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“Who, li’l ol’ me?”: Sarah Palin on naiveté and credibility

November 22, 2010

In A New York Times Magazine article published last week, Sarah Palin finally admitted that she’s considering running for president in 2012. This, of course, surprised absolutely everyone because nobody was even remotely entertaining the possibility that she might run. That’s sarcasm. Palin has been in the political public eye since being selected as John McCain’s running mate for the 2008 election, and speculation that she’d seek the Oval Office for herself has been rampant since right about then.

What’s interesting about her talk in the article, though, is the way Palin attempts to reshape some common criticisms against her as points of pride.

Palin discusses what she perceives to be unfair distortion of her political accomplishments by the mainstream media. When asked whether she thinks that the media’s picking on her is a simplistic distraction or a purposeful one, Palin responds with “They’re the elite…They know much more than I know and other people like me! So, no. They know just what they’re doing.” Negative coverage of Palin, then, can’t just be the 24-hour news culture looking for something attention-grabbing to fill airtime—no, these people in the so-called “lamestream media” (yes, she actually uses that phrase) “know just what they’re doing,” and they’re doing it on purpose. How do we know this? They’re the elite, that’s how. And in being elite, they know more than Palin and other people like her. So, clearly, they’re up to no good.

For now, I’m going to ignore how strange it seems to hear accusations of elitism from someone being profiled in the New York Times Magazine—profiled, in fact, in an article that also mentions how she spent Halloween “watching the New York Jets play from the luxury box of the team’s owner” and how she partied with “Alan Greenspan, Madeleine Albright, Dianne Feinstein, Andrea Mitchell, Mitch McConnell, Walter Isaacson and Dick and Liz Cheney, among others.” Instead, I’m going to look at Palin’s subsequent admission of self-deprecating ignorance.

It’s a bizarre claim, really, that the media elite “know more” than Palin and “people like” her, especially given Palin’s position as a correspondent on Fox News and her reality TV show, but it allows Palin to pull off an interesting and important move. Palin’s deliberate and explicit claim of ignorance turns one of the most persistent and damning attacks against her—her alleged lack of knowledge about matters that political candidates ought to know about—right on its head.

Public humility is something Palin has tried her hand at before, appearing like a good sport in a self-deprecating skit on Saturday Night Live after they’d been making fun of her all election season, but explicitly claiming naiveté can be a rhetorically dangerous move. It pays off here—not only by presenting all criticism, past and future, as part of some nasty scheme, but by turning a lack of knowledge about allegedly corrupt systems into something to be admitted to proudly. Not knowing how the media works is, in Palin’s statement, how you keep your innocence; it’s something that keeps you from being part of a secret cabal of nasties hellbent on distracting and distorting.

And hey, you know what else is a big powerful organization run by elites that are probably up to no good and ought not to be trusted? Government. Palin was hammered during the 2008 campaign for her alleged ignorance of and inexperience in national politics. But according to her remarks on media, not knowing how the bad guys do their dirt is how you keep your hands clean. And is the government a bunch of bad guys? You bet. It’s something that “common-sense Americans” (read: everyday people) want “on their side, not riding their backs.” Even the “old boys” in the Republican party are also not to be trusted; they don’t “put principle before politics” like Sarah Palin.

So, Palin’s remarks about media turn lack of knowledge about corrupt systems into a good thing. Naiveté is a sufficient justification for suspicion, and a mark of innocence. If government is a similarly corrupt system–and Palin seems to feel that it is–then lack of government experience isn’t such a bad thing. Abracadabra, what were once presented as insurmountable flaws can now be justifications for outsider superiority. That’s a pretty useful trick to be able to pull for someone who might be running for president as an outsider candidate, no?

If you want to know more:

  • My observation that Palin is strategically making herself look naive is somewhat informed by Erving Goffman’s discussion in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” that sometimes naivete is deliberately constructed and rhetorically effective.
  • You can read the NYT Magazine article that I quote throughout here–complete with an awesome photo of what looks like Sarah Palin belting out a torch song at karaoke.
  • For a column by Frank Rich that makes similar points to the ones I made above, look here.
  • For the SNL skit with Palin’s appearance in it, complete with an intro by Fox News talking heads describing it as pretty much the funniest thing ever, look here.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Stuart permalink
    November 23, 2010 1:25 pm

    Thanks for the commentary, I’ve been enjoying your site so far. Just wanted to let you know that the links at the end of this post are missing the colon after the http, so they look like they’re broken links.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      November 24, 2010 3:22 am

      Uh oh! Thanks so much for the heads up, Stuart. Should be fixed now!


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