– I am Sarah Palin

When I was in college, at one of the Seven Sisters in the mid-1980s, meals were served in the dormitories by kitchen staff who were longtime employees of the college. This was before the big contractors, like Aramark, took over dining services everywhere. We knew our cook, Charlie his name was, and dinners were like dinner parties. We enjoyed what we ate, and we lingered over the table for hours. Sometimes I sat with a group, and sometimes I sat where there was an empty seat. It was easy to know everyone; there were maybe 150 residents in my dorm, Beebe Hall.

Because the nights were so similar to each other, they generally blur in my memory into one big mealtime. One night, though, when I was a freshman, I was sitting with Andrea, a junior from New Jersey. I don’t recall what I was telling her, but I was talking, and at the same time she was finishing dessert and licking her spoon: licking the bowl, licking the back, dipping it into the melted ice cream again, licking and licking.

She paused in her licking and listening and she interrupted me: “You know what’s a shame?”

“What?” I asked back.

“No matter that you’re here, no matter how smart you are, no matter how much education you get, people are always going to think you’re ignorant.”

What does one say in reply? I burned with sudden shame. “Um… why?” I stammered.

“Because of that accent. It’s like R’s don’t exist for you.”

She was right. I was from Central Massachusetts, near Worcester, pronounced Wooster, but Woostah to the people who lived there. (Why enunciate an R when it was easier just to drop it off the end?) So, there I was, a world away from Woostah (although only 30 miles down the road), and being accused of being a hick. And maybe I was. But I decided, in that instant, to accept the letter R into my life and to straighten out my speech, which I did, immediately.

And I’ve been doing it ever since, and I do it pretty well. A professional speech coach, with whom I once worked, told me he couldn’t place my accent, it was so “neutral.” And I told him the story of Andrea, and of my success.

Recently, on Chee’s blog I watched an old YouTube video of GOP vice presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin. I almost couldn’t focus on what she was saying, because her manner grated on me. She talks as if she’s snapping bubblegum. She smiles too much. She said “cool,” twice.

“Unpolished.” That’s the word I came up with.

People are talking about her, everywhere: on tv, in homes, at work. Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin. I never knew so much about another woman in such a short time. “What do you think?” Already, we have so many opinions — about her, about the soundness of McCain’s choice — and none of us is uninterested.

I supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and now I’m supporting Barack Obama’s. I barely know anything about McCain, but I know enough. Sarah Palin? I am filled with condescension: “She doesn’t have the stature for national office.” That’s the nice way to say it.

What do I mean by that? What do any of us mean in our scrutiny of her credentials, her policies, and her family life? Is it really only that she’s too young, too biased, too untested to serve in the Executive Office?

Yesterday I was trying to explain my prejudice to Jimmy. With some humility, but not enough that I didn’t say it, I used the word “low brow.” Today, a friend from graduate school forwarded to me an e-mail from another person that critiques Sarah Palin and baldly calls her “red neck.” In an instant, I felt the mirror turned on me.

People, this is not nice, not generous, and most of all, not democratic.

I am not, of course, Sarah Palin, although maybe the town I grew up in (small, working class) and the times I grew up in (she’s only one year older than me) are not unlike where and when she grew up. She is a former basketball player, beauty queen, and mayor. I have been none of those. I’m no Republican, and no governor of no state.

I am, however, or at least I fancy myself to be, part of some sort of intellectual elite that she is not. I read the New Yorker and the New York Times; I see films and read difficult novels and nonfiction, too. I know how to talk, right? If I were on national television, I would know not to say “cool,” twice. I have no highlights in my hair, and, if I did, they wouldn’t be all streaky, like hers — they’d be “natural.” I usually don’t wear lipstick, and, if I did, it’d be subtle. And if I had a seventeen year old daughter, she wouldn’t do something so obvious, so unpolished, as to get and stay pregnant.

