A Painless Palinoscopy

September 5, 2008

“You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

– Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin

This unscripted quip by the Alaska Gov’ner and VP Nom drew cheers at the RNC and punning headlines all throughout the media. Not that I’m one to take anything a politician says seriously, but this impromptu joke is worth some critical assessment, not because I’m trying to prove anything about Sarah Palin, but because I think the joke isn’t funny.

Let’s begin with the speaker. I imagine that Sarah Palin was looking to bolster her own aggressiveness within the context of maternal responsibility, more vulgarly, she was going for the “I’m a hot bitch and a small town mom at the same time” impression. What better way to do this, than witha a punchline? Within the context of the speech, the joke came as she was transitioning from the nowhere USA working class credentials, to the political resume. She wanted to spice it up with the notion that the fight (rather than the flight) is essential to her.

The humor of the joke lies in paradox between the superficiality and uniqueness of the stated difference. Because the joke is all about “differences”, the sameness that it actually conveys becomes masked. Sarah Palin was just a shade of grey away from saying “Mothers are bitches”. The phrasing of the joke seeks to shift the responsibility of the content away from the speaker with a downright sophism, hence the “they say”. Sarah Palin doesn’t actually say “mothers are bitches” (although she does), they do. The anonymity of the source is as much a projection of self as it is an affirmation of content.

Then there are the terms chosen:

“Hockey Mom” – a media-fabricated label for white bourgeois women. According to Slate, the median income for Hockey Moms is around twice the national average. On the “Mom” scale, being a soccer mom is a step below, since youth soccer leagues tend to be cheaper and filled with minorities of all shapes and smells.

“Pit bull” – a domesticated dog that’s a breed of a bulldog and a terrier. Since they are tough, sturdy dogs, they have been used for ranching, hunting, rescuing, as well as cocaine sniffing. Pit bull’s have recently gotten bad press, they are used in illegal dog-fights and have been known to kill babies. Wikipedia states that “with guidance from its handlers, [Pit bulls] are obedient and show a high desire to please. However, when left without direction they can become stubborn and may become aggressive”.

“Lipstick” – although it’s been around since ancient Mesopotamia, most people associate lipstick with its modern form, that is, as a commodity that enhances superficial appearances.

Given Palin’s motivation, these qualifiers are rather odd. First, there is the choice of “Hockey Mom” rather than “Mom” (a term that’s profoundly universal). A Black mother of two in Alabama and a Orthodox Jewish mother of eight in Williamstown don’t fit the qualifier, unless their kids play hockey. They are excluded from this representation of toughness, determination, etc. Then there is the “Pit bull”… Sure, people think pit bulls are “badass” or whatever, but they are domesticated animals designed to be subservient to their masters. That Sarah Palin chose a small domesticated animal over a wild one (Bear! Tiger! Penguin!) is telling. It’s also interesting that Pitbulls aren’t even a pure breed, they are a cross. They bear the indignity of design (essence preceding existence). Finally, there’s the “lipstick” punchline. Considering the mechanism of the joke, “lipstick” carries the weight of “the difference” between white woman and domesticated animal. It’s interesting that she chose “lipstick”, a symbol for female superficiality, a commodity fetish. For the punchline, Sarah Palin could have pointed to her breasts and said “these” (although she was at the RNC), or she could have said “chap stick” (a more poetic choice), or “birth control” (but she’s evangelical), or any number of things… So what does this all add up to?

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Lipstick.”

Probably the reason why I didn’t care for the joke isn’t that Sarah Palin says she’s a bitch, but that she’s someone’s bitch. She manages to convey both bourgeois entitlement and a dehumanized submission. All with reductive and dehumanizing qualifiers. The way the media is treating Sarah Palin, and it’s own sexist treatments is an issue unto itself. What bothers me about Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s a religious conservative, or that she’s inexperienced or slightly fascist, or that I would rather die than have her as my mother… She’s bound to the paradox of a woman with a pregnant teenage daughter who flies around with a special-needs baby about to be born and returns to work three days after its birth, that’s to say, a woman who forsakes being a human mother to being a political mother… Surely, she’s entitled to seek political office while raising five kids (more power to her!). She also happens to think that she’s entitled to everyone’s reproductive rights and to ban books, but that’s another matter… What bother’s me about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be nothing more than strategic advertisement for the McCain campaign, down to the Juno-esque pregnancy and the snowmobile racing husband. She chose to become an image, a commercial. You can argue the same for Barack Obama, although I find him a much more compelling image because of its historical implications.

