against the shabby assumed superiority of the petit bourgeois, like the schoolteacher or the office worker.
This latter dynamic is far more presumed by the chattering class to be at work, than it exists in actual operation. I don’t know a soul teaching school, or working as a secretary, who thinks he or she is of a higher class than a plumber, construction worker, independent contractor, or refuse collector. During my years as an active duty military officer, a lot of these latter people were making a lot more money than I did.
They have skills requiring intelligence and discipline. They have a strong work ethic (the strongest in the world), and a standard of responsibility that is awe-inspiring in comparison to much of what you encounter elsewhere – starting with, for example, the State Assembly of California, or the US Congress. Indeed, they have a sense of responsible self-government and citizenship that, in America, is the most important delineator of the “middle class.”
The particulars of their personalities and social groups vary across regions, but the “middle class” encompasses people in what we think of as labor and craftsman occupations as well as “professionals”: teachers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, engineers. It also encompasses policemen, firefighters, medical technicians, and the military, just as it encompasses clerical workers, small business owners, and independent contractors.
In America, everyone but Paris Hilton is in the “working class.” I don’t know a lot of people who have expressed satisfaction at Sarah Palin being “working class,” so much as at her being down-to-earth, non-establishment, an American with a small-town, common-sense background, one who obviously knows how to do a number of actually quite difficult things that other Americans – Americans other than Peggy Noonan and Kathleen Parker – also know how to do, and understand the rigor and difficulty of. (I’ll never forget Rich Lowry of National Review writing, with rather breathless excitement, of going on his first guided hunting trip, and thinking, Hmm, son. I wonder if you have any idea how many of your readers could have guided that hunting trip? But would do it only on their off time, because when they take a firearm out, the intention is to come home with food.)
It would, for me, peg you as an elitist if I heard you call the Palins “working class.” They belong to a class that is political in nature, not economic: one whose characteristics are self-sufficiency, an ingrained resistance to coercion and cultivation by politicians, and a sense that improvement of their lot, or the lot of others, is in their hands, and is – being in their hands – a realistic hope; the American hope. This class of people is the very essence of America, and you can be in it whether you work on fishing trawlers or oil rigs, teach school, run a consulting business, farm wheat, design bridges, write novels, or are a wife and mother homeschooling your children.
This is what Sarah Palin comes across as: a quintessentially American person who doesn’t self-consciously classify herself, in socioeconomic terms, relative to others. Noonan writes of Palin:
She was a gifted retail politician who displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why.
But it looks to me like the self-awareness and other-awareness deficit may be more on Noonan’s side than on Palin’s. What Noonan doesn’t seem to understand is that buying into the classification system of the “other sides,” as she herself implicitly does, is surrender. Sarah Palin may well have been born into her point of view; but since it’s the point of view that preserves liberty, simply because it’s good and right, when all about you are surrendering to the way the “other sides” think, I’m having a hard time holding that against her.
Basically, Palin was not born into a Marxist-construct household or Marxist-construct urban economic stratum, and has never imbibed a Marxist weltanschauung through her intellectual endeavors in adult life. She doesn’t think obsessively in terms of class, and of her place in the “economy” as outlining the sum total of what she is – unless, of course, she can overcome those systemic limitations through politics. Why this is problematic for the Eastern conservative establishment remains a mystery to me. Super-awareness of, and de facto purchase on, the Marxist mindset has done nothing but undermine and defeat conservatism in America for the last 80 years.
Maybe it takes a politician who is not steeped in the Marxism of the Western academy to escape its intellectual clutches. If so, fine by me. Conservatism loses ground relentlessly when it allows the “other sides” to define all the terms. I’d rather have one Sarah Palin who simply transcends the argument, than a hundred Jesuits pirouetting on the head of a pin, explaining why even though it sounds more compassionate to make more laws to “help” the “working man,” trust me, it really isn’t. Except that sometimes it is, and only our politicians can really sort it all out. Don’t worry your little prole heads out there, voters. Just keep sending money.
