This morning I woke up to find an email response to my recent piece on Sarah Palin ("Don't Get Palin's Appeal? Try a Little Harder"):
Thank you, I had forgotten why people like to stuff people like you into ovens.........
If you really think hard, you can figure out that "people like you" refers to my being Jewish, which this reader must have deduced from my last name, which sounds--Jewish.
Beyond understanding the perspective of those who lionize Sarah Palin and will constitute her energetic base in politics, we need to make sense of the other, unsavory part of Sarah Palin's support. Let's call them:
Two Stories: Democratic vs. Violent Order
Many people mistakenly believe that only those who commit acts of physical violence fit into a dangerous category. This is a misconception. Whether or not someone is a violent voter depends on the story about politics they carry around in their head. It is a story that answers this basic question: How does politics work?
Some people give this kind of story in response to that question:
Politics works through an exchange of words. Prior to the age of politics in which we live, now, people would resolve their problems through violence. Whenever a problem came up, a solution was imposed by the person who successfully used violence to persuade others. Today, when a problem comes up, the solution comes from the person who successfully uses argument to persuade others. In politics, we use argument to persuade instead of violence to suppress. Politics is an arena of debate, not fear."
That is the general, democratic story of politics and the hallmark of those voters who carry it around in your head is very easy to spot: Whenever a political problem arises, voters with the democratic story in their heads want to talk to others in order to persuade them. They want to debate because they believe--even without thinking about it--that the key to finding political solution is conversation, debate, talk.
But there is another story in the heads of another group of voters--another answer to the question "How does politics work?" which sounds something like this:
Politics should be an extension of the natural order of the strong ruling over the weak. Originally, this was the case, but then the weak founds ways to use their words and their money take power away from the strong, and they slowly turned politics into an arena for taking from the strong and giving to the weak. Politics controlled by the weak is based on deceit. The only way to restore the natural order of the strong over the weak is to overturn the political order by any means necessary.
That is the general violent story. It is not something that you will ever hear in its entirety, but you will hear parts of it. Voters with this violent story in their heads all tend to believe in an original time when the strong or majority was in charge, until the weak or minority took over using tricks, money, deceit. They also believe in an idea of a natural order based on "strength," and as a result see politics as something fundamentally broken--fundamentally immoral because it has been rigged by the weak to prevent the natural order from emerging.
Two Kinds of Political Action: Argument and Threat
Notice, though, that these two kinds of stories each lead to two different ideas about what counts as meaningful or acceptable action in the political arena.
For people with the democratic story in their heads, political action takes shape through words, talk, conversation. Even when these people talk about "action, not words," what they really mean is "getting out and talking to people to persuade them." This is a very basic belief in the idea of society run by citizens who interact in a public sphere of institutions, all of which provide a context for citizens to come together and talk, persuade each other, and solve problems together.
For people with the violent story in their heads, political action is the ability to use violence to impose one's will. This does not mean actual physical violence. Most often, the threat of violence is enough to impose one's will. Holding up a noose, for example, is often enough to remind people of what violence awaits them if they do not comply. Thus, the kinds of political actions we often see from people with the violent story in their heads involves displays of the implements of violence or, in other cases, reminders of horrific episodes of violence.
The Strong and the Weak
Not all of Sarah Palin's followers have the violent story in their head, but a fairly large percentage does. There are plenty of people drawn to her because they are persuaded by her arguments, by her words--because they see her as effective at winning arguments against liberals. No doubt, Sarah Palin has many, many followers with the democratic story in their heads.
Many of them, however, think about politics through the violent story. In particular, they see politics as an immoral arena controlled by the weak to defraud the strong. But who are the strong and who are the weak to these people?
For Sarah Palin's followers, the idea of "weak" and "strong" are reified primarily through American understandings of race and religion.
The strong, for Palin's followers are like themselves: white and Christian. The weak are not like themselves: non-white and non-Christian.
This means that they view politics as an arena that was taken away from whites and Christians by non-whites and non-Christians wielding tricks, money, and deceit. The purpose of their political action is to overthrow that immoral order to restore the natural order of whites and Christians ruling over non-whites and non-Christians.
Now, obviously, this is a controversial way to put things. I hold no illusions about what it feels like to be a supporter of Sarah Palin and to read that kind of description. But let me make one thing clear: We must recognize that there are a great many people in this country who have in their heads a very well-developed story about politics as an immoral system taken over by the non-white, non-Christian minority to defraud the white, Christian majority.
Conservatively speaking, this story has been around for at least 300 years--at least since John Locke wrote his Second Treatise on Government.
This violent story of politics fueled the European mercantile conquest of North and South America.
This violent story of politics fueled the Atlantic slave trade.
This violent story of politics fueled the American civil war.
This violent story of politics fueled the rise of the KKK.
This violent story of politics fueled Jim Crow.
This violent story of politics fueled the rise of the skinhead and Neo-Nazi movement.
And now, this violent story of politics has found a place for itself in the figure of Sarah Palin.
Why? Because Sarah Palin repeats the same story over and over and over again: This government, this president has used deceit to defraud the majority of the American people.
This is not an abstract argument to those with the violent story in their heads. It is a description of an African-American president, believed to be a Muslim and a foreigner, claimed to have wealthy foreign Jewish backers who put him in office.
That story of Barack Obama as the symbol of the weak defrauding the strong--as the present incarnation of the non-white, non-Christian trickster using immoral politics to subvert the natural order--that is the story many people hear in the words of Sarah Palin.
And while the violent story of the subverted natural order may be much larger black and white or Christian and Jewish--those are the highly charged symbols that have condensed onto it through the persona of Sarah Palin.
Make no mistake about it. To a sizable percentage of her followers, Sarah Palin represents the return of the natural order of white Christians in Charge.
What to do About It
It is not hard to see why this kind of symbolic logic would emerge at this point. The Presidency of Barack Obama is the first time the non-white order has been subverted, at least symbolically. And even though Barack Obama is Christian, his experience in the world has been diverse enough to be different, and therefore threatening, to many people in this country.
But what can be done about these particular supporters of Palin? What should we do when someone responds to our political arguments about the kind of policies we want from government with violent threats like this:
Thank you, I had forgotten why people like to stuff people like you into ovens.........
First, do not be afraid.
Second, DO, NOT, BE, AFRAID.
Third, describe this kind of language as "violent," and attribute that violence to the person who uses it.
Fourth, remind people that politics based on violence is not what most Americans believe.
Fifth, connect the violent voters to the political figures they support--in this case Sarah Palin.
Sixth, tell people that the problems in America are problems we all face together--we cannot move forward with threats from one group against another.
Seventh, focus on the issue at hand and actual arguments in the debate.
Eighth, remember that there are many people who will never stop pushing violence in politics--so ignore them and speak to someone else.
I have no illusions about changing the mind of a person who threatens me via email with talk of gas chambers and crematoria. Get serious--I am no dummy. If Sarah Palin has, say, 1 million fans who think about politics through the violent story of the natural order, there is not much anyone can do to reduce that number.
But there are many, many people who reject that way of thinking and who may be listening to the conversation simply because that is where the loudest noise is right now. Those people are not driven by the violent story of politics and will listen to arguments by those who make the effort to refocus the issue at hand and the actual arguments in the debate.
Threats against another person on the basis of race or religion are abhorrent, but all it takes is a little presence of mind, self-awareness, and forethought to turn these encounters into something useful in the long run.
And we do have a long way to go.