Mar 13, 2014


commentary by killre

Okay, so, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin --whose name I had uncharacteristically never thought to spoonerize before now-- has become an easy target for ridicule in the not-quite six years we've known her.  (Yes, it seems longer... but, when you think about it, so does the Obama presidency.)  Because she's such an easy target, I would love to tell you that I will refrain from taking pot shots at her in this post.  You and I both know, though, it would be a promise I probably couldn't keep.

One thing that could be construed as a pot shot, but is something I feel needs to be said if only to tell us all where we stand with each other, is this: I cannot in good conscience describe her grasp of foreign affairs and foreign policy as "un-nuanced" without adding some sort of adverbial phrase that includes the word "understatement."

Governor Palin apparently doesn't know and/or probably doesn't care that her understanding of the subject is slippery, however.  No doubt she still tries to convince (and in a few terrifying cases, succeeds in convincing) people that because her home state's hinterland lies in relatively close proximity to that of its former owner she is some kind of expert on same: Russia.  This is evidenced by her much-replayed statement late last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in which she criticized the Obama administration's handling of Russia's incursion of Crimea by calling for an always fun-filled game of nuclear brinkmanship.  After all, it's been too long since we all stood on the cusp of World War III... and weren't those good times?

Palin's vocal instrument has always been a bit mystifying.  She was not born, nor was she raised, nor has she ever lived in the northern Great Plains, yet she somehow developed a very Fargo-esque accent.  Her delivery is a weird blend of clipped words, odd lilts, and a slightly too-slow cadence, as if she either is speaking to us like we are all five-year-olds, or isn't quite sure where she's going with this-- take your pick.

Governor Palin's criticism of President Obama, at CPAC:

"He would gut our arsenal while he allows others --enemies!-- to enrich theirs.  Man, that's just like a liberal on gun control.  Mister President, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke (pause) is a good guy with a nuke."

Some years ago I saw comedian Jim Short tell me and a few hundred others the story of an exchange he once had in a random coffee shop.  While waiting to place his order, he noticed a selection of jelly-filled doughnuts labeled "marionberry."  Upon reaching the front of the line, Short asked the kid behind the counter: "So what's in the marionberry doughnut?  Crack?"  In relating the story, Short both acted and narrated his thoughts in the beats that followed the joke.  He took a half-step back and raised his hands away from his sides, palms up, nodding his head around the room: "And then I waited for the applause, you know?  I mean, who's the funniest bastard in this coffee shop?"

I mention this story because right after Palin dropped her second "nuke," she took a half-step back.  For a, um, short moment, I was sure she was going to raise her hands away from her sides and start nodding her head around the room.  Who's the cleverest former governor in this auditorium, am I right?

She didn't, though.  As good a showman as she can sometimes be, she isn't quite that good.  Instead, she pantomimed the tipping of a cap and said, "Hat tip, NRA."

It is an ironic commentary in itself that Palin got far more applause for her punch line than Short did for his.  The ultimate point of Short's, uh, story was that nobody in the coffee shop laughed because nobody in the coffee shop got the reference to former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Berry, who was basically the Rob Ford of the 1980s.  You remember the 1980s: it was the last decade of the Cold War, the precise geopolitical precipice to which Palin is proposing we return.  One wonders how many people in the auditorium truly got that, and furthermore what it would say about them if we did know the number.

I don't know why Palin felt the need to cite her inspiration for the line (a line she no doubt thought was the epitome of clever).  If there was one reference the attendees surely understood, it was her escalation of the National Rifle Association's latest marketing slogan: "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  I also couldn't say for sure why she credited the NRA as a whole rather than its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, the person most closely identified with the slogan, but my bet is she couldn't remember his name.

(An aside.  My apologies, but the linguistic conservative in me can't help pointing out a tiny fissure --nothing egregious, mind you-- in the grammatical foundation of The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  Contextually, way implies a course of action.  The solution given, however, a good guy with a gun, is not a way... it is a thing.  Oddly enough, Palin's version is more grammatically correct.  Unfortunately for her, this was a situation that implicitly called for as direct a quote as possible, so whatever points she gets for grammar are immediately lost to inaccuracy.  Hat tip, English language.)