In his book, Limbo, Alfred Lubrano points out that an elite college education offers students from working class families lessons in how to act, how to “pass” as upper class. To “rise” in status, there is much that a student from a blue collar family has to leave behind, to detach himself from. Such a student also has to learn how to tone down affect and hide displays of feeling.

So, I mostly don’t want to vote for Sarah Palin — no matter how smart, brave, cunning, loving, and ambitious — because she’s not like me. Maybe I should say, she’s not like the me I am now.

We are, however, misjudging McCain’s choice and even misjudging Palin’s suitability for a national role. Hey, this is America — government for the people and by the people, right? Who’s “people”?

In the election commentary so far, pundits and analysts and voters and scholars have been rightly talking about race, gender, and age. It’s time, maybe, that we start talking about the demographic difference that intersects all of these and that Sarah Palin, I believe, has become a touchstone for: social class.

16 thoughts on “– I am Sarah Palin

  1. Pingback: Behind the scenes with McCain and Palin « Jimmy Guterman’s Jewels and Binoculars

  2. To qualify my intellect as it seems requisite that I do: I’m a Stanford-educated rocket scientist with undergrad and upbringing in a couple of those flyover red states you liberal coasties seem to ignore. I cling to neither guns nor religion, but fully support the freedoms of those who do. I’m pro-choice and pro-environment, but disdain for big government and the taxes that support it win my vote. I found your blog when I googled “I am Sarah Palin.”

    As many of my contemporary friends visited Denver last week and duties at work prevented me from going to St. Paul this, I’ve pondered the fundamental differences in political philosophies and the seemingly inexorable slide into large government, Euro-style, light socialism this country is on.

    I think that thanks to the momentum generated by an outstanding convention my party will win this battle, but the war is not over and the future is not as bright. I can’t fathom the megalomania of the liberal “intellectual elite.” Why on Earth do you think you know what’s better for people than they do? Why do you think that our care for each other should be mediated by the government, the only entity that has the power to take something from us by force?

    Since you do seem highly capable of observation and analytical thought, I’m sure you’ve noticed the massive inefficiency in government offices when you visit them and read about it when the media (of both sides) exposes it. Why do you assume programs laid down by the liberal “intellectual elite” will be any more efficient? On a good day, government adds 10% to the overhead of any of these, and it’s usually closer to 20%.

    There is this perfect electoral storm of the liberal “intellectual elite” at the top and a subservient hand-out class at the bottom that together may outnumber those of us in the middle from whom the former will steal tax dollars to give to the latter.

    This country is the last hope of, for lack of a less charged term, rugged individualism on this planet. There is no country with LESS of a hand-out system than ours. Where are those of us who see the fallacy of liberal social programs supposed to go?

    Look at the data. These programs FAIL uniformly. If liberal social programs worked, there would be no liberals! Tax CUTS create jobs. It’s in the data.

    But aside from the generalities of light socialism, I have many problems with specific words in your blog.

    Palin too young: She is just two and a half years younger than Obama.
    Palin too untested: She has actually been in public elected office a few months longer than Obama.

    How can a party, or at least a member thereof, judge someone for using vernacular in public when so many professed voters for that party explain their candidate’s vacillations by saying he is just saying things to get elected?

    For a party and political philosophy that publicly espouses tolerance, diversity and acceptance, your blog post makes you out to be quite the hypocrite. I’ll spare any commentary on your judgment of her cosmetology, but I will ask the following questions. Could it be that there is more than one type of “intellectual elite”? That there is a type that espouses limited government, the sanctity of life, a lack of American apologism, and the rights of individuals over the government? Could it be that a vast silent majority of people are quite happy not “rising in status”? That they are perfectly happy in their towns large and small, hoisting a brew and watching the game of the week? How dare you ascribe your values to them!

    I’ll stop there as your closing sentence causes me to seethe beyond coherent thought. If you are a product of the schools of the liberal “intellectual elite,” then I must thank you for the bit of intelligence you’ve shared on your true plans.

