Thursday, September 4, 2008

All Come to Look for America

If you've come to look for America, something that Simon and Garfunkel understood was a fundamental journey in the experience of being an American, then you need not look to the cars of the New Jersey Turnpike but to the Republican National Convention. There, amid such critical signposts as Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch, the American Right detailed its beacons for those who navigate not by critical thought but by extended product placement.

So it was that Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin delivered her speech in front of a patriotic backdrop that might as well have included a laser show and scenes from High School Musical. Palin hauled out that and more, including repeat awkward commercial endorsements for four-month-old Trig Paxson Van Palin, the most famous baby in America, second only to Coca-Cola as exploitative American iconography.

Forget about the fact that Trig Palin was born with an extra chromosome, or that there has been rampant speculation about the circumstances surrounding Trig Palin's birth. Each time the camera panned to the infant, the camera became not merely the eye of America but the eye on America as the Republican Party believes we should see it: No child left behind. If this means using a handicapped infant to counter allegedly false allegations as to its parentage, then so be it. Given the overt wrist-slapping, how odd that nothing was sacred in a display of crusty sacred cows.

It's the oldest advertising trick in the book. We love a baby. We love babies in ads for diapers and dog food and stain removers, and now we can love them in specious product placements during political conventions. Poor little Trig, darling in his nappy: This is Madison Avenue at its finest hour and in its manipulative slickness it was both brilliant and repulsive.

Don't blame the cameraman. Babies are actually pretty easy to resist, especially when it is not the baby but the baby's mother who is under fire, and who is herself firing away at rival-party candidate Barack Obama in what is today being called a virtuoso display that leaves no doubt as to whether she can handle a weapon. This pistol-packin' momma whipped out her gun permit, took aim, and fired, in atta-girl tundra fashion. Later, she clutched the baby to her breast. Back off, America, because what you really should be doing is weeping. Palin has now founded her entire nomination on the blessed and inseparable conditions of motherhood and blame.

America loves its guilt, or perhaps more precisely we love being made to feel guilty, and Palin's masterminded speech struck deep in our primitive concsciences. How dare we haul up motherhood, that most cherished of conditions, and call it anything but saintly? How dare we associate it with political machinations? And while we're at it, who are we to question whether our government (of whichever party, really) is doing right by us? Come on, America, that's Mount Rushmore on the backdrop. Would you accuse Thomas Jefferson of not looking out for the little guy and his gas station? Would Teddy Roosevelt tax the pants off a plumber? Shame on you.

Palin's speech was a model of modern choreography and utterly obvious media bedfellowship, cutting as it did from her to the trite iconography of the backdrop to the baby to Cindy McCain's platinum doll wig and back again, through an audience of mesmerized war veterans ("Hoosiers for the Hot Chick") and the average American (overweight), all of whom appeared to be experiencing some type of rapture. If the "Hot Chick" button seemed random, rest assured it was not. What it also was not was semantically sound; there is the implication that there is another female--a not-so-hot one--as a rival.

I watched the speech with a friend who called Sarah Palin "a hood ornament," and I think he's on to something. What he meant was that Palin was the ornament of the broken-down Bush pickup (probably a Ford, our good-ole-boy brand); everyone knows what a difference a snazzy ornament makes to a tired vehicle. Never mind the engine: Ornament or mud-flap girl, here's more relatable Americana dear to the hearts of men everywhere. American men are known to lavish a good deal of attention on their automotive ornaments, polishing and caressing them to a fine gleam, which is precisely what septuagenarian McCain seems to have done.

Palin also attempted to steal back JFK for the McCain camp; as tired as the comparisons are, it's worth remembering that Kennedy just about got us nuked by Cuba while at the same time being hailed for bringing glamour to the White House in the form of the ultimate hood ornament, Jacqueline Kennedy. Believe it or not, Camelot was nearly half a century ago, and our American vernacular has changed. We now speak in sign language. We communicate by means of Star Wars and dancing cans of Coca-Cola and all manner of other venal symbology. Still we look and look as if we've been transported. We've all come to look for an America that we can no longer articulate with words alone, and Sarah Palin is hitching a free ride.


K.Line said...

Excellent post, S. I agree that she thinks she's along for the free ride but, modern media and culture being what it is, I think she's about to pay dearly in ways she couldn't have imagined.

Yet another sign she's not the smartest ornament on the hood.

Suzanna Mars said...

Thanks, K. As always, you get it, and have added great additional insight into the discussion. We shall see what transpires!

Anonymous said...

Oh, the incompetence.

This person is a 1950's man stuck in the 00's.

Be afraid of the puerility that will ooze out of her mouth.

enc said...

You called it, Suzanna. I loved this post.

Suzanna Mars said...

Enc, thank you! As you know, I am one of your biggest fans.


KATLIN said...

Excellent post! I'll admit that my disgust at how she talked about Obama subsided when Trig came into view. I'm a sucker for babies and puppies and couldn't help but turn my head to get a good look at the sleeping one.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

...Like a hole in the head!!!