November 19, 2010
The Dumbest Things Ever Said on Television?

I had occasion to watch the first few minutes of the first episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” the other day, and was struck by lots of things. The fact that it is an hour long political advertisement for her career, an ad which she is actually being paid to appear in. The way she appears to live a frenetic life, manifesting more energy to go out and do things than four ordinary people. (Albeit, with a coterie of staff and advisers and facilitators that coordinate all these activities on her behalf.) The fact that her children barely see their mother—but then again, this is true for most high performers in the world. The fact that I actually think her decision to put up a 14 foot wall between her house and the house a journalist rented right next to hers was an entirely appropriate thing to do. That’s right: I found myself at least briefly sympathetic with Sarah Palin. Which takes some effort.

But of course that’s not really what the show is about. It’s about giving Sarah Palin the opportunity to pronounce various homespun, apparently commonsensical verities about goings on in Alaska and project them into solutions for the broader United States. She links insights supposedly derived from her Alaska adventures and life and casually comments that if the rest of us just did it the Alaska way, the United States as a whole would be a lot better off. It’s classic Sarah Palin. It’s also usually quite stupid.

Take, for example, the aforementioned fence. When a journalist rented the house next to the Palin’s Wasila home as part of the research he was doing prior to writing a book about her, I thought it was a fairly sleazy move. The Palins responded quite appropriately and built up their privacy fence to a height of 14 feet, sufficient to block the view of their yard and windows from the neighboring house. So far so good. During the show, however, Sarah Palin drops one of her “isn’t this obvious?” asides about their privacy fence and offers that she thinks this 14 foot privacy fence is pretty much what the United States ought to secure its own national borders. After all, it worked for her. Why not for America?

Well, sure. Except, of course, that the Palin security fence is maybe 40 feet long. And the journalist isn’t trying to get across it. And the ratio of security guards at the Palin home to the number of people trying to spy into her property is, well, A LOT to ONE. And the privacy fence is made of slats of standard American back yard privacy fencing that costs $20.97 per 6x8 panel at my local Lowe’s. (I just looked it up.) Hence her entire privacy fence extension ran maybe $150. So it’s not all that apt an analogy. In fact, it’s actually stupid. But it was delivered with the Palin wink and inevitable “duh” expression that endears her to so many Americans who so desperately want to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems.

A few minutes later, the Palins were salmon fishing in bear country with one of their daughters and a niece. This scene has caused much hue and cry on the left, usually on grounds that she violated the law by getting too close to the bears. (I was more struck by how close she got to the bears with two children in her boat, but apparently her status as a “mama grizzly” exempts her from the kinds of critique normal parents face when putting their children in dangerous situations.) In the course of proceedings a mama brown bear was fishing with her cubs, and Palin offered another profound comment: that the mama was just showing her kids how to do things, and that there was going to be no one else to take care of them. They had to learn how to do for themselves. The obvious conclusion was left unsaid, but hung in the air as plain as the sun: this is how it is in nature. You have to take care of your own. We shouldn’t expect anyone’s help in life. Especially, of course, government’s.

Here, I have to give it to Sarah Palin. She is absolutely right. At least, she’s absolutely right about bears. Bears, after all, don’t have roads. Or schools. Or militaries. Or foreign policy. No bear has an insurance card. Or a credit card. Or a library card. No bear uses a cell phone or surfs the internet. Bears lack language, and religion, and a sense of social justice. For that matter, bears don’t have opposable thumbs and brains capable of higher level reasoning. Put another way, whatever the antics of Yogi and Booboo and the group at Jellystone Park imply, bears don’t have culture.

All human societies, whether simple, clan and tribal communities or complex, postmodern, globalized contemporary nation-states, rest on relationships of trust and cooperation. None of us “do for ourselves.” I can’t make electricity, build a car or refine petroleum into heating fuel. I can’t do heart surgery or manufacture a book. And I certainly can’t know enough to assess whether the people who in fact do make cars and books and electricity and gas and heart surgeries have the skills and competencies to do it safely and effectively. Thus I rely on accreditation from universities, and certification boards, and government inspectors and regulators to stand as proxy for the information I can’t know for myself. I assume the heart surgeon is effective because he or she was trained well, certified by the state, allowed to operate by a hospital and insured by a private company. I assume I can toast my bagel safely because the electric grid is regulated, the wiring in my house is up to code, and the toaster I am using has met safety standards. While we never think about it these terms, the simple act of making a bagel is in fact an act of extraordinary faith in people we never knew and will never meet.

So yes, Sarah, bears “do for themselves.” Humans don’t. Failing to recognize the seemingly obvious fact that bears are not the same as people may well elevate your comment about bears to the status of the stupidest thing ever said on television.