I sat in amazement as this cipher of a human being somehow charmed the talking heads with an utterly transparent display of phony “aw shucks” populism. While the commentators disagreed on her substantive points, there seemed to be a consensus that Palin’s “folksy” mannerisms and sayings were charming and allowed her to connect with the American people. I’m almost positive that The National Review’s Rich Lowry typed his ode to Palin with one hand.
I took away two main nuggets from the Vice Presidential debate and its aftermath: 1.) that Sarah Palin, in effect, performed rural blackface, and 2.) that the so called charm of this performance hinges on the small town fantasies of conservatives and media elites.
Consider that traditional blackface saw refined black entertainers performing a base, stereotypical blackness for adoring audiences. Everything about minstrel blackness was exaggerated: the movements, the language, the clothing, the color. Let’s revisit Palin’s debate. Along with the exaggerated down-home sayings, (she actually said “I’m the Joe Six-Pack candidate.” How’s that for subtlety?), she twice made reference to the liberal media filtering her straight talk to the American people, and incredibly, made plain her intention to not answer the moderator’s questions in the name of this supposed straight talk. Palin took the negative aspects of rural America—the simplistic worldview, the anti-intellectualism, the hostility to difference—and magnified them to the point of near parody. That, my friends, is rural blackface.
Contrary to popular belief, Palin’s folksiness (and indeed the Palin pick itself), is not directed toward “regular Americans;” it is directed toward elites, media elites in particular. It’s clear that media elites on the right have bought into the notion that small town America is the real representation of the country, that one must go to the “heartland” to see American values. Surprisingly, though, Palin’s shtick is just as effective on liberal media elites because these liberal elites share the same faulty assumptions and insecurities as their conservative colleagues.
Most of these elites, conservative or liberal, are stinking rich, were reared at the same elite schools, and live in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. These elites enjoy the freedom, variety, and bustle of big cities, yet they suffer from a great deal of self-loathing, guilt, and insecurity about their metropolitan lives (the cities they call home may as well be Sodom and Gomorrah). They therefore construct fantasies of a simpler, more pure life in rural America and regard small town residents as morally superior folks uncorrupted by the big, bad city. It’s like nostalgia for the 50s, only set in the present.
In any case, Palin and McCain know all of this and are more than willing to have Palin “coon it up.” W.C. Fields described legendary blackface performer Bert Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” Part of this sadness stemmed from the internal conflict based on building his personal success on hideous racial stereotypes of his people. I doubt that Sarah Palin has any inner-conflict. She strikes me as a supremely happy person.