Literal Symbolism: The Commonsense Conservative History of American Idiocy, from Reagan to the Politics of Nonsense

>> Saturday, November 21, 2009

The following exchange between Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin would, were we talking about any other politician, mark the end of a career. The emphasis is mine:

PALIN: With Israel, we cannot get into Israel, for instance, and say we're going to tell you whether the Jewish community can expand or not expand within your borders. Instead, what we need to do is tell Israel that we will—we'll go to bat for them.

O'REILLY: Well, what does that mean though? Look, say Israel, say Netanyahu says—calls you up and says, I'm bombing them, I'm bombing Iran, they're too close, I'm not going to let it happen. What do you say? You say go ahead, Netanyahu, go bomb them? What do you say?

PALIN: Oh my gosh, any kind of war strike is the absolute last option.

O'REILLY: All right, so you, you say no.

PALIN: That anybody would …

O'REILLY: But he's saying to you, you guys aren't going to be able to stop him.

PALIN: That's why we cannot let the world get to the place that you're talking about right now.

O'REILLY: Well, we're already there.

PALIN: No, we're not. We're not quite there yet. There is still hope. But what we have to do is exert the pressure that America can put on our allies and on those who are not so friendly.

O'REILLY: Obama says he's doing all that.

PALIN: He's bowing to world leaders and I think any other president in our country …

O'REILLY: Do you mean that literally, the Japanese emperor?

PALIN: I mean that literally.

O'REILLY: Do you think Obama's weak abroad?

PALIN: I believe that his approach to diplomacy is not what history has shown us works. What works in my mind, reading the history book, is what Reagan did.

As to the first embarrassment—her insistence that symbolic gestures are literal—all I can say is that I believe her. She honestly has no idea that she literalized a cliché and then condemned Obama on account of it. She honestly believes that Obama can no longer exert political pressure on reluctant allies because he bowed to the Japanese emperor. She sees not symbolism but causality there. That symbolic gesture is literal proof that Obama is not "exert[ing] the pressure that America can put on our allies and on those who are not so friendly." The mind boggles.

As to the second embarrassment—her belief that there is one history book and it conforms to her ideological predisposition—that is the sort of statement only uttered by people who never read books.* I'm not making a judgment here: I'm saying that the locution "reading the history book" is grammatically foreign to anyone who has read more than one book.** If you ask anyone who regularly reads any question at all that requires reference to a source, you would receive a response that indicated an engagement with a scholarly community. It might be vague ("some have argued"), or it might indicate ignorance of the larger conversation ("the only book I've read on the subject"), but it would acknowledge the existence of competing ideas and conflicting opinions. Put differently: even Jonah Goldberg talks this way.

*That or no one told her Reagan isn't in the Bible.

**The one exception would be Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin's The Book were the title itself not an arch reference to 1) conventional baseball wisdom and 2) the decades the authors spent talking about their unwritten book.


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