Inspiration Nation

Sarah Palin’s new TV show proves that what she says has consequences.

This week saw Sarah Palin launch a new TV series seeking to move and inspire real Americans while also strenuously arguing that her most vitriolic comments couldn’t possibly lead real Americans to do anything at all. The former governor and vice-presidential candidate has a pretty dubious double standard about the line between inspiration and instigation. Palin either believes that her words and exhortations have the power to move America or she doesn’t. But she shouldn’t get the credit for inspiring us if she refuses to take the blame for stirring up our anger as well.

On Thursday, Palin debuted her much-anticipated Fox News series, Real American Stories, to mixed reviews. The critical consensus seems to be that watching Sarah Palin leached of all of her scorching, spitting political energy is like watching a National Geographic show about sleeping reindeer. Yawn, rinse, repeat. I don’t agree. I think Palin is to be commended for attempting to host a series without betraying symptoms of a rage disorder, or pressing the word “socialist” into every other sentence. (No doubt Fox would have paid her twice as much to do that show.) Palin seems to have opted for the Oprah-esque high road, and the first episode of Real American Stories eschewed partisan tirades in favor of inspiring tales that—in her words—”reaffirm” our faith in the ingenuity and drive of “real” Americans.

These generous profiles, of George Weiss, a wealthy philanthropist who helps provide college tuition for underprivileged students; Jason Dunham, a Marine who sacrificed his life to protect his fellow soldiers in Iraq; and the Massies, a family coping with their son’s cerebral palsy and the service dog that inspired them all, may strike you as hokey. But at least they hoke across all political and ideological lines. If you ignore the pre-show ugliness between Fox News and her accidental nonguest LL Cool J (who objected when old footage of him appeared in a promo for the show) the most controversial thing about Real American Stories is that Palin agreed to do a TV show that doesn’t showcase her extraordinary facility with gun metaphors.

Some viewers may see flashes of Ronald Reagan in this TV valentine to self-starting and ingenious Americans (she says of George Weiss, “There’s such power in this idea of the voluntary private-sector contribution that George and others now are making”), but I sense more than just political messaging here. Palin really does seem to want to be involved in a feel-good enterprise that appeals to everyone, across the ideological divide. As she tweeted before the show: “America is EXCEPTIONAL! I’ll show you a few ‘ordinary’ Americans do extraordinary things.” And while the Washington Post’s Hank Stuever complains that the show is “like a Barbara Walters special for that particular media consumer who always complains that they never report any good news,” I’ll gladly take it if the alternative was going to be the Barbara Walters special on the Communists who unplugged your Grandma.

Which brings us to my only beef with the former governor’s appearance on Real American Stories: How can she possibly take the position that her words will move and inspire American viewers in the very same week she denies that her words have any such effect? The same Sarah Palin who urges us to “be inspired” and “celebrate the American spirit” in promoting the show, took a very different tone to her supporters on Twitter in the wake of health reform’s passage last month: “Don’t retreat. Instead — RELOAD,” she chirped, sweetly. She also supplied a convenient map showcasing Democrats to go after in the midterm elections, depicting her targets through virtual gunsights and crosshairs. At that point violence had already erupted over the health reform vote. The crosshairs were of dubious wisdom as soon as the first brick was thrown.

Now, Palin and I are never going to agree about whether it’s wise to deploy assassination metaphors in the middle of a political battle that has led to at least 10 House Democrats requesting extra security and a spate of vandalism and death threats. Not to mention the protesters who shouted homophobic and racial epithets and spit on members of Congress as they went in to vote on the bill. As Eugene Robinson pointed out last week, the responsible thing for the leadership in both parties to do in such a climate is to cool down all the hateful rhetoric, not escalate it. Why not err on the side of caution and use sports metaphors?

But when Palin was called out for her relentlessly trigger-happy rhetoric, she turned around and did what she does best—she blamed the media. At an event in Arizona in support of John McCain, Palin said, “When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote. This B.S. coming from the lamestream media lately about us inciting violence, don’t let the conversation be subverted.” Even when she was denounced by other conservatives, Palin stuck to her claim that the whole gun thing is just a harmless metaphor. In her view, when you tell angry people—of whom a not insignificant number believe the president is the Antichrist —to shoot or reload, what you truly mean is that they should vote. More. In Palin’s view, Palin is wholly unconnected to the violence inspired by her own potent political imagery. Whenever someone threatens a politician or hatches a plot to take out a bunch of cops at a funeral, it’s the lamestream media that’s to blame for writing about it.

Now this isn’t a tricky legal question about the direct connection between the language of incitement and the resulting violence. It’s a commonsense question about the power of words to influence the behavior of others. And much as she may deny it when it’s convenient, Sarah Palin knows the power of language and the media better than virtually anyone. That means she must accept that her calls to arms (and you can insert air quotes around “arms” if you wish) are as powerful as her call to lofty inspiration. If Sarah Palin wants to be responsible for introducing us to “extraordinary Americans,” I will be the first to applaud her. But she must also accept responsibility for the fact that her words and threats about the ordinary Americans who don’t share her political views have very real consequences, too.

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