Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Noble Lie

Sarah Palin continues to swing through the media like a wrecking ball. Nick Cohen attacks American liberals for succumbing to hatred, Andrew Sullivan seethes at her long concealment from tough questioning, William Kristol hails her as an example of McCain's courage, Oprah is in trouble for not having her on the show and so on. The point on which all agree is that she is an attempt to activate the Republican 'base'. Peggy Noonan's open mike incident indicated that she thought this was futile as the 'base' is no longer what the Republicans think it is. The 'base' is, I suppose, the God-fearing, if not outright fundamentalist, patriotic, gun-toting, abortion hating working and lower middle classes. If Noonan is right and the 'base' has moved on in a way that the Republicans have not, then it is, presumably, because of Iraq and the perception of the limitations of American power and the economy, not least the oil price. Patriotism and God, however, remain intact so, in spite of everything, Palin may turn out to be very effective indeed. My own view is that, like many others, I am horrified at the prospect of her getting her hands on the nuclear codes, but I guess I feel the same about many politicians. My Palin theory, for what it is worth, is that she is a clear example of the Noble Lie. This idea, derived from Plato, is that the people must be shielded by various mythologies - religion, patriotism, whatever - because only a few high intellectuals can cope with the full glare of the truth. It is said that the neo-cons were much taken with the idea of the Noble Lie, as taught by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and, by the left, that the WMDs in Iraq were a clear example of neo-con, Straussian manipulation. Maybe. But, whatever the potency of its specifically intellectual lineage, I do believe that a version of the Noble Lie is now generally accepted by democratic political establishments. It is a useful theory in a climate of media saturation in which sound bites and mood music are more effective than balanced analysis and in which power-hungry intellectuals are obliged to resort to manipulation - or lying as it is more properly called. The Republican 'base' - real or imagined - is predicated on a Noble Lie: that, with guns and fundamentalist Christianity, American can either conquer the world or render it permanently safe for the American Way. Nobody with any intelligence or experience believes this. Palin - I am assuming she is not Straussian - does, however, and it is the very fact of her evident conviction that makes her such a potent weapon. She offers the activation of the 'base' by saying it is still possible to believe in this particular Noble Lie. In this context, she can be seen to be the puppet of the lying elites, not, as some have suggested, an American Margaret Thatcher.


  1. Good one, Bryan, very good indeed.
    It may well be the only thing that will get BO into the oval office. If the people cop on to the fact that she is a heart beat from the codes. But I have the feeling that we will spend the next eight willing McCain does not wander far from Walter Reed.

  2. Of course McCain was appealing to the GOP base with Palin's selection. It looks like it worked. Come election day, however, the average American will enter the voting booth and choose between John McCain and Barack Obama based on what McCain and Obama have said and done during the campaign. Their respective choices for vice president will not affect the electoral outcome to any measurable degree. There are any number of rational criticisms of the Palin nomination and her record. I agree with many of them. Your comment, however, strikes me as an hysterical over-reaction reminiscent of those who feared Ronald Reagan. In the unlikely event that Sarah Palin becomes the next Vice President of the United States and then the President of the United States, she will have no more interest in using those codes than will Barack Obama.

  3. Oh dear. The phrases 'too clever' and 'by half' spring to mind. Could be she's an energetic, frsh=faced can-do politician designed to attract women voters.

  4. Even though I suspect I gave you the fuel for this post with that document I forwarded to you, it looks sorta over-the-top to me too. And, I have to say, in retrospect I think what I sent you may have been written by someone with lots of her own axes to grind. I know the person who gave it to me *despises* the Republican party.

    What you *are* seeing here is the usual American paranoia whipping up into a fine frenzy as the election draws near and certain insanity-inducing topics get more play: Abortion, drilling for oil in nature preserves, gay rights/marriage.

    I wish I could go somewhere until it's over, though I do want to cast my vote...for Barack Obama.

  5. One can see the attraction of the Noble Lie in the era of Nudge and PC, but once you start using this idea, where do you draw the line? Nationalism, patriotism, altruism, religion - all Noble Lies. Arguably, the Noble Lie is itself a soundbite. Behind it lies an endless regression. Show me the man who tells the truth to the Noble Liars and I'll show you another liar, etc.

