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    Words get in the way

    Heather MacDonald has a characteristically smart piece in City Journal about Sarah Palin (via Amy Alkon).

    I know, it’s elitist to expect a candidate for president or vice president to speak like an adult. Sure, there are parents out there battling the “like” epidemic who might not appreciate having someone in the White House validating their 15-year-olds’ speech habits. But, hey: “Total role reversal here.” (Palin, of course, can sound adolescent even when she uses the right verbs, as when she disingenuously denied her snarky put-down of Joe Biden’s age while lauding herself as “you know, . . . the new energy, the new face, the new ideas.”) It’s even more elitist to expect a vice president to put together sentences that cohere into a minimally logical progression of thought. There was a time, however, when conservatives upheld adult standards—such as clarity of speech and thought—without apology, even in the face of the relentless downward pull of adolescent culture. But now, when a vice-presidential candidate talks like a teenager, mugs like an American Idol contestant, and traffics in syntactical dead-ends and non sequiturs, we are supposed to find her charming and authentic.

    Nevertheless, Palin’s verbal hodgepodge may say nothing about her qualifications for the vice presidency. Judgment and political acumen could well rest on different mental capacities than the ability to order thoughts into smooth sentences. But the inability to answer a straightforward question about economic policy without becoming tangled in words suggests either ignorance about the subject matter or a difficulty connecting between ideas. Neither explanation is reassuring.

    The Palin nomination has unleashed among Republican pundits and voters a great roar of pent-up rage against liberal elites, much of it warranted. But the conservative embrace of Palin comes at considerable cost to conservative principles. The populist identity politics that Republicans are now playing with such gusto may come back to haunt them in the future.

    Liberal hypocrisy on Palin’s family dilemmas has matched the conservative turnaround with perfect symmetry, of course. And perhaps both sides will blithely and unapologetically switch places yet again as soon as circumstances allow. Still, the conservative position on the family happens to be the right one. So, too, was the erstwhile conservative defense of articulateness, knowledge, and uncommon achievement. It’s a shame to have sacrificed these ideas, even temporarily, in the quest for political advantage.

    I, too, wonder how the backing and filling is going to play out when Republicans start making rigorous classical standards of education one of their favorite topics again. I’m a bookish man who gravitates toward bookish people and lives in a bookish city, but I recognize that Palin has good instincts and has held her own in terms of hands-on achievement in office.

    What worries me is that she doesn’t give any indication of having been exposed to Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and written,” which you can do at the University of Idaho as surely as you can at Amherst if you’re of a mind to. I spent the first half of the ’90s as a comparative literature major at Penn, so believe me, I am well aware of the limits of cutesy verbal game-playing. That she’s not more honey-tongued in the lawyerly sense we’ve gotten used to since the Clintons is not something I hold against her.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that much of the history of mankind is stored in language, and Palin doesn’t seem to think or talk like someone who’s been absorbing the lessons of the past from the Founding Fathers or Orwell or even Margaret Thatcher. Palin’s “you know” and “like” don’t bother me as much as the fact that her phrasing makes ideas squishy and the connections between them unclear. Isn’t the point of exalting folksiness usually to prize blunt, fearless truth-telling?

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