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Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!

by Katharine DeBrecht; illustrations by Jim Hummel

(World Ahead Publishing / 54pp. / $9)

Review by Sarah Churchwell

FOR a while during the 2008 election – namely, in the honeymoon period immediately following John McCain’s decision to nominate Sarah Palin as his running-mate – it looked as if the old Republican strategy of inciting ‘cultural resentments’ in order to ignite the conservative base would work yet again. Less torch-bearer than flame-thrower, Palin offered a divisive vision of an America whose ‘reality’ was a function of its conservatism, defensiveness, and a general sense of animus against perceived privilege. When Katie Couric, interviewing Palin on CBS, asked her why she had not acquired a passport until 2006, Palin’s answer was touchy, revealing, and predicated on class resentment: “I’m not one of those who maybe come from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduated college and their parents get them a passport and a backpack and say, ‘Go off and travel the world’. Noooo. I worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life, until
I had kids. ... I was not part of, I guess, that culture.”

The logic of Palin’s defense, characterising a ‘culture’ of education defined by privilege, leisure and self-indulgence, and pitting them against a different ‘culture’ of work, discipline and self-reliance, is the zero-sum logic of the culture wars. Palin’s hostility to education, and indeed to language, would eventually come to define her candidacy, and establish the limits of America’s tolerance for anti-intellectualism. The real winner of the 2008 election may yet turn out to have been the English language.         

Language has long been an unacknowledged casus belli in the American culture wars. If they were fought over the ideological ground of value systems, religious beliefs, political dogma or fiscal policy, the wars have always been waged by means of loaded words. The difference between liberal and conservative was habitually expressed by means of charged registers that put at stake language itself – and its metonymic associations, including not just the tools of vocabulary and grammar, but also the question of edification, of literature, reading and education. Liberals, associated with over-education, ivory-tower irrelevance and elite effeteness, were understood by extension to indulge in overly theoretical, exclusionary or multisyllabic language, as well as pedantry. Conservatives, by contrast, associated with small-town exurbia, were understood to employ the aw-shucks, down-home, common-sense vernacular of the man on the street. Conservatives long claimed that the argument is between those who are too busy dealing with reality to bother themselves with trivial semantics, and those whose privilege affords them the luxury of irrelevance. But in fact the argument is over argot: the way in which language is classed.

Throughout the recent election and its aftermath, language played an unexpectedly prominent, and explicit, role. During the Democrats’ primary race, Obama’s ‘lofty rhetoric’ was repeatedly attacked as empty, and represented as a liability, even a danger, to the country. Lifting a metaphor first formulated by Mario Cuomo, Hillary Clinton characterised their differences in literary terms that simultaneously revealed and mystified the question of class: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose”. Poetry is ineffective, impractical, self-indulgent, feminised, and aristocratic; prose is hard-working, plain-speaking, muscular and demotic. Poetry made Obama a target for the culture wars, because it made him elite; prose was a sign of Clinton’s populism (not to mention plagiarism, but that’s another story).        

Once Clinton had lost, McCain and Palin adopted a similar strategy, trying to be combative and accessible at the same time. For the Republicans, Palin functioned throughout the race as Obama’s obverse: familiar where he was foreign, evangelical where he was ‘Muslim’, informal where he
was formal, locally educated where he was Ivy League, plain-talking where he was ‘poetic’, and, therefore, ordinary where he was elite.

The discursive distortions of the conservative right worked for 30 years to turn ‘elite’ into a pejorative while assuming an ersatz populism that has, until now, served to mask the real power of the party’s actual corporate and political elite. As Reagan’s genial uncle act made way for George W. Bush’s promise to be America’s drinking buddy, it was only a matter of time before a hockey mom would emblematise the conservative cause, and its age-old allegiance to the revolutionary symbol of Republican Motherhood, containing the threat of her political ambition through constant references to her domestic identity, and through a studied, even aggressive, folksiness.       

If Bush Jr. won in part by endearing the nation to his malapropisms as a sign of ordinariness, and to his carefree ability to laugh them off, McCain and Palin seem to have lost in part because of their acute discomfort with language, and their inept (because insufficiently veiled) attempts to manipulate it. It was their overt hostility to language that derailed the Straight Talk Express, and sent it hurtling into doublespeak and incoherence.        

Palin’s verbal tics rapidly became a leitmotif of the election, as she “doggoned” and “you betcha’ed” her way through debates and debacles in search of victory through vernacular. Palin’s ‘plain’ language would grow increasingly unmoored from meaning; from the mechanical “say it ain’t so, Joe” to her evasive verbosity in interviews, she was easy to parody not just because of the excessiveness of her performances, but because of the yawning gap between her plain-speaking tone and the almost baroque quality of her convoluted syntax.

As part of her post-election media blitz, attempting to recuperate some political credibility, Palin’s problems with syntax grew so acute that she became spectacularly incoherent. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked her if she had any new initiatives she wanted to unveil, Palin’s response was unintelligible:

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