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the reason behind my emotion

June 28, 2011

She’s gone quiet for now. But I still think about her sometimes.

As her media-made nemesis Michelle Bachmann gains in popularity through her thus far pretty effective campaign, I have been wondering why my response to Bachmann is so different from what it has been to Sarah Palin. Others have written about the ways these women are similar and the ways they are different, and about the perils and sexism of even comparing the two at all. Though simply being Republican Women does not make them necessarily equivalent, I do think that they are both part of the same cultural and political topography, the place where the Tea Party and the Religious Right converge. Both credit God for opening the door to politics for them, both hold traditional views about marriage and family while simultaneously living nontraditional lives, and both are loved and hated by many of the same tribes. Neither would be where they are without feminism, yet both maintain fealty to a patriarchal culture.

But I have an emotional reaction to Sarah Palin, when I watched her give her speech at the convention, for example, that I simply don’t have to Bachmann. I’ve been trying to understand what it is about Palin that moves me; here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

First, it’s the sneering. Bachmann, for all her certainty that moderation and liberalism are taking the country to hell in a handbasket, doesn’t sneer. Palin sneers. You can almost see the corner of her lip curl up as she makes fun of Obama, the media, experts, education, everyone and everything. Her physical disgust with all things democratic is palpable, and it prompts my disgust in return.

Second, it’s the attitude toward learning. Bachmann is deeply mistaken about many aspects of constitutional law and American history, but she is mistaken about those things because she was educated by people and books which deliberately misinterpret history in order to create an image of an original America that conforms with their, actually, very modern version of Christianity and destiny. Bachmann has read; she has studied. She has learned incorrect information pretty well. Palin, on the other hand, doesn’t learn and she doesn’t want to learn. Her beliefs are not based in a misinterpretation of the constitution and of history, but in a total lack of regard for them at all. Her lack of curiosity is astounding.

Third, it’s the lying. Like all politicians, Bachmann exaggerates. She didn’t actually “raise” 23 children, though she did do an incredibly noble and important thing in fostering an extraordinary number of children who needed temporary homes. She uses superlatives to describe everything (one half of one percent is not a “massive” amount) when she needn’t do so. She regularly misuses facts to suit her ideological purpose. But at least she tries to use them. Palin’s lies on the other hand are so convoluted that you get the sense she actually lives in an alternate reality. She doesn’t try to change existing reality; she creates a whole new one from scratch. It’s as if she sees things we don’t, hears things we don’t.

This is why Palin’s most devoted fans think of her as a Queen Esther, the matriarchal profit prophet. This is why I think she’s dangerous. The emotional responses she engenders from people are as beyond all reason as the things she does and says. And though our emotions can often advise us in decision-making, surely in matters as important as the governance of our nation both politicians and voters must turn primarily to reason to guide us. Reason, after all, Reason tempered with emotion and spirit, but Reason nonetheless is actually the foundational value of our democracy. Our country is a product of no one thing more than the Age of the Enlightenment: thinking guided the construction of our system of government, along with the firmly held belief that thinking can rise above passion, that through thinking we can overcome resentment and fear. That we can be reasonable.

I’m not saying Bachmann is the answer to my call for reason, but I am glad I can listen to her, read about her, and discuss her without completely losing my shit. Here I was beginning to think even that was too much to ask. And more importantly, I am far more certain that Bachmann’s presidential aspirations can be defeated by reason than I am that Palin’s can. Bachmann is operating, thus far, within the traditional political structure; she is organizing, fundraising, and campaigning in such a way that her misreason will of necessity come to light. She is being questioned by the press, is debating other politicians; she will probably even at some point issue her specific plans for governance, which can then be answered. Palin’s unreasonableness on the other hand prohibits reason itself from ever puncturing her bubble.  If she runs, she won’t speak to the press, she won’t debate the people she runs against, she clearly has no interest in formulating policy, and her emotional power over both her fans and her foes is beyond check. This, my friends, is the kind of leader who could truly be dangerous.

And that makes me very emotional.

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