Much has been made in recent years of the Political Right's ability to distill its positions into easily drinkable, bumper-sticker-like slogans.  There is a cynicism at work in that ability: anyone intelligent enough to do it is also intelligent enough to know that one man's simplified is another man's oversimplification.  Perhaps the most common oversimplification the Right engages in, one that is readily apparent in both LaPierre's slogan and Palin's jazzy vamp of same, is an absolutist's notion of good and bad.

Not to go on too much of a tangent, here, but HBO's True Detective recently touched on this dynamic.  The series (which was really more of an extended mini-series, since I don't think it aspired to more than one season) is less about solving a serial-murder mystery and more a study in the character of and relationship between the two detectives working the case.  Consequently, some background is in order...

Detective Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, is a man who routinely cheats on his wife.  By extension, he is also something of an absentee father.  He deals with his guilt over this in two ways.  Number one, he rationalizes his unsanctioned sessions of what-fits-where as stress relief and, indeed, a necessary buffer between the ugliness of his job and the pretty picture he wishes his home life to be.  Unfortunately, his wife and kids are all smart enough to know something is amiss, so the buffer he justifies to himself is the very thing exacerbating the fractures at home.  Number two, he simply suppresses his feelings, tamping them down like a charge in a musket.  This of course means that any flash of anger might lead to a violet outburst.

Detective Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, is battling far, far darker demons than those of his partner.  He copes with this darkness primarily by adopting an existentialist bent: life is ultimately without meaning, save whatever meaning an individual ascribes to it; moreover, most individuals, including himself, give it more meaning than it deserves.  (In one episode, he states (paraphrased), "I think self-awareness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.")  Cohle supplements this disengaged philosophy with illicit drugs and a studied aloofness that never quite reaches the level of Hart's outright self-repression.

In one scene, Hart's guilt has bubbled to the surface in an unfamiliar way.  Uncharacteristically, he reaches out to Cohle for help.  In an all too characteristic way, however, he avoids stating his own feelings directly by asking Cohle a semi-hypothetical question about his (all dialog from the scene is paraphrased):

"Have you ever wondered if you're a bad man?" Hart asked.

"No," said Cohle.  Somehow he made it plain he was answering the word wondered.  Cohle didn't wonder if he was a bad man.  He knewHe let that hang there a moment, then said, "The world needs bad men, Marty.  We protect people from the other bad men."

While Cohle's initial reaction is to the word wondered, the overall exchange actually hinges on the two men's interpretation of the word bad.  Viewed in the light of his domestic situation, Hart's question is less about good versus evil than it is about adequate versus inadequate: "Am I enough of a man to stop mistreating my family?"  Cohle, who knew of his partner's infidelity and had repeatedly stated he didn't judge, responded literally: a more traditional divine versus demonic assessment of himself, stated matter-of-factly.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and trumpet any so-called "gritty realism" that True Detective might claim or be tagged with.  I will maintain, though, a scene like this reflects a certain reality that shatters most notions of absolute good or absolute evil.  Wayne LaPierre's champion, a good guy with a gun, is as likely to be a guy who cheats on his wife, cheats on his taxes, steals from his workplace, picks his nose and wipes it on the seat, cuts people off without signaling and occasionally kicks dogs just for the heck of it as he is to be a praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition priest.

The real truth is this:
It does not take a good guy with a gun.
It takes...a guy...who is...good with a gun.

Be it noted: that's a requirement the NRA is against.  Think about that.

Likewise, if the Cold War, and specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis, taught us (well, most of us) anything, it's this: it doesn't take a good guy with a nuke.  Hell, it didn't even take a guy with a nuke.  John F. Kennedy, a now-well-known philanderer, defused the situation by talking to --not threatening, certainly not with nukes-- Nikita Khrushchev and working out an agreement by which both sides could back down and still save face.

Indeed, if the Soviet Union had really been as evil as we all happily painted it at the time, I wouldn't be sitting here typing and you wouldn't be wherever you are, reading.  Civilization as we know it would have been blown up decades ago.  At best, it would be a tattered remnant.  At worst, this planet would be a radioactive cesspool twirling through space.  Then who would the aliens abduct?  Cockroaches?  Who's the funniest bastard in this post?

P.S.... Bud "It Doesn't Take A Good Guy With A Syringe,
          It Takes A Guy Who Is Good With A Syringe" Selig must go.

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