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Obama, Palin, and the Meaning of ‘Change’

In this election season, the definitions of words are being mangled like never before.

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

September 22, 2008 - 12:00 am

During Sen. Barack Obama’s primary run against Sen. Hillary Clinton, he gravely observed that “words mean things.” One word over which his campaign claimed ownership was “change.” America demanded change, went the schtick, and even as his campaign began to resemble every other political campaign in recent memory, Obama insisted that only he could bring it.

Enter Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who instantly dispelled the notion that change was the exclusive province of the Democrat nominee. Within hours of her first appearance on the national stage, America found itself whirling into a sea change, where long-established dicta regarding the “place” and capabilities of women, the familial role of mothers (but curiously not of fathers), and the import of meaningful experience in choosing a chief executive began to crumble under the pounding waves. What had looked like boulders from a distance were revealed to be constructs made of sand.

Blue America, working off of a social template so outdated it fit only the extreme caricatures of conservative/religious people, insisted that Red America quickly smack the aberrant Gov. Palin back to her place in the kitchen. Red America, fully aware that their coastal betters lacked an accurate notion of who they actually were, cheered Palin and, thumbs to noses, jeered leftward.

The rhetorical wilding that followed found the PC guardians of public discourse throwing around words like “provincial” and “small-town,” “woman” and “experience,” “feminist” and “Nazi.” “Words mean things” is correct, but the change being rendered through the alchemy of this bizarre election is the meaning of simple words. Or, more correctly, whom those words define.

For instance, the words “provincial and “small-town have been disdainfully sniffed into the air by many writers, most recently by the film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote, “How can you be her age and never have gone to Europe? … Sarah Palin’s travel record is that of a hopeless provincial!” For reasons unexplained, Ebert’s piece was later lost to the black hole that disappears wayward writing, but you get the gist. The woman had not “done” France! She did not “do” the Hamptons or L.A., either. All she did was stay in her state, kill moose, breed babies, and live a life so broad and outreaching that she’d traveled from a PTA meeting to the governor’s mansion in less than 20 years, challenging the shibboleths of her own political party and building bipartisan working relationships as she went.

By contrast, the sophisticates criticizing Palin from their exclusive and tidy enclaves, where like-minded people congregate, educate, recreate, and manage — even in their vast, first-class sojourns — to remain safely insulated from the commoners, have exposed themselves as suffering from small-town mindsets, every bit as judgmental, untraveled, narrow, and closed as any stereotypical tribalist. The exterior may say “uptown,” but the suddenly exposed interiors of these people screamed “provincial” and “keep away!”

Likewise, the word “woman has undergone an abrupt reconfiguration. Formerly defined as a human of specific gender, organs, and bodily functions, we have been treated to several essays by angry women declaring that Gov. Sarah Palin, with her babies and her kicky red-buckled heels that are to die for, is not a woman. She is actually a man. Sen. Joseph Biden, her counterpart on the Democrat ticket, however, manifestly a man, is something like a woman. The logistics of this are less mysterious than they would seem and are tied into the politics of abortion rights. Presumably, until Palin renounces her pro-life positions and admits that she is confusing real women by choosing not to abort her infant son, Trig, who has Down syndrome, she is to be symbolized with the O and arrow of masculinity. Give Palin an O and arrow and she’ll probably use them to kill something and feed her family, which is horrifying for the dainty feminists to contemplate.

“Experience,” which used to be an important word, but for the past year or so has been a markedly unimportant word, has suddenly become important again, but the meaning has changed drastically. In the past, ten years of executive experience, two of them dealing with ten-billion-dollar budgets and serious economic and energy policies, would have been considered somewhat superior to eight years in a state legislature and less than 150 days working in the Senate. Try to keep up.

Let’s not even get into what has happened to the definitions of “feminism” and “Nazi.” Suffice to say one reads these countless, relentlessly shrill screeds — even the men are shrill — and feels a little like the mercenary swordsman Inigo Montoya, who, in the film The Princess Bride, counsels an insufferably conceited blowhard, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Shortly after that, Montoya changes … into a hero.

Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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