What Would Palin Think?

What Would Palin Think?

Last week 12th Street was considering its public stance.

We did an interview with an author who is no stranger to controversy. John Reed, author of Snowball’s Chance and organizer of next year’s 9/11 Toga Party, was delighting us with snippets of his upcoming book, Tales of Woe.

We’ve got to wait until 2009 for MTV Books to release that one, but if you like tales of “suffering, suffering, suffering,” of the kind normally reserved for your worst imaginings, then this will be the book for you. A man who had sex with his bicycle is caught (on the saddle?) by the hotel’s maids, then convicted and put on the sex-offenders list. This is “one of the few light stories” in the book, Reed said.

What he told us next, however, demanded a little more debate.

I asked John if we were ready for Woe. This was his answer:

Tales of Woe, MTV 2009

Tales of Woe, MTV 2009

“Uh, I thought I was prepared, and I certainly wasn’t. The stories in this book are sicker and more upsetting than anything anyone can possibly imagine. And, by the way, anything you can imagine, any horrible thing you can imagine happening to a person—it’s happened. Some people are not going to be happy about it. There’s a double dog rapist (a guy who raped two dogs) that scares me. There’s no law against raping dogs in Alaska, which is of course yet another reason to get behind Palin. We should decriminalize dog rape nationwide. And then, who knows … the world.”

At first glance, you might think this is funny. A natural thought after reading this might be, “I wonder whether they make the dogs pay for the rape kits in Alaska.” Several people I spoke to about this paragraph actually asked that question immediately, including one of the editors here. This is good, risky satire [note: this link isn’t PG], the type of controversy that—coming from England, where our tabloids are ruthless—I’m very fond of. (See here, here, and here. And here).

But give it a second read, and ask yourself: is he referring to the pitbull/lipstick comment? Is he saying it would be alright to rape Palin?

No. Or at least not intentionally. But that’s what it could be taken to mean. And if someone out there might read a pro-rape-of-Palin sentiment in this paragraph, is that something we want to risk?

Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is fairly clear on this issue. If you go through their Bloggers’ FAQ to their post on Online Defamation Law, it’s spelled out pretty clearly; libel is a “false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and published ‘with fault,’ meaning as a result of negligence or malice.”

Further down the post is the following:

“Libelous (when false):

  • Charging someone with being a communist (in 1959)
  • Calling an attorney a ‘crook’
  • Describing a woman as a call girl
  • Accusing a minister of unethical conduct
  • Accusing a father of violating the confidence of son

Not-libelous:

  • Calling a political foe a ‘thief’ and ‘liar’ in chance encounter (because hyperbole in context)
  • Calling a TV show participant a ‘local loser,’ ‘chicken butt’ and ‘big skank’
  • Calling someone a ‘bitch’ or a ‘son of a bitch’
  • Changing product code name from “Carl Sagan” to ‘Butt Head Astronomer'”

I like the EFF. Anyway, this is clearly not libel. However, should it be shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that John was sanctioning rape of Alaska’s governor (which, I might repeat, he certainly was not—although I wouldn’t say he’d be too afraid of a comment like that), perhaps that would attract attention that we would otherwise avoid. We all know what that’s like. What would Palin think of this post? I bet she’d understand the power of words used creatively.

Anyway, I welcome your comments on this matter. And you can read the rest of the interview here. In the W&D Program, learning how to give a close analysis of a text is the cornerstone of our classes. They’re training us to be aware of this stuff, and to understand its impact. I think this harks back to the controversy over Nirvana’s song, Rape Me. Kurt was attacked by some feminists for its lyrics, and accused of taking a jab at the media for abusing his celebrity status, but he said it meant “You can hurt me, but I’ll survive,” and was, in fact, an “anti-rape” song.

In the end, after a long debate, we didn’t run the Alaska stuff, but I ask you: Did we make the right decision? I’m undecided. Convince me.

If you comment, please keep it decent. Thanks.

