GABlog

December 3, 2010

Sarah Palin, Anyown, and the Constitutional Reformation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:48 pm

I will lay down a marker right away—for me, the main criterion for supporting a Presidential candidate is that he or she knows what the left is; anyone who thinks that a Republican president will be able to settle into the White House in 2013, put on the green eyeshades, and start balancing the budget in a sober, bipartisan manner is criminally naïve, and I don’t want anyone like that anywhere near the Presidency. Normal America and free America are at war with the Left, and anyone one who is not ready to fire back when fired at need not apply. Sarah Palin seems to know what the Left is, and none of her potential contenders seems to have a clue. At this moment, the ability to create and run a political and economic media empire is more pertinent to presidential aspirations than the ability to balance a budget with your bare hands, which you can hire someone to do anyway.

But leaving that aside, Palin, and the Palin phenomenon are intrinsically interesting—there seems to be widespread agreement on that, at any rate. She, in her public persona, seems to me an almost perfect complement to Barack Obama, and the Obama phenomenon—she seems destined to be his nemesis, a role she seems to relish and which she plays very well. I think an Obama v. Palin race in 2012 would dramatize all the post-Bush, indeed, all the post-9/11 conflicts; even more, it would finally bring the entire Progressive Era in our politics, dating back to the turn of the 20th century, on the stage—and I think this would be both very healthy and incredibly exciting. We desperately need such a polarization now, and it would be nice to deal a blow to the illusions of the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal center” of the country. I don’t doubt that there are many Americans, maybe, depending upon definitions, a majority, who can be described as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”; nor do I doubt that in a certain sense they are the “center,” picking and suturing together the least antagonistic items of both right and left. It’s an empty center, though, and a campaign that showed as much by forcing the “centrists” to choose would be healthy as well—if you support the kind of judicially driven federal government needed to push through and sustain the “socially liberal” agenda, than you can forget about fiscal conservatism. Fiscal conservatism would mean federalism and expanded property rights, both of which, as the politically savvy know, mean death to “social liberalism,” i.e., abortion on demand, gay marriage and religion out of the public sphere. And I might as well also say that I can’t say the word “gravitas” without, at the very least, smiling. I think that things are going to get rough, especially if the prerogatives of those plugged into the victimary public arena are even mentioned, much less trespassed upon—we need someone whose first instinct isn’t to placate the New York Times.

Even leaving Palin aside for the moment, it seems to me (I would be surprised if no one else has used the analogy) that the Tea Party movement is equivalent to a kind of Constitutional Reformation. The liberal judiciary, like the Catholic Church, has been, for the past 80 years, interpreting the holy text for the rest of us, and according to arcane and esoteric methods that ordinary citizens can’t penetrate. If you were to ask a member of the priesthood what the Constitution said about x or y, they would gesture towards piles of unintelligible commentary which it takes many years of training to navigate. Terms like “the Commerce Clause” have taken on a magical significance, changing the citizens property’s into the state’s. The Tea Partiers have simply insisted on reading the document for themselves (unfortunately there was no way of forbidding its translation into the vernacular). But the analogy extends further—just like the return to the biblical text itself, and an insistence on the individual’s right to interpret it himself, has led to more Protestant Churches than anyone can count (unless someone actually has counted them), so will the opening of the Constitution lead to many different, and often idiosyncratic, versions of the same. Not that many—the Constitution is a lot shorter and simpler than the Bible, and there is a tradition of rational argumentation and precedents prior to its appropriation by the advocates of the Living Constitution—but quite a few more than I imagine most originalists imagine. (Maybe they do imagine it and don’t mind—I certainly hope so.) There is plenty of room for idiosyncrasy, in other words, in this return to the real center, the founding events of the nation, just as there is plenty of idiosyncrasy in Sarah Palin, who also deliberately roots herself in that very center. It is this combination or “simultaneity” of centrality and idiosyncrasy, of the general “any” and the singular “one-y,” that I have in mind when I use the term “anyown.”

This mixture of the originary and idiosyncratic is best found, I think, in one of our most basic rights as Americans, the right to bear arms—number two, right after speech and religion, but arguably more fundamental, since how could we protect those rights without the right to bear arms? (I know, the order of the amendments was not meant to imply any order of rank—and yet they do often seem to be ranked this way.) And yet, as far as I know the right to bear arms holds a comparable rank in no other national or international charter of rights—it is a distinctively American “universal” right. The centrality of the right to bear arms can be traced back to founding liberal theorists like Hobbes, who considered the right to protect your own life prior to, and unaffected by, your obligations to the state, but for this very reason it is very difficult to integrate it coherently with the more peaceably exercised rights which we expect the state to guarantee for us. Indeed, the main rationale, at least among its most fervent defenders, of the right to individual ownership of firearms, is precisely that it turns the citizen into an effective barrier to the establishment of a tyranny. How, though, can the state protect such a right unambivalently, since there can be no pre-established or agreed upon rules for what, exactly, would constitute that tipping at which legitimate government turns into tyranny? The best or most convenient definition, I suppose, would be the point at which the government starts rounding up all the guns; but such an action might indicate that, for the government, the tipping point at which citizen vigilance becomes rebellion, has been reached.

