Inexplicably enough, Sarah Palin, a sorta-politician who ran a state for a little while and participated in a miserable failure of a presidential campaign five years ago, is in the news again. This time, it’s thanks to MSNBC host Martin Bashir, who took issue with Palin’s jaw-droppingly boneheaded comparison of slavery and the national debt. In doing so, he deployed an ill-advised metaphor of his own, setting off a firestorm of criticism and, ultimately, his own resignation yesterday. Bashir’s comments were a major screw-up, of course, and more on that later. But what no one’s asking is the more obvious question: why are we listening to a know-nothing, powerless partisan hack like Sarah Palin in 2013 to begin with?
Let’s take a walk back, for context. Last month, the former governor, speaking at an Iowa fundraiser, said this of the federal debt: “When that money comes due – and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.” As anyone who follows @YesYoureRacist knows, tossing in a halfhearted “this isn’t racist” preamble to an offensive comment and inaccurate analogy doesn’t magically, automatically neutralize the rest of us from noting that, no, it actually is racist to compare the systemic enslavement, brutalization, rape, and murder of literally millions of people to our current patterns of financial borrowing.
So a couple of days later, CNN’s Jake Tapper sat down with Palin and asked about this problematic analogy, and she listened carefully and realized the offensiveness of her correlation and apologized for misspeaking… ha ha ha, just kidding, she doubled down on it because she’s an asshole. “There is another definition of slavery and that is being beholden to some kind of master that is not of your choosing,” she informed Tapper. (There’s really not. And later on, she rephrased the point using the words, “we could prove that with semantics that are various,” which deserves to be the new “all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.”) “And, yes,” she continued, “the national debt will be like slavery when the note comes due.”
To this, Mr. Tapper responded, not unreasonably, “So you’re not — you’re not work — I mean I’m — I’m taking it as a no, but you’re not — you’re not concerned about the language –” (That’s direct from the transcript.) And to his sputtering disbelief, she replied cheerfully, “I’m not one to be politically correct, evidently.”
Let’s make this clear: equating the national debt with slavery is not a matter of “political incorrectness,” it’s a matter of “being a fucking idiot.” But “politically correct,” like “lamestream media” and “liberty and freedom” and “rein in government,” is merely an ingredient in the patented Palin word salad, part of the linguistic projectile vomiting that occurs anytime anyone points a camera and microphone in her general direction, which is far too often.
And Martin Bashir, understandably, found this casual equation horrifyingly offensive and deeply upsetting. (Time for a disclosure: my spouse is a senior producer at MSNBC, but for a different program than Mr. Bashir’s.) In railing against her statement, Bashir called up, as an example of the institution’s “barbaric history,” the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, who describes forcing slaves to urinate and defecate into each other’s mouths. After graphically describing the disciplinary practices detailed by Thistlewood, Bashir said this: “When Mrs. Palin invoked slavery, she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms that if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, then she would be the outstanding candidate.”
Glib? Yes. Inappropriate? You betcha. But you know what it also isn’t? Palin’s buzzword, politically correct. Yet this is her MO: she tries to portray herself as the straight-shootin’ grizzly bear who says whatever she wants, consequences and feelings of those she’s attacking be damned. But when the worm turns on her, she’s suddenly a delicate flower, canceling interviews and calling for boycotts. Were Bashir’s comments appropriate? Of course not, and he said as much when he apologized on air shortly thereafter. But here’s the thing: they were miles less offensive than comparing the national debt to goddamn slavery.
And that’s what’s irritating about Bashir’s place in this whole kerfuffle. By going too far, by pushing too hard, by being unable to resist the temptation to put a snide rhetorical flourish on the end of a powerfully stated retort to Palin’s inanity, he changed the story from Palin’s idiocy to his own. Palin gets off clean, the victim of a verbal crime rather than the perpetrator of one. Bashir was forced out of his job, but no such punishment awaits Palin. (Oh, right, she quit her last real job back in 2009.)
Which brings us back to the original question: why on earth are we still listening to what Sarah Palin has to say about anything? Days after the Bashir apology, she went on Fox News Sunday (of course) to say she accepted his apology, but still thinks the national debt is like slavery. Today, when discussing Bashir’s resignation on Fox and Friends (of course), she said she hoped that the takeaway from this debacle is that “those with that platform, with a microphone, a camera in their face, they have to have some more responsibility taken.”
So here’s something I never thought I would write: Sarah Palin is right. Weird misuse of passive voice aside, her statement is correct; those with microphones and cameras in their faces have to take some responsibility, and that responsibility should start with Sarah Palin. Because after the debt/slavery business, after “death panels,” after “blood libel,” after “North Korean allies,” she simply shouldn’t have the credibility to appear as a pundit or expert (anywhere but on Fox, of course) on any subject beyond how to hunt and dress an antelope.
In the immediate aftermath of Bashir’s comments, Palin canceled a scheduled Today Show interview with Matt Lauer, though an NBC News rep “said the team hopes to reschedule.” Why bother? What does she have to contribute to the conversation — to any conversation? This is a public servant who quit her governorship midway through her term so she could cash in at Fox, a politician who helped torpedo the only nationwide campaign she’s ever participated in, and a public figure who is best known for her inability to put together a comprehensible sentence. The topic of her taped Today Show interview was her new book, which is about (I’m not making this up) “the war on Christmas,” a fictional drum that social conservatives have been wailing on for the better part of a decade. But that’s not what she’s really there to sell; she’s there to continue the selling of Sarah Palin, a politician who has made a small fortune from being comically inept and clumsily provocative, a grifter who has spent five years swiping the cash of her dwindling cult of admirers and a Republican party so tragically bereft of leadership that it hasn’t yet figured out a way to distance itself from a personality who, at best, should be spending her evenings on hold as an especially obtuse right-wing radio caller.