Some friends and I have been watching “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” lately, because — well, what else is there to do on Sunday nights during the off-season of “Mad Men”? The show is hilarious, ridiculous, infuriating and repetitive — basically any word you can think of to describe Palin also works for her reality program. But there are a few moments of each episode that I can enjoy in a completely un-ironic fashion, and those are the panoramic shots of the snowy mindfuck that is the state of Alaska. All I have to do is shut out Sarah’s grating voice-over explaining for the umpteenth time how nice it is to get the heck away from evil bloggers and enjoy some quality time in the great outdoors with her family and her rifles, to remember what really matters in life, and I can appreciate the unfathomably huge and beautiful mountains and glaciers.
Alaska is a cool place, and I should be able to acknowledge that without the implication that I also admire its former governor. But that’s impossible, because what Palin is attempting to do with her show is associate herself inextricably with Alaska — the title even suggests ownership, as if the state wouldn’t be the same without her — and that worries me. TLC constantly shows the Palin family camping, hunting, dog sledding, rafting and climbing all over the expansive and dangerous terrain, as well as humbly interacting with everyday folks, and the message is clear: Sarah Palin embodies Alaska, and therefore is independent, extraordinary and unique. Never mind her obvious ineptitude and divisiveness — she’s just misunderstood by the lower 48, much like her beloved home state.
The idea of letting origins define politicians is certainly nothing new, and in recent memory the GOP specifically has excelled in this endeavor. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” is basically one long, extended sequel to the clip of former President George W. Bush clearing brush on his Crawford, Texas ranch, which made the rounds during his presidency. And that video was probably inspired by pictures of President Ronald Reagan relaxing on his own ranch, leaning against a white picket fence and wearing a cowboy hat. Reagan and Bush both played at the image of the independent, strong, American cowboy, and it worked well enough to get them each elected for two terms. Palin has a lot going against her for her inevitable 2012 run, but she definitely has the same down-home persona that could help her defeat sterile competition such as fellow Republican Mitt Romney. Her reality show is helping to solidify that image.
While Palin’s show is helping her, politicians can also use a location as a negative issue to poison their enemies. The remarkably low approval ratings of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi probably have something to do with Republican rhetoric constantly linking her to her district in San Francisco. Since we all know the City by the Bay is full of nothing but unscrupulous queers, homeless people and potheads, it isn’t any surprise that Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco were negatively featured in ads for Republican House candidates all across the country during the past midterm elections.
President Barack Obama’s election was historic for racial reasons — and also because he was the first urbanite to be elected president since President John F. Kennedy from Boston took office. As the backlash against Obama grows, led by Republicans and especially the Tea Party, the biggest binary divide in America might turn out to be not black versus white, religious versus secular, or straight versus gay, but urban versus rural. Palin’s Alaska signifies integrity and strength, while Pelosi’s San Francisco means arrogance and strangeness. And often it isn’t even genuine rural values that are being put forth by conservatives. The Tea Party is a facade of excitable citizens being manipulated behind the scenes by businessmen such as the Koch brothers, who want nothing but money, money and more money, as well as politicians seeking personal gain. This concerns me as a liberal city-lover, but it also concerns me as an American, because people with good ideas should be respected in Washington, no matter how many crevasses they’ve climbed over or lattes they’ve sipped.
When choosing whom to vote for, the question shouldn’t be where a person comes from but the direction he or she is looking toward, and despite the incredible landscapes, Sarah Palin isn’t looking toward anywhere I’d like to be.