  3. Matt, although I make my points less pointedly than you do, my intention with this post was to ask — of myself, of acquaintances, of the press — the same question that you articulate: “Could it be that there is more than one type of “intellectual elite”?” Yes. And, in attempting to expose my own snobbery, as well as my own experience of once being the brunt of such snobbery, I want to show that our initial reaction to Sarah Palin is not about her policies or ideologies, but about her — how she talks, how she dresses, how she conducts her family life, and what that all “means.” I’m implicating myself — I’m asking myself, “how dare I ascribe my values” — and others by extension.

    While I disagree with many of her policies, I think that many voters are going to love her, and also that negative press will garner sympathy for her.

    I do not understand why my closing sentence makes you seethe. What would be anger-making if all of us — starting with me — examined our assumptions and biases about race, gender, age, and especially social class? For example, I think it’s appalling that many people feel comfortable saying McCain is “too old” to be president. Is that really so, or is our youth-obsessed culture limited in its imagination of vitality and capability? (I think, the latter. We are limited in our ideas about human potential. McCain seems capable of four years of hard work to me, and ready for it.)

    I have no “true plans” (I wish I did), but I am a liberal and I do believe in government support for social programs. It’s possible, however, that you and I agree on some things — government inefficiency annoys me terribly — but it is difficult, in a polarized, two party system, for people to talk about what they agree on. Especially during election time.

    Jane

  4. Jane: I deeply, deeply admire your reasonable and measured way of responding to those who disagree with (and misread) you, as well as your ability to see from someone else’s perspective. Seriously, you’re my hero in this respect. Also, the way you put yourself out there in this post is wonderful.

    Social class is something that is so important in this society and constantly overlooked. We like to think it doesn’t exist in the US, or that it’s easily changed.

    When I began grad school, I had a lot of misgivings about what my background and my own and my parents’ lack of educational opportunities would mean for my ability to navigate this new territory. Certainly some of my peers, whose parents had gone to college or sometimes even grad school themselves, were more familiar with it than I was. And I find it odd to be educated as part of the “liberal elite” but still have a lot of trouble paying my rent. This does suggest something about how class might be about more than money.

    I’m rambling, so I’ll try to stop. I found your post very thought-provoking. For me, one of the most annoying things about Sarah Palin is that I actually do like her personality — she seems like a spunky go-getter, and I like her funky glasses and 60s hairdo. Something in me, too, finds it strangely exciting to see pictures of her on the cover of newspapers with a gun in her hand. (WHY? I am a vegetarian and a pacifist!) But what I really hate is how so many people *vote* based on personality. Her views are precisely the opposite of mine — ALL of them (or at least 95%). That’s all that really matters to me.

  5. I agree that social class is an ignored but important aspect of identity. And I agree that social class overlaps with all of the others, which are used to judge an individual’s status and his or her worthiness to enjoy basic human rights, privileges, etc.

    It’s difficult not to let feelings guide us in judging politicians, especially with simple-minded pundits taking sides and shouting at us from the CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and other studios. I can’t say that I’m going to, or ever planned to, vote for the person most like me. Obama will get my vote, even though I don’t think we have a lot in common: I’m not religious, I’m not black, I didn’t attend an elite college. I also don’t have much in common with Clinton, whom I voted for in the primary.

    Of all the candidates, I probably have most in common with Palin, but there’s no way I’m voting for her. I’m disturbed by what has been revealed in the celebration of her by-the-bootstraps narrative. Whether or not she’d be fun to have a beer with, as one pundit said, I’m not interested in that kind of thing when deciding who should be vice president. This decision is about much more than weighing likes and dislikes.

  6. Thanks for posting my comment as a counterpoint to yours. While I’m typically pointed and believe an argument is better than no conversation at all, I try to be open-eared if not open-minded. And I agree: neither side can solve national problems if we can’t even talk to each other. (Incidentally, there are at least two interesting pieces on this. One from John Stossel about two years ago, citing U.Texas research. He looked at Franklin, TN and Montauk, NJ, who were nearly 50-50 a generation ago and have now polarized. The other an NPR piece with Congressman Boehlert from NY, who always went to an opening day baseball game with one of his Dem colleagues.)