    It's hard to see anything specifically American in the Noble Lie you ascribe to Sarah Palin. "With guns and fundamentalist Christianity" could easily be adapted to "explain" almost any aggressive movement in history. Our might is always right, etc. I wouldn't question the aggression which is built into us. But I would question the Christianity. The notion that the world was made for us to plunder as we see fit has a lot to answer for. In that sense, I don't think Sarah Palin is merely a puppet of the lying elites. In fact, that's a cop out. I suspect she represents something that most of us see when we look in the mirror. How we deal with what the mirror show us is up to each one of us, alone.

  6. Hi Bryan,

    On Andrew Sullivan's seething . . . Sarah Palin's two weeks of inaccessibility will give the media both a cold shower and chance to ask Biden some tough questions instead, before the really important homestretch of campaigning begins.

    This whole question of the Republican base strikes me as foreign to the decision-making processes I see going on. I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I try to stay open. I voted for Al Gore over George Bush, and then George Bush over John Kerry. I would vote John Kerry over Barack Obama. And it would be more interesting to me if McCain were to go against Gore. I am certainly not a part of any fundamentalist right, nor any "fundamentalist" left.

    When I went around the community asking what people thought of Palin's speech the day after, people were impressed. And here we are in Massachusetts, what should be easy pickins for the Democrat, whomever that may be. No one I asked mentioned God or religion. The bank teller, for instance, said that her vote was going, not to McCain, but to Palin. It is very important to her that Sarak Palin becomes the vice president.

    And when people take these debates on of whether this one or that should be president or vice president, impassioned and polarized discussion often ensues. But for a great part, many people are not very impressed with either candidate. So, a significant vice presidential candidate can and should be a difference, when weighing a decision as Benjamin Franklin would have.

    With Sarah Palin's family, it may be less the point that she practices what she preaches, and more that she preaches what she practices. Here we have a family labelled as pro-life, with Bristol making the real-life choice to have her baby out of wedlock. We have Sarah making her choice to have a baby with Down syndrome, and the loving that follows.

    There is no Noble Lie to apply here at this gut level. It will be interesting as time goes on, to hear what the Palin children say about religion as they get older. Can we believe that Bristol wanted to abort, and that each time she mentioned this, Sarah told her that she would go to hell for doing so? No, they discussed far more practical things. Indeed, it may have been Sarah who had more reservations. We don't know. We do know what's come of any ordeal they've gone through, and how they were able to present themselves at the convention.

    We also have McCain making the choice to go with the Palins. So, he gets to preach what he practices too--if he wants to--and if he even cares to formulate a pat belief from what he has decided. But it is the practice that we all witnessed. The preaching is at best secondary, and the words can get us off the track.

    I've been involved with these decisions within my extended family, a family that varies in levels and depths of belief in God or atheism. The discussions are far more life-practical. The decision to have the babies is very life-affirming and life-changing. And once the decision is made, there is nothing ignorant about it. If it's a Nobel Lie we bought into, then the Nobel Liars are the fools.

    It is not so much, or solely, or most importantly, the Republican base that Palin appeals to. It is those of us who have been involved in such decisions, who have been part of such families as hers. When she says that families who have children with disabilities would have an advocate in the White House if she becomes vice president, she transcends another label, the political label of the Republican versus the Democrat.

    Now that she is entering a period of not talking with the media, I am looking forward to when the two weeks are up, and certainly the vice presidential debating. I have further practical questions myself. Right now, I'm on board though. Unfortunately, I feel I have little choice, as Obama seems to be too much the hopeful, reactionary choice, made with the noble lies emotions bring to us before we sort them out. Thus I am hoping McCain-Palin is a good choice.


  7. Gosh, I wish the word "Straussian" would be banned. Or that at the very least those who use it would adduce a single "Straussian" from among the decision-making ranks of the U.S. government. Having audited part of one course taught by someone who studied with someone who studied with Strauss at Chicago does not, I am afraid, count. There is language enough to criticize Sarah Palin without having to invoke a philosopher you've likely never read let alone really studied. A Wikipedia article doesn't quite cut it.

  8. Since pundits in the London Times (ha) were mentioned - what, precisely, is the point of A.A. Gill? He so obviously despises the country he reports from (and, supposedly, on), dislikes the country he reports to, and doesn't seem so happy with himself. If he had only kept a sense of humour... As for his latest on Sunday - if NewsCorp are paying him to analyse the vast and multifarious communities that are the US and come to the conclusion that it's all about racism...