No Laughing Matter

[ Wed. Sep. 10. 2008 ]

“You can stand on my wagon, if you want.”

I tend, when I’m not in big crowds, to forget that I’m short. In Republican crowds, I find, I feel particularly small.

And dark. And unsmiling. And uncoiffed, unmade-up and inappropriately dressed.

For the McCain/Palin rally in Fairfax, Va., on Wednesday, the organizers had asked people to wear red. I – unthinkingly – had dressed in blue, which was somewhat isolating.

I was isolated, too, because, unable to find the press area in the crowd of about 15,000, I was out with the “real” people. Which meant that I could hear everything from the podium and from the onlookers around me, but could see nothing, not, at least, until the mom beside me stopped struggling to balance atop her Little Tikes wagon with two toddlers in her arms and another screaming at her feet, and offered me a go at the view.

(“It’s Sarah. Sarah’s going to be the vice president,” she had told the little girls, clad in their matching polka dot dresses. “Sarah Palin.”)

She was a nice woman. She told me history was in the making. She told me where to get lunch. She handed me back my reporter’s notebook when one of her almost-two-year-old twins, fixing me with a dark look of mistrust, took it away. “Liberal media, eh?” her solemn eyes glared. “Well, watch what you say about my mommy and Our Sarah.”

Do not think for a moment that I was being paranoid.

Fred Thompson had warmed up the crowd, his familiar old district attorney’s voice restored to full bombast, and he’d been in fine form, denouncing – to loud boos from the crowd — the “lawyers and scandal mongers and representatives of cable networks” (boos from the crowd) who were at that very moment descending upon Alaska looking for dirt on their Sarah.

“I hope they brought their own Brie and Chablis with them,” he’d said, to raucous laughter, as I willed myself to disappear, remembering, with a shudder, that my children had demanded Brie for breakfast only that morning.

I should have been finding this funny. My whole plan, after all, had been to write something funny this week about the whole Sarah Palin phenomenon. I’d arrived at an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-laugh-at-’em kind of a juncture, I suppose.

I’d planned to make attending the McCain/Palin event a silly sort of adventure. I’d invited a friend who has six kids to come with me. I figured funny things were bound to befall us in Palin-Land, where, collectively, we’d have eight children between us (a funny thought in and of itself.) A Harold and Kumar Escape from the Barracuda sort of storyline was the idea – until my friend, done in by one too many sleepless nights, declined to accompany me, and I had to venture off alone.

And, forced to make new friends on the spot, discovered that the Palin Phenomenon is no laughing matter.

Those who think that it is — well, as Thompson warned on Wednesday, “they’ve got another thing coming.”

I made my first friend on the shuttle bus that took us from a nearby mall, where we’d been instructed to park, to the field where the rally was held. She was from Leesburg, Va., an ardent McCain supporter, conservative and self-described “soccer mom,” who grew up in Pennsylvania among girls who went hunting with their Dads.

Sarah Palin, she told me, “just seems like a regular person.”

I did not argue with her. One does not argue when making new friends. And besides, we had so many other things to bond over. We talked about kids with issues. She had a son with A.D.H.D., cousins with Asperger’s and dysgraphia, and a nephew with autism. (“They’re lucky they live in New Jersey. New Jersey’s pretty progressive,” she said.)

We talked about the moral vacuity of modern parenting. “I see extreme spoiling, self-absorption,” she said. “Constant bringing the kids up to love themselves without reflecting on how they affect others.” We talked about the disastrous lack of respect that children now show adults and institutions, and about the ways this lack of respect translates into a very ugly sort of lack of decorum and a lack of basic manners: “This 10-year-old, my daughter’s friend, she comes over and throws down a magazine with John McCain on the cover. ‘Here’s friggin John McCain,’ she says. ‘Let’s see what lies he’s going to tell now.’” She continued: “These 10-year-olds think they’re better than me. That they don’t have to say hello. That they think I’m beneath them.”

You go girl, I was thinking, in so many words, until the talk turned back to politics: “So often these kids that are so incredibly full of themselves, I find their parents are Democrats. The Democrats, they hate ‘us,’ the United States, but they love ‘me,’ that is, themselves,” she said.

I heard a lot more talk that day about the need for respect – and about arrogance and selfishness and about Democrats and liberals who think way too highly of themselves.

Fred Thompson on the liberal media: “This woman is undergoing the most vicious assault … all because she is a threat to the power they expected to inherit and think they’re entitled to.”

Businessman Scott Maclean on the Democratic Party: “Their attitude is: you don’t get it and they don’t expect you to get it because they’re smarter than you – and I hate that.”

I heard, repeatedly, a complaint about sterile individualism, about selfishness and the desire for a revalidated “us” – from John McCain’s boilerplate attack on “me-first Washington” to this curious reflection, from a mother of nine, on the field with eight of her children, on the question of whether she, like Palin, could ever imagine balancing the demands of her large family against a high-profile political career like Sarah’s.

“My daughter asked me, ‘Mom, would you do that if you had the opportunity?,’” she recalled, as the six-year-old in question looked on. “I said ‘I don’t know. Maybe she was born to do that. Maybe that’s the sacrifice she has to make to serve her country.’”

The daughter lifted high her hand-painted, flower-adorned Palin sign.

“She’ll really be a big step forward for women,” the mother said.

No, it wasn’t funny, my morning with the hockey and the soccer moms, the homeschooling moms and the book club moms, the joyful moms who brought their children to see history in the making and spun them on the lawn, dancing, when music played. It was sobering. It was serious. It was an education.

“Palin Power” isn’t just about making hockey moms feel important. It’s not just about giving abortion rights opponents their due. It’s also, in obscure ways, about making yearnings come true — deep, inchoate desires about respect and service, hierarchy and family that have somehow been successfully projected onto the figure of this unlikely woman and have stuck.

For those of us who can’t tap into those yearnings, it seems the Palin faithful are blind – to the contradictions between her stated positions and the truth of the policies she espouses, to the contradictions between her ideology and their interests. But Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, argues in an essay this month, “What Makes People Vote Republican?”, that it’s liberals, in fact, who are dangerously blind.

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” he told me in a phone interview.

Perhaps that’s why the conservatives can so successfully get under liberals’ skin. And why liberals need to start working harder at breaking through the empathy barrier.

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