Some of Noonan’s comments are particularly hard to account for:
Her lack of any appropriate modesty did her in. Actually, it’s arguable that membership in the self-esteem generation harmed her. For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they’re perfect in every way. It’s yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.
Good heavens. Now, Noonan will have to get in line behind me, among many others, to criticize the fell consequences of instilling a wholly unjustified “self-esteem” in people, while making no effort to give them actual cause for self-respect. There’s a lot of that going around, and it has, indeed, made notable inroads on the demeanor of a whole generation of Americans.
But not Sarah Palin’s generation. Palin is 45. Thirty years ago she was 15. Trends that started 30 years ago started when Palin’s character was already about 90% formed – and we can be pretty sure that in remote, small-town America, high school sophomores were not being so overwhelmingly influenced by the Self-Esteem Movement in K-12 education that the personalities of today’s middle-aged can be validly attributed to it. (Palin was also a high-school athlete, which was 30 years ago and remains today one of the best teachers there is about modesty, rigorous self-criticism, the realities of failure, of not having done well enough, and of doing better.)
Meanwhile, I am at a loss to discern in Palin what Noonan is describing here. The only things that occur to me that would requite a demand for more diffidence from Palin are caricatures of class obeisance. What would Noonan rather have seen from Palin? By her lights, what would a more “modest” mien have looked like?
When Noonan has gotten herself elected to anything, and has made a single policy difference to the people and economy of a state, then, I think, it will be time to advise others on “modesty,” and “proper senses” of their “inadequacy.” Inadequacy for what? Palin clearly has not been inadequate to the requirements of the political offices she has held. She has not, even more importantly, been inadequate to the roles of wife and mother.
She could not list magazines and newspapers she reads. On the other hand, she has actually accomplished more, policy-wise, than many have who read voraciously. The link between reading a lot of political commentary and policy advice, and being politically effective, is not very strong.
The example of Ronald Reagan is one that suggests it is important to read seminal works of economic and political theory. But that is not the same thing as reading magazines and newspapers. In fact – I say this with some authority, because I do both – it is quite different, in significant ways. The occasional, particularly well-argued magazine article, one that becomes a classic and joins the ranks of the indispensable “works” of a genre, is rare. Most of the time, with news and opinion outlets, you are grazing for information. You fit it into a worldview you have already come to hold, through studying a comparatively few writers and thinkers, most of whom are dead or soon will be. If Palin were going to read, I would far rather she read anything at all by Thomas Sowell or Friederich Hayek than the latest issue of The Atlantic.
Newspaper information, and the current-events opinion and analysis found in magazines, are the kind of thing executives get briefed on, by others who specialize in studying them. The others typically are not executives themselves because they are less suited to action and decision than to basking in the processing of information. The difference between an executive and his advisors is often that the executive knows how to use information, opinion, and principle to make decisions, and the advisor doesn’t.
People who are more decisive than we are can often look arrogant to us – as if they don’t have a proper sense of inadequacy. Maybe that’s what’s agging Peggy Noonan, and probably some of Palin’s other detractors as well.
The wisdom to discern that decisiveness and arrogance are not the same thing has been something of a casualty of modernized urban life, I think. There is an urban pattern of dithering around, being afraid to take action because there are so many opinions and so many people who might not like it, that is much less pervasive in rural America, where indecision can lead to bad things, up to and including the fatal. Many, many people recognize decisiveness as a quality that creates a basis for moving forward and getting things done, rather than being a quality that ignores or fails to account for the inadequacies that plague every aspect of human life. To make a decision is not to be unaware that there are alternatives, objections, and unilluminated corners of ignorance – it is to decide that those are not, in a given instance, the controlling factors.
I think Palin resonates with so many Americans because of our inborn sense that being steeped in current-events chatter correlates negatively with being decisive about current events. I have read over and over the sentiment that Palin can learn what she doesn’t know, but what she does know is far more important. I think there’s a lot to that.