If Sarah Palin had been a reincarnation of Descartes, she would have probably said:

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Reason.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sarah Palin touched on an essential question. What separates us from animals? This summer, I read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee. In it, a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello gives a rather radical lecture about animal rights at a university. What interested me most about her arguments was the refutation of the Cartesian argument that reason separates us from animals. This notion of reason is unprovable. Testing the “intelligence” of animals with mazes and puzzles, only forces them to think the basic thoughts we want them to, such as “how the fuck do i get to my food?”. A more essential thought would be “why am I here?”, “why has this scientist taken me from my home?” or “how do I make him return me to my home?”, which is harder to prove, if at all possible (Kafka wrote a great short story about this). It’s just an absurd methodology as if we threw people in a jungle and see how well they “reasoned” things out. That we are different from animals is so obvious to us, yet so hard to pinpoint. A classical Marxist would say that Sarah Palin’s joke has truth to it, if it’s spun properly. That is, if “lipstick” were taken to mean a totality of social processes rather than a fetish. Marx believed that the difference between us and animals was in the fact that animals at most collect while men produce. While, I think this thought goes in a good direction, it’s not an entirely satisfying answer… What about language? Or society? How would this be tested given the complex and variable relationship between self and environment…

I digress… all this for a joke? you may ask. It’s only a fucking joke!

Yeah… i guess.

– s

An Ivy League Theory of Value

July 26, 2008

Fassbinder’s fabulous 1981 film “Lola“, tells the story of a small town singer/hooker (Fassbinder lifted the premise from “The Blue Angel” starring Marlene Dietrich), who goes after a reserved and untainted building commissioner after a corrupt contractor (and lover) remarks that the new commissioner is “no man for her”. By seducing the commissioner, Lola is reacting against social exclusion and oppression by seeking to affirm her “true value” through the melodramatic vehicle of “true love”. Granted, Lola and the commissioner fall in love and get married, but Fassbinder is perverse at heart. During the last scenes, the corrupt contractor buys a short honeymoon with the freshly married Lola by giving her the whorehouse she worked in as a wedding present. “You’re an expensive mistress”, the contractor quips. “That’s how it should be”, retorts Lola.

The big irony of the film is that Lola’s successful quest to reaffirm her worth amounts to a mere increase in exchange value. Lola just became more expensive, that is her empowerment.

In the new issue of “American Scholar”, former Yale English Prof. William Deresiewicz presents a stinging and insightful critique of the elite Ivy League education system and how it breeds an upper crust mentality of exceptionalism and entitlement. On the one hand, Deresiewicz laments a system which he calls “anti-intellectual” for pushing normative ideas of intelligence, work, and society, while eschewing independent intellectual development and individual choice. Being smart isn’t the same as being intellectual.

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. […] We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

On the other hand, Deresiewicz believes the self-congratulatory bubble of elite institutions is a reflection of American socio-economic conditions. How different is the atmosphere of grade-inflation, extensions, and constant counseling at elite institutions to the padded lives of the wealthy, where they can always count on family money, connections, rehab and spiritual voyages to India to get themselves together? Meanwhile, public universities are entrenched with rigid bureaucracies and inflexible technocrats…

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point.

Deresiewicz’s disenchantment is summarized in the following quote:

But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.

But how inextricable is education from “the class system”? Is it that surprising that a school such as Amherst or Yale, whose endowment is funded by capitalists, would seek to train future investment bankers and politicians? Perhaps this disenchantment comes from the expectation that an “elite” institution would be mass producing young Darwins and Marxes and Sartres, but even such expectation presupposes that educational institutions are essentially social factories. As Baudrillard put it, an educational system aims “at remodeling an ideal nature from a child”. What “ideal nature” exists that isn’t defined by a dominant paradigm?

As astute as Deresiewicz social-economic commentary is, he speaks of the class difference between elite institutions and public universities only in terms of their differences, as if an i-banker from Amherst working 80 hours a week for Bear Stearns isn’t stuck in a life of subordination, supervision, and deadlines. Classes are separated by their position relative to the means of production, not simply by annual income. Chris Rock once joked, “Shaq is rich, but the white guy who writes his check is wealthy“; while elite institutions are spawning the ruling class of tomorrow, that can’t be said for all of us. A diploma from Yale isn’t an automatic ticket to upper-classdom, we’re still expected to sell our labor just like a middle-manager from Ohio State or a factory worker in Sri Lanka. This idea of a meritocracy espoused by “the elite” is an illusion at worse, a petty reward at best. Exploit yourself so that you one day can exploit others. What empowerment then does an elite institution give us? Ask Lola. It just makes us more expensive.

– s