A celebrity so big that party politics can't hold her. Scott McLemee takes a look at Going Rouge.

November 18, 2009

Important as it was, the campaign of Barack Obama was not the only history-making element of the 2008 presidential election. With Sarah Palin, we crossed another epochal divide. The boundary between reality television and American politics (already somewhat weakened by the continuous "American Idol" plebiscite) finally collapsed.

Her campaign's basic formula was familiar: members of an ordinary middle-class family turn into instantly recognizable national celebrities while competing for valuable prizes.

But like any contestant at this late stage of an already decadent genre, Palin seemed much less conscious of the stakes of the game (power) than in how it let her broadcast her own sense of herself.

At that level she could not lose – the ballot box notwithstanding. I’m not sure what Sarah Palin’s favorite work of postmodern theory might be (all of them, probably) but she seems to take her lead from Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction. Other political figures use the media as part of what JB calls “production.” That is, they generate signs and images meant to create an effect within politics. For the Baudrillardian “seducer,” by contrast, the power to create fascination is its own reward.

Watching Palin respond to questions about her book Going Rogue (or not respond to them, often enough) is, from this perspective, no laughing matter. She grows ever more comfortable talking about herself. If no more capable of simulating knowledge of public issues, she is getting her story straight, more or less. And this matters. For now she does not have to be accurate, just coherent. She is consolidating her presence, her "brand." Teams of professional ideologists can feed Palin her lines later.

Is this too cynical? I fear it may not be cynical enough. For it assumes that Palin will eventually be integrated into her party’s apparatus and turned into a mouthpiece of old-school Republican electoral politics -- a basic platform of tax cuts for the rich and unregulated handgun ownership for everybody else.

That is not the only possible outcome, however. Someone with Palin’s developing command of the arts of media seduction -- and whose knack on that score is largely a matter of her performative maverickiness -- has the potential to change the rules of the game.

The editors of a new collection of essays called Going Rouge – a punning title that belies its basic seriousness – recognize that in Palin we may have something more than a new celebrity. “No one speaks of McCainism or Doleism,” write Richard Kim and Betsy Reed in their introduction, “but Palinism signals not just a political position but a political style, a whole way of doing politics.”

The volume itself is the product of a whole new way of doing serious nonfiction. It is the first title from OR Books, which has a staff, so far, of two people. One of them is Colin Robinson, who roughly this time last year lost his job as an editor at Simon and Schuster. He tells me that OR now has two offices. One is the coffee shop where he and his partner John Oakes (co-founder of independent publisher Four Walls Eight Windows) work in the morning. The other is the bar they go to at night.

When we talked earlier this year, Robinson described his idea for a new kind of trade publishing. The usual approach is to print an enormous number of copies of a title to get an economy of scale, then give large discounts to chain bookstores – leaving almost no money to promote it. For serious nonfiction, this was a miserable system. Any money for advertising tended to go to publicize, say, The Stephen King Cookbook or suchlike. (Palin's autobiography is an example of a book enjoying just such heavy promotion.)

His plan, Robinson said, would be to publish a few titles that he thought were worthwhile, making them available as e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks -- and then concentrate on advertising them online, among other ways via video. So far you have to buy Going Rouge directly from the publisher (it sold about 4,000 copies before its official publication date on November 16) but it will be available for order from bookstores next month.

Most of the chapters are reprints from magazines such as The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The Nation; a few first appeared on Web sites. The list of contributors is a Who’s Who of left-leaning journalists and commentators. Max Blumenthal, Juan Cole. Naomi Klein, Rick Perlstein, and Katha Pollitt, among others. There are a few critical evaluations of Palin by her fellow Republicans, including one by a conservative columnist who suggests that she makes George W. Bush “sound like Cicero.” The editors also reprint a number of interviews with and public statements by Palin herself – among them, selections from her Twitter and Facebook writings.

A celebration, then, it is not. But Going Rouge does represent an acknowledgment of Palin’s importance, ambiguous though the precise nature of that importance may be. It cannot be reduced to her short-term plans. She remains circumspect about them, for now anyway. But she is busy demonstrating a strong intuitive grasp of how mass media can be used – among other things, to change the subject.

An example is the item Palin posted on Facebook in early August: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

This was fantasy. But it was effective fantasy. To borrow again from Baudrillard, it seduced -- abolishing reality and replacing it with a delirious facsimile.

The editors of Going Rouge give Palin credit for the rhetorical power generated by her words, and perhaps also by her canny use of the social-networking venue: “With remarkable economy of prose, Palin cast health care reform as an assault on the country, put a face on its supposed victims (her baby Trig), coined the expression ‘death panel’ (linking it directly to Obama), raised the specter of euthanasia in the service of a state-run economy, and rallied the troops around a fight against ‘evil.’ In short, she personalized, popularized, and polarized the debate. Never mind that Democratic health care reform bills merely funded optional end-of-life consultations that had heretofore been almost universally acknowledged as a good. (Indeed, Palin herself once championed them in Alaska.)”

Well, consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of tiny minds. Sarah Palin is playing the political game on a much grander scale -- with rules she may be rewriting as she goes.

With a first printing of 1.5 million copies of her book, I don’t know that the intervention of an upstart press can pose much of a challenge. But OR Books deserves credit for trying. Someone has to speak up for reality from time to time. Otherwise it will just disappear.


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