The former Alaska governor clearly hasn't the faintest idea what free speech means
I miss Sarah Palin. I was bummed when she decided not to run for president the last time around. It would have been hard to find a challenger to Barack Obama less funny than Mitt Romney (notwithstanding Barrett Foa's outstanding "I Believe" Romney-musical spoof), and because the president himself isn't exactly a barrel of laughs, we ended up with one of the unfunniest (and also angriest) White House races in history.
That opportunity is lost, but it's still fun when Palin injects herself into the news. She's done so this week by jumping to the defense of Duck Dynasty's patriarch Phil Robertson, who remarkably got himself suspended from his own smash-hit reality TV show by extolling the virtues of the vagina over the anus in the pages of GQ (in an interview by the always-excellent Drew Magary). Robertson was professing, one might even say over-professing, his ignorance as to the appeal of gay sex – he put it this way:
It seems like, to me, a vagina – as a man – would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes . . . But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical.
There's more there. Take that, anus! Robertson went on to provide a less bizarre, more Biblical explanation for his opposition to homosexuality. Then, in a separate piece on the GQ site, he also offered a 20th-century America version of Holocaust denial.
He said that as a young person in pre-civil rights Louisiana, he "never . . . saw the mistreatment of any black person" and that black people were happy (happier?) back then:
Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
After all of this came out, A&E suspended the show more or less immediately amid a blizzard of "That guy we just spent years turning into a rock star sure as heck doesn't represent the views of our ad-sales department!" denials. This of course immediately inspired howls of protest from Duck fans and conservative politicians alike.
Sarah Palin, ably staying in character in her new role as a professional media ambulance-chaser, was one of the first to rush to Robertson's defense. She posted a photo of herself with the Robertsons and tweeted the following:
Free speech is endangered species; those "intolerants" hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all
Conservatives have always had trouble grasping the difference between public censorship and private enterprise. With a few exceptions, like whistleblower laws and National Labor Relations Board protections against being fired for off-site discussions about work conditions (exceptions that, in almost every case, conservatives bitterly opposed), there is no legal or constitutional right to free speech on private property.
You can be fired for calling your boss a dick, and you can just as easily be let go by a profit-seeking media company for imperiling its relationship with advertisers. And incidentally, this is the way true conservatives, and especially true hardcore speech advocates, have always wanted it.
Could you imagine the uproar if someone passed a law saying that Martin Bashir couldn't be bounced from a broadcast job for saying Sarah Palin was a good candidate to have feces shoved in her mouth? Now that would be censorship.
Remember, nobody heard a peep from Sarah Palin about free speech after that episode. Bashir earlier this year tiptoed across the line in an angry diatribe about Palin's invocation of slavery imagery, which she had somewhat amazingly used to describe the suffering (presumably white) middle Americans will feel when they are forced to pay for the "free stuff" the Obama administration is handing out, i.e. health care:
Our free stuff today is being paid for today by taking money from our children and borrowing from China. When that money comes due and, this isn't racist, so try it, try it anyway, this isn't racist, but it's going to be like slavery when that note is due. Right? We are going to be beholden to a foreign master.
And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.
Palin's mind is amazing. Slavery was purely a private-enterprise abomination. It had nothing to do with being subservient to the government. It was the opposite of that, actually. She was also wrong in the sense that the health care program isn't "free stuff" (even those who will receive subsidized care will be paying in one form or another for their policies).
So she pulled off a Friedman-esque anatomical impossibility there, getting three feet in her mouth at the same time.
First, she was wrong about slavery. Then she was wrong about health care. Then, thirdly, she was almost insanely insensitive and inappropriate in her use of the word slavery at all, comparing white middle class angst over having to partially subsidize health care for their poor (and mostly nonwhite) neighbors to being whipped and tortured across generations of institutional racist terror.
Bashir reacted to this by telling a story about slaves who were forced to defecate in each others' mouths, and then suggested that Palin, having "scraped the barrel of her long-deceased mind," was a "good candidate" for the same treatment. Soon after, he was essentially forced out of the network.
Again, Palin had no problem with that. In fact, Palin lauded the network once Bashir was out:
It was refreshing to see though, that many in the media did come out and say, 'Look, our standards have got to be higher than this . . .'
The thing is, Robertson's ouster by A&E was exactly the same sort of move – a network sucking it up and distancing itself from an on-air figure because of controversial speech. But because Robertson's views were ones Palin apparently agrees with, suddenly she wasn't talking about anything being refreshing, but instead cried that "free speech is an endangered species."
Palin's inability to grasp the difference between a first-amendment violation and corporate calculation is amazing because she literally just published a book on the subject. Her newly-released War-on-Christmas diatribe, Good Tidings and Great Joy, is all about the efforts by evil Jesus-hating atheists to sue the Christmas out of our public lives. (It's one of the funniest things ever written, by the way. I would write a review but I don't think I could make it all the way to the end without a cardiac episode).
In writing this new book, Palin presumably spent the whole of the last year or so staring right at the issue of what may be said on private property versus what may be said on public property – the difference between putting up a nativity scene in front of a courthouse and putting one up on your lawn. Yet as this latest controversy shows, the underlying issue is still a total blur to her.
Of course, Palin has a long history of getting things not just wrong, but exactly wrong. In the book, for instance, she describes buying her husband Todd "a nice, needed powerful gun" in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings and resulting anti-gun fervor. She described this warm act as a "small act of civil disobedience" that was "fun."
As Alex Falcone for the Portland Mercury noted in this humorous review, this gets the term "civil disobedience" perfectly backwards:
Not only is that a hilarious re-purposing of a term with a noble history, it's also a perfect misuse of BOTH WORDS. Buying guns is both legal and dangerous, making it an act of uncivil obedience.
Anyway, this whole episode speaks to a bigger dilemma facing the Republican Party. Like Palin, the party itself hasn't seemed to grasp the fact that the country's broad rejection of its base's more extreme views on things like race, class and gender isn't some injustice to be railed against, but plain demographic truth.
If your "moderate" presidential candidate from 2012, the guy who was bashed by the party base for being insufficiently hardcore, is a guy who essentially said, after a failed speech to the N.A.A.C.P., that all black voters want is "free stuff," then you're just not going to win a lot of elections in a country that's going to be majority nonwhite within a few decades.
Similarly, if your party's political rhetoric is full of suggestions that poor people are poor because they don't like to work, well, you're not going to win a lot of votes from poor people, who also happen to be increasingly many in number. That's not a misunderstanding or an injustice, that's just a fact.
Whether or not Robertson and his entertainingly hairy family should have been fired is beside the point. The point is that A&E realized there was no way to make the numbers work if they had a guy who thinks black people were happier before civil rights as a front man.
It surely wasn't personal, but just a business decision, and not a terribly hard one, either. It's weird that the Republican Party has such trouble making the same kind of call in choosing its leading characters.