Sarah Palin and the Demise of Public Discourse

By Chuck Gutenson 11-16-2009

I wonder how many doctoral dissertations will be written over the next several years aimed at exploring the cultural phenomenon that is Sarah Palin. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which one would undertake such a study and come to the conclusion that the impact she has wielded on culture has been even marginally positive. Here we had a person so clearly over her head as a vice-presidential candidate who is nevertheless being highly rewarded by a particular substrand of the American population. Sarah's stunning ignorance on policy issues was spun as "independence;" an inability to answer questions with even a semblance of articulateness, we were told, was a sign of her "anti-elite" roots; and her engaging in the most crass demagoguery was attributed to her "roguishness." It is hard to imagine a single intersection with culture at which Sarah did not cheapen the quality of our public discourse. Now, with the publication of a "best seller," we get to hear even more gems of wisdom.

Perhaps Palin is an easy target for a bigger phenomenon. Not so long ago, Charles Barkley told us he was not a "role model," as if a person gets to choose that role! He was but a minor example of those who plug themselves into public discussion with seemingly no awareness of the responsibility they bear for the things they say. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Jim Cramer, and Bernard Goldberg are all examples of folks whose participation in public dialog leave our public discourse more impoverished. What we need is a mechanism to remind these folks that with great blessing (a major "bully platform") comes great responsibility. One thinks of the line from A Christmas Carol, when the ghost of Marley, bearing the chains of injustices carried out in his own life, warns Scrooge that the chain he bears himself is a "ponderous one." What ponderous chain does someone like Rush Limbaugh bear for his "contribution" to public discourse? He used to refer to himself as having "talent on loan from God." I used to wonder what Rush thinks God will say when Rush returns that talent, in light of his use of it.

The dynamics of all this are very complex. A willing and interested audience, coupled with freedom of speech and the freedom to market virtually any idea, no matter how harmful, the reduction of our age to a "sound bite" mentality, are all things that contribute to an environment in which negative influences on public discourse are allowed to flourish. I am a strong advocate of freedom of speech, for example, but I am also an advocate for finding a stronger way of tying folks to the damage they do to our public discourse. I can see the problem, but I am less clear on the way forward. Ideas?

Chuck Gutenson is the chief operating officer for Sojourners.

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