Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sarah Palin assails euphemisms & Ann Dunham details blacksmithing

In my undergraduate poetry workshop last week, I asked students to take a brief walk in the corridor of our building or, if they hurried, to go outside. Their assignment was to be surprised by something they noticed; on their return, they wrote haiku, the poetic form best equipped to relate and evoke surprise. One method in seeking out surprise is to look for odd juxtapositions of language or image; irony is surprise's best trope. That I attended a talk about Ann Dunham's book of anthropology about Indonesia and watched Sarah Palin's keynote to the Teabagger convention this week seems an apt launching pad, if not for a haiku then for this shortish form.

Sarah Palin's speech opened with her proclamation that she is proud to be an American, that the military keeps us free, and that Teabaggers are good people. So far, nothing unexpected. What drew me in, however, was the part of her speech where she criticized Democrats' (Obama's, in particular) misuse of language. Because the speech was closed to the press--even as it was shown on CNN, cspan, and Fox--there is no full transcript of the speech available on-line as I write this. So I'll use what scraps I've found, mostly in Sam Stein's blog on and from my memory. Andrew Sullivan's live blog is here. Palin's first "catch" was to point out that Obama does not use the word "war" (no matter that he does, of course), but that the action in Afghanistan now has a fancy euphemistic title, namely "Overseas Contingency Operation." She then launched into Obama's handling of the Christmas (underwear) bomber, the fact that he was given his Miranda rights, an American lawyer, and "the right to remain silent." (No matter that reports have come out in recent days that he has been talking a lot, under the influence of his family, flown in by the U.S. government). Here's the gist of Palin's claim: "It scares me for my children, for your children, to treat this like a mere law enforcement matter . . . It puts our country at great risk . . . To win that war we need a commander-in-chief not a professor of law standing at the lectern."

I will ignore the plea to sentiment by way of her children and my children and head straight for her literary critical moment. Palin seems to be attacking a euphemism, namely the administration's use of the term "law enforcement" for the actual word "war." Hence, as she would have it, the administration uses the legal system instead of military courts, and the "commander in chief" is actually just "a professor of law." What fascinates me is the way in which Palin describes the law itself as a euphemism of sorts, even as the term "law professor" becomes synonymous with weakness. (Ah, academics, so easy to attack!) To follow the law is thus a problem; to cut to the chase--use the word "war" where it should be used!--means cutting away the euphemistic legal system and acting. To act is to go beyond the law. That will keep our children safe. And so the attack on euphemism itself becomes one, a dangerous stand-in for delegitimizing the Constitution itself.


This past Thursday I attended the Biography Center Brownbag featuring Alice Dewey, Ann Dunham's dissertation director in the 1980s and early 1990s, who has co-edited (with Nancy Cooper) the 1000 page manuscript, based on 14 years of research, into a book just published by Duke University Press as Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. The book enters a context much larger than its declared purpose, that of analyzing a blacksmithing village in Indonesia, because Ann Dunham was Barack Obama's mother. And so, under the able marketing staff of Duke University Press, the book also includes fascimiles of Dunham's field notes and photographs (some in color) of her and the subjects of her work. Alice Dewey seemed torn between talking about her former student and about her former student's work. At one moment, she'd say, "study something you can buy or eat, because that's how you get to know people," and then she'd tell us that Dunham, when she stayed with Dewey, would get up at 3 a.m. to start work. On the one hand, she gave us a brief biography of Dunham, and on the other she explained Dunham's exquisite sense of the significance of detail. Dunham had worked on four villages in Indonesia--villages organized by their trades, blacksmithing, basket-weaving, puppet-making--and incorporated intimate detail of her subjects' lives with a grasp of statistics and sense of how the government worked, or failed to work. The session ended with a long discussion of the kris, or sword, which Dunham had gotten a local craftsman to make for her. Dewey described the process of making the swords, even as she told us how Dunham wrote ahead to people in Bali to say she was bringing a kris in from somewhere else, an act of diplomacy. (The kris is known for its supernatural powers, so dealing with it can be dicey.) While the event seemed a bit confusing to someone unfamiliar with Indonesia or Ann Dunham, I appreciated the way in which Dunham was remembered lovingly through her work.


Sarah Palin came to meet the Teabaggers ostensibly not as an Orwellian figure, but as the George Orwell of "Politics and the English Language." That she could also trot out sentences like, "freedom is a God-given right and it is worth fighting for . . . and Americas' finest are men and women in uniform . . . a force for good throughout the world and that is nothing to apologize for" (from Sam Stein's blog), suggests a rhetoric that is more Orwellian than Orwell himself could have imagined. To use an old Harold Bloom phrase, she troped him. Let us hope that she has not also roped in more than the 20% of the American public who automatically believe what she says. We need not so much an Orwell as Hemingway's "shit-detector" on this one.

Her attack on Ann Dunham's son was, in ways I've not fully described here, an attack on detail: the law is composed of details, the language we use to talk about war involves details (and yes, I agree with her that "contingency operation" will not do). No accident that she used "law professor" as a term of opprobium against Ann Dunham's son. (I gather law professors are even fairer game than lawyers themselves.) Dunham was an academic, and it sounds like she was a good one, immersed in detail, taking notebook after notebook of field notes. Far be it from me to defend the academy against all comers (the university is full of cliques and fads, just like any group), but perhaps we can start defending what we do--and doing it better--by talking about detail. Detail describes our world in ways that resemble it. Details offer us those surprises that tell us this object does not belong with that one. In our laughter and in the momentary confusions we feel in noticing such things, we can come upon a closer reverence for the world as it might be. Euphemism that that phrase is, it becomes less so once you act on it. Start taking notes.

[the photo of Sarah Palin shows her reading notes off her hand during the Q&A after her keynote address to the Teabaggers]

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