On Gov. Palin, Ordinary Barbarians, and Blazing the Trail

I’d like to thank the folks here for inviting me to join the team; I consider the invitation an honor, and I’ll do my best to honor it in return. By way of introduction, the Aged P asked me a while back what a respectable pastor was doing hanging out with folks proudly self-labeled "barbarians," and I wrote him the following:

Bear in mind that to the elites, I’m as much a barbarian as anyone. I’m a military brat, and I have the military ethos; I know and love many people whose job it is to "kill people and break things" and "to do things they don’t like to people they don’t like even more," and I’m proud of them for doing it. I believe in Heaven and Hell, and I capitalize them because (as Ralph de Toledano once said) "they’re real places, like Scarsdale," and I even preach about them. I didn’t go to an elite college like Harvard or Yale, and I didn’t go to a seminary that takes its cues from Harvard and Yale, either. I believe in justice and judgment and the wrath of God, and I believe that retribution is a necessary part of moral balance.

I’ve spent most of my life in small towns, including five years in Colorado in a tiny little place up in the mountains—and I fit in there better than I’ve ever fit in anywhere else. I’m not personally a hunter, because I have no decent aim with anything, be it a gun, a bow, or a basketball, but I have hunters on both sides of my family (most notably my father-in-law and brother-in-law), and I’m always glad to share their venison. (One of my wife’s regrets is that she never got the chance to bag an elk during our time in Colorado.) I preach the gospel of Jesus Christ straight up, and I don’t try to make it easy for people.

All of which is to say, respectable is what you make of it, but I know where I fit. 🙂 Besides, America has a long and (somewhat) proud history of barbarian preachers—seems to me some of the folks who went a long way to founding this country had to leave the old one for being too disruptive, after all.

The common thread in all this is that the essence of the whole concept of "barbarian," both from the Greek and from the Roman perspective, is that it’s a judgment by those who consider themselves the elite: the barbarians were the folks who didn’t automatically acknowledge the superiority of the "elite," which is to say Greco-Roman culture, and pant to be included. All it really means is "not like us."

Now, I’m no cultural relativist—in that case, the elites were correct about the superiority of their culture; that’s why, as R. A. Mansour rightly pointed out, over time, the barbarians saw the value of the culture they had conquered, and became civilized. The thing is, it isn’t always so. The self-superiority of elite culture isn’t based on reason, just on the same very human impulse you can see watching any group of preschoolers on a bad day: "I’m better than you." The reason why I appreciate the sobriquet "ordinary barbarian" and accept it gladly is that it’s a way of pushing back; it’s a way of saying that I will not embrace the elite culture because, by and large, I don’t think it’s better, and I have good reason for not thinking so.

This is, I have increasingly been coming to think, the great unreported issue in American culture, though more and more people seem to be grappling with it in one way or another. I could be wrong, but though he casts it in purely political terms, I think this is the battle Andrew Breitbart is really fighting with Big Hollywood; and it’s the issue that underlies the battle over term limits. As it happens, I no longer believe that term limits for politicians are a good way of dealing with this problem—at least at any level above the local—as their real effect seems to be primarily to shift influence from elected officials to unelected staff and lobbyists; that only makes matters worse. That doesn’t change my conviction that we need to find some way to wrest our government away from professional politicians; right now, government is dominated by the elites, and that undermines the very nature of representative government.

Our leaders are, in large part, representative of no class and no group but their own; while they retain some connection to the voters who elect them, they have shed any real identification with us, any real sense of belonging to and with us and being a part of us, in favor of their new class, their new group, their new culture. It’s a class and a culture which has some resemblance to the country as a whole, including a roughly similar ideological spectrum from left to right, and so we can select people whose voting patterns are more or less congenial to our beliefs—but this doesn’t mean that they share our cultural referents or that they actually think like the rest of us, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking they do. We should expect most politicians, even those with whom we most agree, to at least occasionally do something we find completely incomprehensible, because they’re operating in a different reality than ours, with different priorities.

That’s not good, and there’s only one thing I can think of to improve the situation: we can rise up and work to elect people who are outsiders to the guild of professional politicians, who aren’t beholden to the elite. This is one of the biggest reasons I support Gov. Palin, because she’s the best imaginable example of such a public servant, for reasons I laid out last week. She’s someone who has risen to power from outside the system, against the system, because she believed the system was failing the people it’s supposed to serve, and felt the need to do better. She is, as she put it, "the epitome of ‘ordinary people,'" someone who actually represents us because she hasn’t sold out—she’s still one of us. That’s why R. A. Mansour could write,

We don’t take any directives from Sarah Palin. We don’t need to. We’ve studied her record extensively, and we’ve come to identify with her almost instinctively because we know that she’s one of us. We don’t need "directives" from her any more than we would need directives from our own sister.

It’s also why I believe R. A. Mansour is right to say that this isn’t about drafting Gov. Palin for anything else: we support her because of who she is and what she believes in, not because of what she can do for us (though there are certainly things we hope she’ll succeed in doing), but also I think with the understanding that one Sarah Palin isn’t enough. Part of what we need to be on about is giving her as much support as possible as she blazes her trail as a citizen politician—as a political leader from outside the elite structure and the political machines—so that others who have the ability and the gifts and the passion to do so will believe that they can do so, and will be inspired to follow suit. As much as I think Gov. Palin is the most admirable and praiseworthy political figure to appear in this country for a generation and more—and no, I don’t believe that’s hyperbole, I’m dead serious—she’s almost as important for what she represents, and what she may inspire others to do (liberals and conservatives both), as for what she’s already accomplished and what she may accomplish.

