Archive for July, 2009

So long, Sarah.

July 5, 2009

Sarah Palin is threatening to sue her critics for defamation. Apparently anyone who speculates out loud about her decision to abruptly resign, who fails to take yesterday’s bizarre and rambling statement at face value, is opening himself (or herself) up to a lawsuit:

Van Flein’s letter threatening legal action specifically pointed the finger at Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore as “most notably” claiming as “fact” that Palin resigned under federal investigation.

Van Flein, asked why he singled out Moore, said it’s because she went on national television and talked about it. (emphasis mine — ed.) Moore was on with MSNBC’s David Shuster on Friday, the day Palin said she will resign.

Van Flein wrote that his letter “is to provide notice to Ms. Moore, and those who re-publish this defamation, such as Huffington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post, that the Palins will not allow them to propagate defamatory material without answering to this in a court of law.”

The New York Times and Washington Post haven’t written anything about this, but Van Flein said he believed they were asking questions. “What I’ve been informed is that they’ve been interviewing people in Wasilla about this, and have tried to interview the governor’s parents about it,” Van Flein said.

Were Palin a figure of any authority, this would amount to an all-out attack on the very practice of journalism — and an imperial decree: Thou shalt not investigate. Had things gone differently last November, this woman would be installed at the center of the executive branch of the United States, her hands firmly grasping the controls of a much-expanded vice presidency with seemingly limitless authority. But things didn’t go differently, and Palin is, thankfully, in no position to do harm to hapless bloggers — even those who dare to “go on TV and talk about her.” She is a public figure — a person whom it is, by legal definition, nearly impossible to “defame” — and now out of office, no longer capable of enforcing any of her whims at the point of a gun.

I wonder how many of Palin’s sometime supporters will now acknowledge that this woman was grossly unqualified for her office — not merely the one she aspired to, but the one she held. She never showed even the slightest awareness of the most basic thing any public figure must know — something even Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton know: You have to take criticism. Criticism is part of the job description. And you open yourself up to speculation — even damaging, unfair, mean-spirited speculation. Because the alternative is tyranny. Imagine if Bill Clinton had tried to put the Drudge Report out of business, or sued Christopher Hitchens for libel. Imagine a world where he could.

It’s doubtful Palin would understand that. This is the same person who tried to launch a national campaign to stop a late-night talk show host from telling corny jokes about her. But she’s gone now, and good riddance.

Another Declaration.

July 4, 2009

In July 1979, Walter Karp published his great essay “Republican Virtues” (also known as “The Two Americas”). He published it at a time when the radical Right — the neoconservatives, dedicated as Karp writes to founding a new religion based on “consecration to the State” — were preparing to seize the country, which had been drifting away from its nationist moorings for more than a decade. The signs of nascent republicanism — demands for government transparency, for election reforms, and above all for a modest foreign policy — had put genuine fear into the country’s rulers. A people that loudly demanded two presidents’ dismissal — wartime presidents — was no longer safe for them to rule. Something had to be done, and the new republicanism would be throttled first in the humiliation and destruction of a Democratic president who spoke of the task of “citizens,” and the exaltation and triumph of a Republican president who blamed “government” for all our ills, and then reminded us of a “government right to confidentiality.” America, declared the neoconservatives, was “proud” again, and “free,” too, free of its own sacred traditions — no longer at risk of being subverted by its own republican principles.

Against so much perverting and defaming of “patriotism,” Karp wrote his essay as a sort of Declaration of Independence. He declared independence from leftists and rightists alike, finding his roots in the half-forgotten principles of the republic itself — the principles that had nothing to do with flags or fireworks. I still remember the first time I read his concluding paragraphs, shivering as I recognized in them thoughts I had always held but never quite been able to put into words. The whole essay deserves reading — and rereading, should you be so moved — but the final paragraphs sum it up. They continue to be the most succinct and powerful statement of republicanism I have ever read.

The republic is more than our form of government plus a few rudimentary maxims and memories. It embodies a profound principle of political action — an “energizing” principle, as Jefferson called it. It is supposed to operate at all times and under all conditions against oligarchy, special privilege, and arbitrary power. The energizing principle is the preservation and perfecting of self-government, the securing to each citizen of an equal voice in his own government. That grand object, as Lincoln once said, we must as republicans constantly strive for, constantly try to “approximate” even if we can never perfectly achieve it. Without its energizing principle a republic becomes a hollow form, or still worse, a ponderous hindrance.

Yet it is a truly burdensome principle to live by. It is easier to be servile than free, easier to submit to the rule of a few than to keep up the endless struggle for self-rule. It is easier to fight enemies abroad than to fight for the republic at home. That is why the virtue of virtues in a republic, as Montesquieu long ago observed, is the citizens’ love of the republic — “to be jealous of naught save the republican character of their country,” as the Workingmen’s party put it 150 years ago when it campaigned for free public schools in America. That is why the enemies of popular self-government have striven to erect and strengthen the rival cult of the nation, by war if possible, by the menace of war when there is a perilous lull in the fighting. It is the only way to undermine the people’s love of the republic and subvert among the citizenry themselves its energizing principle.

In the name of the nation, that undermining goes on unceasingly. It is the reason why the one thing never taught in our free public schools is “to be jealous of naught save the republican character” of our country. In my own schooldays we learned more about Betsy Ross and the wonders of the Panama Canal than we did about Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is no longer celebrated in a dozen states that once paid his memory that homage. Above all, it is the reason why what old Henry Cabot Lodge called the “large” foreign policy — the policy of having a busy foreign policy — has governed our foreign affairs for so many long years. It is precisely the “large” policy that keeps the nation alive and the republic in twilight.