Perhaps you saw the clip of the angry old man addressing John McCain at a Republican rally in Wisconsin this week. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ykBr3SO6sg) “I’m mad!” he growled into the microphone, posturing with one hand firmly on his hip. “I’m really mad! And…it’s not about the economy—it’s the socialists taking over our country!” The crowd stood up and roared, but he said, “Sit down, I’m not done.” McCain started to answer him, but the old man continued, “Let me finish, please.” He was not going to stop until he made his point: “When you have an Obama, Pelosi and the rest of the hooligans up there, gonna run this country, we gotta have our heads examined!”

It wasn’t exactly a warm invitation to political dialogue.

The old man’s grandstanding reminded me of a woman I met at a cocktail party shortly after the vice-presidential debate. No more than 10 seconds after I sat next to her on a couch, she threw up her hands and howled: “I can’t believe McCain picked that idiot as a running mate! It’s just so damn scary. If the Republicans win, it’s over. Ov—er.” Then she glared at me. “You’re not a Republican are you?” I shook my head. “Good,” she said. I didn’t take the time to explain that while I’m currently registered Republican, I change my party affiliation each primary season to give myself the widest possible choice of candidates. But I don’t think she would have listened.

In fact, these days I find most of us don’t want to listen when it comes to politics—or much else. The idea of having a healthy discussion in which we weigh different points of view seems as idealistic as a politician telling the unvarnished truth. Instead, we come to the table with predetermined opinions or shadowy motives. We load our speech with subtle barbs, irony, or faux cynicism to pre-empt the adversary. It’s as if entertaining an opposing viewpoint is to give away what little power we have, so we spout off to show our strength and chutzpah. And, of course, the other person doesn’t give a damn; she’s either doing the same thing or has shut down completely, thinking about the tennis match or what she has to buy at the supermarket later that day.

Yet in spite of our posturing, most of us want to be heard. We’re aching for acknowledgment, for acceptance. And the fear that we’re not going to get it drives us to act out at political rallies, shouting, “I’m mad!” But until we can let down our defenses and unstop our ears, we’ll never work out our problems. This isn’t a philosophical issue; it’s why families are broken—and Washington, too. Eight years of “you’re either with us or against us” has polarized the nation. We seem to be on the precipice of…who knows what? There’s a shrillness to this election cycle not heard since the late ’60s; everyone’s shouting and no one’s listening, which is one of the hardest things to do because it means we have to get over ourselves. Of course we’re going to disagree, but it’s one thing to do it with respect and another to strong-arm our way toward victory, which is often no victory at all.

James Madison recognized the danger of not listening in times of crisis back in 1788, when the original 13 states were debating whether to ratify the Constitution. In Federalist No. 37, he wrote:

“It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.…The truth is, that these papers…solicit the attention of those only, who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country, a temper favorable to a just estimate of the means of promoting it. Persons of this character will proceed to an examination of the plan submitted by the convention, not only without a disposition to find or to magnify faults; but will see the propriety of reflecting, that a faultless plan was not to be expected. Nor will they barely make allowances for the errors which may be chargeable on the fallibility to which the convention, as a body of men, were liable; but will keep in mind, that they themselves also are but men, and ought not to assume an infallibility in rejudging the fallible opinions of others.”

The legacy of these people who had “a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country” is our Constitution—imperfect, amended, often vague, but the foundation of our freedoms. What will our legacy be? Self righteousness, bickering, and finger-pointing, or cooperation in fixing the mess in which we now find ourselves? We have critical issues to solve: health care, the war in Iraq, our response to terrorism, the credit crisis, global warming. Surely one party doesn’t hold all the answers to these issues. Whether McCain or Obama wins in November—or, dare I say, Ralph Nader or Ron Paul?—we’re still all in it together. Shouldn’t we stop yelling and start listening to each other? Maybe, just maybe, the person who we never thought we’d agree with has an insight or two.