KGB Officer: What is the sum of 5 and 3?
Mathematician at Soviet university: What do YOU think it is?
- Soviet joke
How strange that we now have a former Vice Presidential candidate- unqualified for that office, by almost any standard except perhaps camera presence- who is soon to be a member of the news media. While it is no surprise that she has been asked to do so, and no surprise that she should have accepted, and no surprise at all that she will appear on Fox News, the very unremarkable nature of this situation speaks to what should be surprising to all citizens of the United States: a politician's entry into the Fourth estate, the institution we charge with keeping an eye on government power.
Sarah Palin's entry into the Halls of Media should provoke a flurry of questions from us all, the first of which should be: What precisely are her qualifications for any role in the media? True, she once was governor of Alaska. She is a once-ran candidate for the second highest office in the United States. It was glaringly apparent during her candidacy that she was ill prepared, ill-qualified, and ill-suited for the position, chosen as much for her photogenicity as for her down-home persona (and how DID the McCain handlers come up with that gem of a distorted southern accent for a candidate from, of all places, Alaska?). Of course, she would not be the first failed candidate for higher office to have used the exposure in the spotlight to further a career. But it strikes us that there is something quite peculiar about her rise to a position of political punditry, and quite telling of a kind of pathology from which America suffers at present.
Perhaps Palin's entry into the media is simply the latest example of a kind of reverse cult of personality that seems ubiquitous in this country. Whereas "cult of personality" describes a sociological phenomenon whereby individuals with dynamic personality could sway the masses, the reverse cult of personality is phenomenon whereby a dull but seemingly familiar and non-threatening personality sways, or at least momentarily entertains, the masses. Jon and Kate Gosselin (now divorced) raising their eight children on a television show, American Idol "singer" William Hung, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin are all prime examples.
Replacing the shock-jocks of the '90s, the inflammatory right-wing anti-crusaders that inspire or antagonize, and the righteous tirades by learned and articulate preachers of the conservative dogma, are a much stranger breed, the Everyguy. Everyguy could be the next-door neighbor, the buddy that you bond with over a few beers at the back fence. Everyguy is never challenging, never threatening, never too brainy or overly ambitious. He is a plain-speaking straight-shooter, with "family" values and a disdain for liberals and intellectuals, those dangerous perpetrators of sin and socialism. We like him, because he is just like us (where the "us" implies membership in politics leaning to the right)-a down-home, no-nonsense, commonsense fellow with whom you can literally chew the fat at your next barbecue, whether or not you lean in the same political direction.
Everyguy has a female counterpart, a model of femininity that is fast becoming the new post-feminist standard: Everymom. Everymom is a charming woman who is pretty and capable, with a folksy wisdom that is neither too smart nor too masculine nor too controversial. She can be a bit brash and even a bit fierce when called upon to protect those she loves. She juggles the competing demands of career and family with ease, and is a valued member of her community. We trust her, because she too is just like us, a down-home, no-nonsense, commonsense woman with whom you can discuss either potato salad recipes or how crazy politics is.
But of course, she isn't like us. Behind Everymom is an army of hairstylists, assistants, housekeepers, nannies, cooks, chauffeurs, and schedulers that perpetrate illusion. And this illusion is used to cajole Americans into believing that she speaks for them, when in reality she speaks for no one but herself.
But Why Palin?
It strikes us that there is an even deeper meaning behind Palin's new position of pulpit power, which can be teased out when one considers the quote she issued in early January 2010 after the agreement with Fox News was announced. Palin is quoted as saying, "It's wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news." Palin felt compelled to say in her first statement what everyone, including Sarah Palin, should know to be false, whatever their political leanings- that Fox News is objective, that it is 'fair and balanced' in how it approaches and reports news stories. The right-leaning political agenda that serves as the foundational impetus for Fox News is well-known and well documented, and even if it weren't part of the initial foundational ethos of its programming, it clearly is now, as satirical critics such as Stephen Colbert cleverly point out and even supporters such as Rush Limbaugh have admitted.
We find nothing particularly troubling about a news organization having a point of view, or in being overtly biased in its reporting or editorials. That is, provided the news organization "owns" its biases, as current parlance captures the issue of responsibility. The fact that Fox News refuses to own up to this well known bias, should give audiences pause. It is an indicator of a far more troubling, ubiquitous problem of American culture in general, which we outline below.
In Palin's very first utterance as a "newsperson" is implied the symptoms of a disease that is rampant in the United States. Palin asserts that this news organization (Fox) is fair and balanced, which is known to be a false statement. It must be the case, therefore, that she is either:
(1) lying, or (2) not lying, because there is no such a thing as truth.
There is no third option, because it can't be the case that she believes she is telling the truth. And notice that the end result of either explanation is the same: Securing power is all that matters, and one's movements in the world are calculated to secure as much power as possible. There is a strange Nietzschean strain to what is happening here, but let's leave that aside and focus on what is distinct and different about the two explanations.
If (1) is the case, then there are some interesting and troubling implications. Palin is not only participating in a manipulation of the medium's aims to the exclusion of its long-held values of objective reporting and criticizing the powers that be, but she is doing so as part of a larger strategy for securing power by moving the right political agenda- or her own interests-forward. Or perhaps both. This disingenuous masquerade in a profession that citizens rely on for criticism and critique of the powerful harms both the profession, which is held hostage to her personal interests, and also viewers, who rely on the news media to uphold the values of the Fourth Estate.
Troubling as it is, though, we do not think that (1) is the most likely explanation, because in this explanation the notion of the existence of truth isn't denied. In fact, this explanation implicitly assumes there is a truth of the matter about which Palin is lying, and she (and everyone else) knows it. It is precisely because of this reason that explanation (2) is more troubling, because it represents the nadir of civilization and is the mark of a crumbling civil society embarking on a journey toward the dissolution of the very values that keep it healthy and thriving. Without a commitment to the concept of truth, there is only power. This is to say, in explanation (2), Palin can be interpreted as embracing one of the most pervasive, insidious and destructive ideas to be embraced by any people.
It will be obvious to anyone who considers the cultural denial of truth that it is a position that is not only self contradictory (how can one know that the claim itself is true? And if it is, then there is at least one truth, so why not more?), but will also notice that Palin's implied denial of the importance of truth and of even its ontological status, is symptomatic of the insidiousness of totalitarianism, represented in the opening epigram of this piece.
In philosophical circles, this thesis is sometimes referred to as epistemological relativism. Relativists in this sense hold that there is no privileged position from which to judge events; there are only differing viewpoints from which to judge events, and these viewpoints are equally viable in terms of accuracy, legitimacy, and truth content. But notice that such relativism amounts to saying that in fact there is no true way of viewing, interpreting or judging an event, because there is no methodology of proof for doing so, just "truth" relative to an interpretation of events and context. And if there is no truth regarding events, then we are left with the sophistry against which ancient Greek philosophers warned: those who are more persuasive win the argument, and wield power, regardless of whether they are fit to do so. From there it is a short step to demagoguery.
Sarah Palin's movement into the Fourth Estate isn't merely politicization of the journalistic sphere. That happened long ago in this country, and thankfully has been balanced against a strong civil society, a decently educated voting populace, and checks and balances in the Fourth Estate itself. Palin's entry in the Fourth Estate can be interpreted as a symptom of a cultural sickness, as the pathological dismissal of truth as a guiding value amongst journalists and other members of the media that are ostensibly responsible for holding government representatives accountable to the citizens who elect them to office. This means that responsibility for putting officials into office may be based upon out-and-out lies, or worse: denial that there is such a thing as a lie.