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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
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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Blue America, working off of a social template so outdated it fit only the extreme caricatures of conservative/religious people, insisted that Red America quickly smack the aberrant Gov.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.

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