Monday, October 06, 2008


Sam Smith

Contrary to her Joe Six Pack, hockey mom hokum, Sarah Palin proved in her debate with Joe Biden that she would fit in extremely well in Washington - albeit at an enormous price to the rest of the country.

The secret to this adaptation would be her extraordinary, joyful and utterly remorseless prevarication and perseveration, two hallmarks of contemporary capital pathology.

Her lying was astounding - not merely in the number of misstatements of facts she peddled - but the context in which she dissembled. For example, much of what she argued was based on the premise that she represented the middle class while Biden was a member of the elite. The senator was too polite to point out that, at best estimates, her net worth is at least six times that of Biden.

The really good liar doesn't settle for mere manufactured numbers and events, but creates a whole imaginary ecology in which the lies can blossom. Richard Nixon, for example, was a liar, but he never acquired the sort of manic affection for the act that one finds in Palin.

It is as if she regards life as one big Home Shopping Network on which she is the attractive, buoyant host peddling John McCain or whatever else she has in stock that day.

Even more impressive, however, is her perseveration. I first came across this phenomenon while describing someone to a psychiatrist friend. "It sounds like he's a higher functioning autistic. . . has Asperger's Syndrome."

"What's that?" I asked. And in his description he included the prevalence of repetitive or non-responsive answers in human exchanges.

"My god," I replied, "That's the Sunday morning talk shows."

Suddenly decades of reporting Washington made sense. I had started out when politicians tended to be not all that well educated and over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education, but most were highly socially intelligent. Now the place is overflowing with highly educated individuals who can't relate their data to what was actually going on in the world and when you press them on it, give Aspergerian repetitive or non responsive answers. Or pass $700 billion bailout bills without any real notion of what they are up to.

Yet in the debate, Sarah Palin put all the Washington perseverators to shame thanks to two special qualities. She applied the fundamentalist principal of rapture over reality to everything she said and she turned what is more typically a defect promoting inaction and passivity into a vigorous act of aggression, even joyously telling the moderator at one point that she wasn't going to forced into giving actual answers to the questions being asked. What we got was our first vice presidential candidate ever to speak in tongues.

Consider a few definitions of perseveration:

- Perseveration is the uncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus. . . Meaningless or pointless repetition of words, phrases, ideas, or actions.

- If an issue has been fully explored and discussed to a point of resolution it is not uncommon for something to trigger the re-investigation of the matter. This can happen at any time during a conversation.

Those with Asperger's syndrome also display a form of perseveration in that they focus on one or a number of narrow interests.

- The inability of ceasing a particular action can range in type. In any of the cases, the individual enters or continues a train of thought that is narrowly focused; in a sense, having tunnel vision. This focus could be on anything from a simple idea to a complex problem. Even if the original problem solving strategy is not the working, the person may not be able to change planes of thinking, suggesting a disability in abstract reasoning.

- A person with perseveration may actually enjoy the repetitive activities he or she is engaging in. The term obsession or compulsion is used when such activities become both undesirable actions and unstoppable.

Now a few examples directly from Dana Milbank's recap of the debate:

- This week, Sarah Palin gave a curious rationale for her candidacy. "It's time," the Republican vice presidential nominee said, "that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency.". . .

- "Let's commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six-Pack, hockey moms across the nation," she proposed when asked about the mortgage crisis.

- "I want to go back to the energy plan," she said when asked about the federal bailout plan.

- "I want to talk about, again, my record on energy," she said when asked about bankruptcy.

- Biden grew frustrated. "If you notice, Gwen, the governor did not answer the question." Replied Sarah Six-Pack: "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."

- At other times, her answers defied comprehension, as when Ifill asked about her trigger for using nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period," she answered.

- "Oh yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider," she said with a shy grin when Ifill asked about putting troops in Darfur. "And someone just not used to the way you guys operate."

- Asked about the possibility that she would assume the presidency if the president died in office, she found herself saying, "I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there, brought to Washington, D.C."

- When backed into uncomfortable terrain, such as defending the Bush administration's economic record, she exploded into cliche and non sequitur: "Say it ain't so, Joe. There you go again pointing backwards again. . . . Now doggone it, let's look ahead." Before finishing her answer, she mentioned her "brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third-graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate." . . . "Everybody gets extra credit tonight," the moderator assured Sarah Six-Pack. "We're going to move on to the next question."

There are treatments prescribed for this sort of problem, but significantly absent from all the prescriptions is election to high office.

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