Is there anything left to say about Sarah Palin? Going Rouge, the just-released liberal answer to Palin's memoir, has something to say, which is that strikingly little has changed about her a year later. That's both good and bad news.
Yes, Palin has shaken off the McCain entourage and that pesky government gig. Levi Johnston has broken with the family values narrative and is visiting with Sodom and Gomorrah. But the major memes are unchanged: her breezy embrace of ignorance is still only slightly tempered by a new round of handlers; she still unblinkingly co-opts feminist language; she still mesmerizes and infuriates.
Palin, write Nation editors Richard Kim and Betsy Reed in the introduction, "personalized, popularized, and polarized the debate." They're referring to her single post on her Facebook page that launched a thousand death panel screeds. But it pretty much applies to all things Palin.
Going Rogue is made up mostly material compiled from the election season, some of it after the McCain-Palin defeat, plus a handy greatest-hits collection of her fumblings and fabrications. Though there are some essays on her environmental policy and her religious associations, nearly all of them deal with her implications for women – her policies on sexual assault in a state with the highest rate of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, what her selection means for women's progress. To the editors' credit, younger women writers like Rebecca Traister, Dana Goldstein, Jessica Valenti, Amanda Fortini, and Amy Alexander are well-represented alongside the likes of Frank Rich, Gloria Steinem, and Naomi Klein.
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Before the election, cable-news analysis tried out the theory, the McCain campaign hoped against hope, and liberals had nightmares that Palin would be some sort of gamechanger for the Republicans in the 2008 campaign. But plenty of feminist and progressive writers saw through the entirely cynical ruse from the start. The lessons from the book — especially in a week where Palin's antics are tying feminists in knots, when some of her detractors are indeed sexist, but she herself advocates policies that limit women's rights — is to observe, as these writers have, how disingenuous a project this has been and still is.
Several of the essayists point out that Palin has gotten this far by co-opting cherished liberal ideals. That includes affirmative action and feminism. "Lower standards for potential leaders of the world's most powerful country in the name of diversity: That's what Republicans stand for now," writes Katha Pollitt in one essay. She adds, "The good news is, this twisted homage to feminism means conservatives must recognize it as a force in American politics-why spend so much time framing Palin as a feminist if we're all just a bunch of hairy man-haters?
Tom Perrotta also recognizes that Palin is a red herring, understanding her in the context of what he calls the Sexy Puritan archetype, which is a result of the right realizing that "to be seen as anti-sex — and especially to be seen as unsexy — is a losing proposition in contemporary America, even among evangelical Christians most troubled by the fallout of the sexual revolution."
Going Rouge can make you nostalgic for the moral clarity of the election season, when all the knotty dynamics came down to a simple yes or no on a Tuesday. Maybe that's another reason we can't let go of Palin — it's more fun to dwell in the suspenseful soap opera of last year than it is to deal with the bleak ambiguity of actually solving our problems in the Obama era.
Do people who oppose Palin's politics and her dragging down of the discourse make her matter more by obsessing over her? True, the future could still bring Palinism out of the teabag margins and into the mainstream. But if there's any silver lining to this act of the media farce, it's to remind us, as this book does in the most reasonable and un-Palin-like terms, why a majority of the electorate also didn't fall for it in the first place.
Going Rouge [OR Books] (Book only available for purchase through publisher).