Also, would anyone want to say there is no limit to the right to bear arms? I can own a pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun—how about a basement full of dynamite? Anti-aircraft missiles? What about the first billionaire who decides he wants his own nuclear warhead? If the real purpose of the right to bear arms is to deter tyrannical tendencies in government, wouldn’t we insist that citizens arm themselves in a manner commensurate with the power of the contemporary state—the contemporary American state? After all, what good would even “assault weapons” be against the tanks rolling into New Jersey and the planes strafing Manhattan? You could say that other rights have their limits in the infringement upon the rights of others—so, my right to free speech doesn’t permit to stand in front of my neighbor’s house with a bullhorn berating him for his leftist politics. But what is the equivalent here? My stockpile disturbs no one, and by the time my basement full of explosives violates your private property rights by blowing up the block on which both our houses stand, it will do you little good to sue me.

But there is another way of interpreting the right to bear arms that preserves its idiosyncratic centrality. The government can’t be everywhere to protect everyone, and we wouldn’t want it to be; where it can’t be, armed citizens can, and can serve, while protecting themselves, as a kind of informal militia or posse, making it clear to criminals that they are safe to commit their crimes nowhere. This implies complementarity between government and people and, at its outer limits, a near merger of the former into the latter. The deterrence of tyranny can itself thereby be pre-empted by the shared obligation to secure the order whose breaches provide the very invitation needed by the tyrant to exceed constitutional boundaries. The right to bear arms in this way involves the citizen in the preservation of ordered liberty, and can be detached from that utopian resentment implicit in indiscriminate “anti-government” sentiments. At the same time, though, the boundaries separating vigilance, vigilantism and criminality are not always bright and clear, and will take different shapes across and within communities, based as they must be upon shared tacit understandings with overlap with other understandings and constantly require adjustment. The more deeply rooted the right, the more inadequate the merely legal attempts to adjudicate it, i.e., the more idiosyncratic.

Anyway, here is Palin’s forceful and borderline incoherent response to Barbara Bush’s patrician cruelty (“I once sat down next to her. Thought she was beautiful. She seems to love it in Alaska. I hope she stays there”) which not only wishes Palin out of Presidential politics but out of public discourse altogether:

“I don’t want to sort of concede that we have to get used to this kind of thing because I think the majority of Americans don’t want to put up with the blue bloods — and I say it with all due respect because I love the Bushes — but the blue bloods who want to pick and choose their winners instead of allowing competition to pick and choose the winners.”
She then invoked the economic crisis to explain her point.
“They [blue bloods] kind of do some of this with the economic policies that were in place that got us into these economic woeful times, too,” Palin said. “So I don’t know if that kind of stuff is planned out but it is what it is. We deal with it, and we forge ahead and we keep doing what we’re doing.”

The Bushes are blue bloods (ok, so far, so good), but she still loves them—nothing wrong with blue bloods except for when they try to “pick and choose their winners.” Palin has a response to Bush here, but she has cut and pasted into that response her own political “idiom” of the moment—a very helpful idiom, which has put into practice the excellent idea of changing the terms of Republican politics through primary challenges. The idiom doesn’t really work so well here, though, because wouldn’t the Bushes saying who they prefer for President be part of that open, competitive process? After all, that helps those who respect or despise the Bushes sort out their own views of the candidates. But Palin doesn’t want to come out and suggest that Barbara Bush is a spiteful old shrew, representing the retrograde wing of the party, and I think she has imposed upon herself the kind of discipline which ensures that you don’t say anything in response to new situations which has been “piloted,” so we see the limits of her repertory here. The connection to “these economic woeful times” (as I’ve mentioned before, Palin’s grammatical choices can be fascinating—recently, she responded to a reporter trying to spring a question on her at a book signing with something like “can’t we get that good enthusiasm” back, in this case using a favorite adjective of hers with a favorite noun with which that adjective just happens not to go) is even more of a reach, but, paradoxically, she is getting at something here because there is a real connection between the “elites” (what Angelo Codevilla calls the “Ruling Class”) and the kinds of political-economic machinations that led to the Wall Street meltdown. Palin knows this, and has posted cogently on it on her Facebook page, but what I think we can see in this instance is an imperfect intuition regarding how to stitch together the various arguments, slogans and commonplaces at her disposal—especially since in this case getting too explicit would also be getting far more polemical regarding the Republican “establishment” than Palin wants, and can just barely avoid (which means that she is also very aware of the political boundaries she is operating within). We see this all the time with Palin, and it’s why she can, in fact, look stupid sometimes—she doesn’t know how to weave all the clichés together in a seamless manner as do most politicians operating at her level of exposure. But that’s also a way of saying she’s not very good at saying nothing. And in that way, more than any other, she is more grounded than anyone or anyown else in the emergent idiosyncratic center.

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