Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sarah, Plain and White

My British friends (two of them, at least) assure me that a character like Sarah Palin could never gain traction in English politics. Here’s my theory as to why this should be so: In the UK there is more respect for informed opinion than there is here. I think this explains a lot about American politics.

I have often heard that Americans are just plain dumb, but I don’t buy this explanation. At least not exactly. If being smart means being able to figure out your situation and responding to it appropriately, Americans do as well as anyone else. We do have certain emblems of achievement: the largest economy in the world; the best equipped and trained military in the world; the best record of achievement in Nobel Prizes; the best university system in the world -- to name a few.

So I’m not quite satisfied with the “Americans are just plain dumb” explanation. And yet choosing Sarah Palin as a leader is a festering symptom of some kind of mental lapse. So how do we explain her popularity with the Tea Partiers?

Back to the “respect for informed opinion” factor. Sarah Palin is well liked because she promotes the Tea Party narrative of America. According to this narrative, Americans have always been hard-working white individualists who don’t need the government and who give their children names like George and Jennifer -- not names like Consuelo, Enrique, Latifah or Shaquille.

According to the Tea Party version of history, America has been “taken away” by the wrong people, people who use the government to ruin the lives of hard-working white people by siphoning off unearned cash into their own pockets.

I know something about this because I received a number of angry responses to an article I wrote for the Ledger a couple weeks ago. Angry email responses provoked by my article alluded to the unfairness of government programs for poor people, and some of the responses specified the non-whiteness of those they imagined to be the main beneficiaries of these programs. When I replied to these angry writers pointing out that a lot of government programs have historically favored white people (the GI Bill as it was originally administered, the big tax breaks given to homeowners, tax-supported public universities, and so on) my critics wrote back – should I say spewed back – that these government programs only served deserving Americans.

The overt racial element in these angry emails parallels the verbal bigotry that Democratic legislators faced from the Tea Partiers during the Health Care vote. I really believe their shouts of “We want our country back!” really mean “We white people want our country back.” It is racism, not government spending per se, that motivates an awful lot of them.

As I’ve said before, if it was really government debt they were worried about, they would have denounced Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who first plunged us into serious debt. If it were government handouts in general that they hated, they would be demanding an end to tax write-offs for homeowners, and the closing of public universities. But they aren’t. They are angry at welfare recipients and those who will benefit from the new health care bill, and, according to their distorted perceptions, these beneficiaries are mainly Black or Hispanic and may even be undocumented Hispanic.

Sarah Palin suits them because she is a relatively attractive white woman who massages their prejudices. Would it be possible for a Black woman or a Wise Latina Woman to play her role? In a word, no. First, because only people who have enjoyed the privileges of whiteness could spout the nonsense that Palin peddles, and secondly, because the racist factor means that for many Tea Partiers only white people fit the image of true Americans.

Yes, there is racism in Britain, but what seems special about Tea Party racism is its elaborate self delusion about government handouts constructed on a foundation of anti-intellectualism. And anti-intellectualism is one of those things that we Americans still do better than most.