    From around your mention of NYT, I missed that your post was introspective. I read it as a rationalization of judging her. I read the closing sentence not as adding to that introspection. To me it seemed to call for further judgment of the political right based on class.

    I apologize if I misinterpreted and hope that all of us endeavor to listen to the other side no matter the outcome of the election. I think that stopped after the controversies in 2000.

  7. Wow. I am surprised that someone from Wooster would be so…fill in the blank here. But like you, I grew up there and learned to pronounced my r’s. And unlike you, I had parents with “problems” – parents who cared nothing about their future but lived only in the moment. But I will say, gave everything they had to their children and their friends. But they did give me one thing, respect for my fellow American’s and the ability to give someone the benefit of the doubt. As my mother used to say, “you don’t know him…you don’t know him like I do.”

    We all have faults. I probably have more than you. You are well read, well educated and a talented writer and educator. Did I forget “intellectual elite”? But I find it very, VERY simple-minded of you to judge a woman by her hair, clothes and lipstick. Do you know anything about her opinions, her beliefs or her ability to give birth to, accept and love a child with such severe disabilities like Down’s syndrome? Try reading The New Yorker when you have a child who can’t feed themself.

    I don’t know her either. But I will say this, I am learning what I can about her, Joe Biden, John McCain and Senator Obama. I am giving everyone a fair shot. The fact that Obama called himself a Muslim instead of a Christian the other day. Nice. But I will still listen to the plan he has for OUR country.

    As a Catholic, I don’t judge someone based upon how they look, how they talk and some of the choices they have made. I respect anyone who can look at their child and say, “I love you, but I don’t understand what you have done. Explain it to me.”

    I don’t believe in abortion, but I believe that a person has a right to choose. I think the welfare system is broken and that our troops should come home. But I also believe that people are people. And that women are equal to men (if not better).

    In my opinion, on this particular topic I think you should spend more time understanding the issues our country faces and spend less time looking at hair highlights. But I would bet you $1MM that Michelle has em. And I am sure they are “wicked awesome”.

    (writers note – Jane is the bomb!)

  8. I love this essay, Jane. I totally got it.

    I am scared, now, that we’re all getting away from “who” is the candidate. McCain or Palin?

    On a morning talk show yesterday, the announcer said, “The Palin/McCain ticket.” “Oops, I mean McCain/Palin.”

    Please, please pen, “I am Obama.”

  9. Dear Commenters,
    Thank you all for responding so frankly. I wish we all could have dinner together. We have a lot to talk about (and I have the feeling we would all be “open-eared,” as Matt calls it), which is the first step in real conversation.

    In a separate e-mail, James asked me if I’m going to write more about Sarah Palin, and I’m not sure. As I tried to convey in this post, but may not have said clearly, I am trying more to examine my own knee-jerk reaction to Palin than I am trying to examine her policies, about which I am just starting to learn.

    None of us can help responding to each candidate as a person — Bryan, you rightly called me to task on my reaction to Palin, and yet your response to her, too, is partly personal, albeit more positive. (I agree, there is something courageous about parenting a disabled child, and yet does that courage scale up to public office?) We are all making those leaps, negative or positive. And I’m not saying we should stop responding to candidates as people. What I’m saying — as most of you are saying — is that it’s not enough. We should all be examining our responses, as we examine the candidates’ public records.

    And, Sally, will I write about Obama? I’m not sure. You’ve got me thinking. What’s weird for me about him is that I have almost no personal response (and I know that his core supporters love him), even though rationally I find him solid and prepared. I am guilty, too, I guess, of wanting to feel some sort of “spark” between me and the candidate of my choice. That’s how to pick a date or a mate, however, and not the next president. Stay tuned…

    Jane

  10. Politics stink. But unless we are willing to discuss them, nothing changes. But I like to think about them more as a conversation rather than an argument.