And so, I believe, is this website, and others like it. The domination of the elite isn’t only a problem among our politicians, but also among our opinion makers; I believe in citizen pundits just as I believe in citizen politicians, and for the same reasons. Living in the echo chamber does bad things to your understanding of the world. You can imagine the effect if the only mirrors you ever saw were funhouse mirrors—it would distort your vision and give you a false view of yourself and the world around you; the effect of becoming entirely a creature of the political inside is similar. Even the best of the pundit class suffer the effects of having no real perspective on the outside world.

The advantage the Internet gives us here is that it can create much more direct pressure on the professional punditocracy than it can on our politicians. While I grant that the blogosphere can’t simply supplant the news media because it is itself dependent on the work of professional reporters, and while Sturgeon’s Law applies here as well as everywhere else (if anything, we might be lucky if as much as 10% of the stuff out there is worth reading), yet what Seattle sports blogger John Morgan says about sports media is true on a much broader scale:

There are two layers of media at work. A nascent shadow media of questionable reputability and standards that, ironically enough, actually pursues the truth, and an established media that reports naĂŻve truth as it’s fed to them.

Of course, things are rosier in the world of sports media; as we all know, when it comes to politics, there are a lot of folks in that "shadow media" who most emphatically aren’t pursuing the truth, but rather are unabashedly pushing an agenda, to the point of being willing to say whatever will serve that agenda. Plus, folks who follow this site know better than most just how much nastiness the Internet commentariat unleashes in places like the website for the Anchorage Daily News. It’s easy to look at this as the downside to the rise of the citizen punditry—but tell truth, I don’t believe it is. We’ve had a period of relative sanity and civility in our political discourse, compared to most of our history—and to give credit where it’s due, this has been thanks in considerable part to the professionalization of the media. That’s been unraveling for a while, though, and given the behavior of the MSM in the last election, I don’t see any reason to believe that they would be any better in the end; the growing deprofessionalization of our political commentary will only hasten that unraveling.

Over against that, I think the proliferation of citizen pundits will in the end bring a sort of Wikipediazation to our political commentary. The free market doesn’t work perfectly, but it works better than a command economy; what we currently have is something of a command economy of opinions, and as the free market of the Internet supersedes it, I think we’ll see a more balanced commentariat emerge than what the MSM has given us for generations. Individual pundits may well be less fair and/or farther from the center (or maybe not, I don’t know), but in the aggregate, as the MSM loses its ability to skew that aggregate, I would bet that the result will provide a relatively even portrait of American politics. It’s not that we’ll have a neutral point of view (something which I don’t believe exists anyway), but rather that each point of view will have its equal and opposite, which should make it easier to identify the truth among the competing claims.

In the meantime, I would argue that the best of our online commentators have already rendered most professional columnists and talking heads redundant. The MSM haven’t realized this yet, of course—or they haven’t admitted it if they have—and so folks like David Brooks, David Frum, Ellen Goodman, and Jeff Jarvis continue to wield influence; but at this point, they’re only significant because people are still trained to think they’re significant. They’re already obsolete. The only thing keeping them in service is that their true obsolescence hasn’t registered with most of the media consumers in this country . . . yet.

Our responsibility, then, is to take our place in the discussion—to seize it, and hold it, and defend our ground the way Gen. Anthony McAuliffe (a man who would have worn the label "ordinary barbarian" like a badge of honor) and the 101st Airborne defended Bastogne. Yes, we may sometimes come under seige as a consequence, as Gov. Palin has to be feeling beseiged now, at least at times; at such times, we just need to dig in, tell ’em "NUTS!" and wait for the cavalry to arrive. We need to do our part to hold the salient, to help create the necessary public support for Gov. Palin—and for the ordinary-barbarian politicians whom I hope will follow her into the breach—to work effectively. As R. A. Mansour put it so well,

We are free to say the unvarnished truth—such as "Jay Ramras is a lying sexist hypocritical jerk." Meg Stapleton can’t say that (though I would venture to guess that she’s perhaps thought it once or twice). We can say it and we will and we’ll back our assertions with research from the public record.

Ramras is squealing now because we’re onto him. We’ll keep the pressure on. And we’ll need all of your help to do it. This is what citizen activism and involvement is all about. The Palin Revolution starts with us. We’ll take back this country by going after one crooked scumbag and jerk politician at time. . . .

We expect that people will accuse us of being bullies or some such nonsense. What they really mean is that we are effective.

No honest and fair-minded politician has anything to fear from us. We have a great sense of fair play. We believe in the Golden Rule. And we will apply it here.

We’re barbarians, but we’re not barbaric.

We do, however, like to pick a fight every now and then—just to show the real bullies that we’re not afraid of them . . .

As the new pastor in the bunch (hey, does that make me the chaplain?) let me just add one thing: Praise the Lord—and pass the ammunition.



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