I don’t believe, for example, that Palin could be duped into thinking that a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia was a landmark event, when the underlying truth is that Russia is unlikely to honor the agreement, because Moscow continues to demand that we negotiate missile defense as part of any nuclear arms accord. I also don’t think Palin would, if she had not been duped, and fully understood what was happening, present the agreement to the world as if it were a landmark, and as if there would be no disappointment down the road, when the agreement faded away due to non-implementation.
President Obama has done one or the other of these things, in the last week. Either he does understand the low value of the Russians’ provisional “agreement,” and is merely using the photo op to bolster his political image, or he doesn’t understand it. Neither one speaks well of his intellect. It doesn’t take in-depth knowledge of warhead numbers and types, or expertise with the history of nuclear arms negotiations and deterrence theory, to understand any of this. All it takes is the posture of a hardheaded negotiator, and moral clarity. Sarah Palin has both of those qualities.
If I were to suspect there is one significant realm in which Palin may truly need “seasoning,” it is that of selecting and using advisors – finding people to rely on for important substantive judgments. Anyone who thinks a leader does not, or should not, need to do that, has never been a leader. The leader cannot know everything, or be the expert on everything. It’s a mistake to try. Of much greater importance is having an interest in and vision for a particular outcome for the project, and steering the ship and crew toward it, keeping to a base course set by a higher purpose.
From what I can tell of her history of governance, in Wasilla and the whole state of Alaska, Palin has been very good at identifying the higher purpose, setting the objective and course, and getting the ship there. What I see less of is a history of incorporating the useful – often, the heroic – traits of others, to crew the ship, review the course, and even, now and then, retool the higher purpose.
To me, particular facility with this executive skill comes with age and wisdom. One thing most of us lack when we are young is a sense that everyone has been put here for a good purpose, including those whose primary traits are very different from ours. We are not, in fact – pace the zeitgeist of modern homogenization – all supposed to be trying to turn into the same human being. Characteristics that irritate us in others, as Palin’s decisiveness and lack of existential self-doubt seem to irritate Peggy Noonan, are not patterns to be exterminated, but unique inputs that together make up a human whole. On the flip side, just as Palin need not be like Noonan, Noonan does not need to be like Palin either. Some people do prize cogitation and expression over decision, and we are blessed to live in an age of plenty in which so many of them can be gainfully employed, and enrich our lives.
I don’t see evidence that Palin has an antipathy toward people who are not “like her,” so much as an absence of evidence that she recognizes the utility that people of other personality can have for an executive leader. My prediction is that Palin has the good heart, and aspiration to wisdom, that will lead her to this understanding. It may well be that spending some years traveling the nation, and just getting to know a lot of politicians and thinkers personally, will be precisely the most effective method. (It was a key passage for Reagan, in the years before he was elected governor of California.)
Learning this truth, and becoming a wise judge in regard to it, is the task I would set Palin over the coming years, if she wants to prepare for the challenges Noonan outlines:
Here are a few examples of what we may face in the next 10 years: a profound and prolonged American crash, with the admission of bankruptcy and the spread of deep social unrest; one or more American cities getting hit with weapons of mass destruction from an unknown source; faint glimmers of actual secessionist movements as Americans for various reasons and in various areas decide the burdens and assumptions of the federal government are no longer attractive or legitimate.
I suppose Noonan and I see things somewhat differently, however, as Palin already qualifies for the short list of potential national leaders I’d feel best about, dealing with such calamities. She has, in spades, what so few others have at all: common sense and moral clarity. It looks to me like she is far more concerned about doing the right thing than about what the chattering class will think of her. You can’t learn that from reading magazines and newspapers – and you absolutely can’t learn it from worrying whether other people consider you insufficiently attentive to your inadequacies. You do hone and refine this strength of mind and character through serving, deciding, and being accountable – three things almost none of Sarah Palin’s critics have actual experience in.