    I think your pragmatic response to my rather emotional rant is appropriate. Keep the issues the issues. And I couldn’t agree more that we all want to feel a “spark”. Our vote is personal. We all want to feel like we make a difference. And that is what is great about America. That we all feel we can.

    I still am a bit confused that you thought that a 17 year old girl did “something so obvious, so unpolished, as to get and stay pregnant.”

    The “stay pregnant” part bothers me only because it seems in contrast to who you are and what you believe in. I love your blog and read it regularly because I think you provide such great insight into everyday life. And I always learn something. But I find it very odd that someone who has such respect for living, beautiful things (family, food, plants, children, yarn, add more things here) would take such a position about a living, breathing child.

    As I said earlier, I hope this is a conversation and not a criticism. I want to learn more. But what if your daughter came home pregnant tomorrow and wanted to keep the baby because it was conceived out of (what she thought was) love. How would you handle it?

  11. I interpreted my sister’s piece as being introspective–and that she surprised herself when she realized had assumptions about Palin based on class and appearance. She is providing explanation as to why she is that way and I think it is pretty brave. She writes “People, this is not nice, not generous, and most of all, not democratic.” I have discussed privately with her that I have been the same way, and I have since stopped making generalizations about Palin. But the more I view her and read about her, I can tell you I would not be friends with her nor would I vote for her–and if I was a McCain supporter I would think twice about voting for him now-his choice smacks of a stuntmaking.

    Jane is not so much providing commentary about Palin and her qualifications, but more about how it is people come to judge people based on class and race. The same should be said for Obama –why should we have affinity for him only because he might be better equipped to empathize with the middle-class–or even, why then criticize McCain for not experiencing economic hardship? This is “class-ism” – a solid candidate with experience and a certain level of intellect would be able to overcome such personal bias.

    I have yet to see evidence of either in Palin, experience or demonstrated intellect, so I am judging her on the lack of both.

    Now Bryan-I will say I found your comments especially interesting, because they were full of assumptions about my sister’s upbringing–and while they may be founded, the facts may not support your assumptions…I don’t feel at liberty to reveal the facts of her life–lt’s just say that our family surely has learned to “pass” in so many ways.

    cheers to all, for caring about inequalities, our country, and hopefully each other.

  12. Ellen, Bryan, and Emily, thank you all for your thoughtful and energetic responses.

    Bryan, I am still thinking about your question about my daughter, who is 12 but will someday be 17, and my attitude about teen pregnancy. Such deep questions cannot be answered impulsively, but I will eventually try to. (Thank you for the compliment on my blog.)

    Em… thanks for adding your own nuances to my post. What you say about Obama, McCain, and class is insightful.

    Dinner, anyone?

  13. Couple of quick thoughts…

    Invitation to dinner – yes. I would love to see you all. How about we get together soon? You name the date/place, I will be there.

    Jane – Your responses are amazing. You never cease to amaze me with your compassion, insight and ability to see and appreciate the little things. I wish I had that gift.

    Emily – great points. I actually agree with you on your points. It gave me a lot to think about. And I will say that my response was based upon the fact that I have no facts other than what I was reading here and Jane’s insights. I think I know what you mean by “pass” and like I said in a previous post, I support a woman’s right to choose even though I know my wife and I never would. Life hands us so many things. Good and bad. Everyone needs to make choices and not feel the need to justify them to anyone but themselves (and if you are married, to their spouse). But I was merely making the observation that the words about Palin’s daughter “something so obvious, so unpolished, as to get and stay pregnant” seemed a bit out of left field. They threw me for a loop. But I believe we all learn from each other. How bored would we be if we didn’t? I know it sounds simple, but sometimes in life it is easier to keep it that way.

    Well, I think we all learned something here. At least I think I did 🙂

    Dinner, anyone?

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