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Sarah Palin's Frontier Justice | The Nation

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Sarah Palin's Frontier Justice

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Long before any of us knew about Sarah Palin's daughter's baby-daddy, the stage was being set. And the narrative that preceded her apotheosis was one of life and death. The Palin family "chose not to murder that beautiful soul," said an evangelical friend, as she closed her eyes and lifted her palms heavenward.

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Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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"Choosing not" to "murder" is an interesting and controversial cooptation within the abortion debate, but this particular locution had an additional resonance for me. Only weeks before, this very friend had been going on and on about the marital infidelities of John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. "I'd kill my husband if he ever did something like that. In a New York minute." I'd heard this sentiment before, of course--I believe Rep. Larry Craig's wife had said something similar in public, some years before her husband was arrested in Minneapolis, in the very same airport bathroom through which so many Republican delegates are no doubt traipsing all this week. That Mrs. Craig did not in fact murder her husband was a source of some barely suppressed disappointment to my friend. She herself is loaded for bear.

In a nation where one-third of teenage girls will get pregnant (though few bear them to term) and one half of all marriages will end in divorce, we nevertheless do love the litany of how shocked! and outraged! we are at the loose morals of others. Hidden within these repetitive passion plays about cheating and betrayal, however, is a narrative that is quite confining when it comes to complex notions of women as autonomous or liberated. Here's a paraphrased but no doubt familiar progression of the discussion about cheating politicians: Men are dogs. How can they be so stupid? They have no brains. Their nether organs do their thinking for them. Why does he do this to his good, honorable, long-suffering wife? Why does she stand beside him, so stoically, so stiff with humiliation? Why doesn't she leave him, let him stand on that podium and apologize to the world by himself? Why doesn't she kill him?

Universally it boils down to that hyperbolic but emphatic refrain: "I swear, I'd kill him."

There's a certain kind of Lorena Bobbitt-ish bottom line in this well-practiced narrative; Lorena, you will recall, just picked up the proverbial kitchen carving knife and chopped off her husband's offending organ. In other Western countries, there is surely scandal, scandal everywhere, just like in the United States. What's different here, I think, is that our political imbroglios are drenched in subliminal desire that the wife murder the husband. Symbolically speaking, of course. In Europe, it seems to me, it's more casual, less deadly; maybe she'll let loose and poison his pasta, but more likely she'll get out there and have a few affairs of her own, like Cecilia Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal.

Here in the United States, there's not merely the element of rage and loss that accompanies any heartbreak, there's also the medievally misogynistic media/cultural assumption that if a husband doesn't love his middle-aged wife, no one else ever will. A woman over 40 is dead, love-wise. Her lying, cheating husband didn't just humiliate her, he took away her honor and her life, his fidelity being her only tribute to desirability. If she doesn't have the comforting catharsis of killing him, metaphorically at least, she'll die alone, shriveled and prune-like, and covered in bristles.

I think this is the deeply coded reason so many women identified with Hillary Clinton at a certain point in time--not just in the wake of her husband's legendary adventures but also when the likes of Rush Limbaugh were cackling about how wrinkled and hag-like they thought she was. If only she had been the nominee, she would have had a chance for vengeance, for comeback, for sweet irony, for the strength of resurrection. When she didn't win, she lost more than the election. She broke the hearts of many emotionally invested women of a certain age who want to kill their duplicitous husbands, ex-husbands, or anyone like them.

Karl Rove clearly understands this. I'm pretty sure that's the real reason Sarah Palin is the Republican vice presidential nominee. This is a woman whose nickname in high school was "Barracuda," who shoots her own moose meat and, as governor of Alaska, proposed a $150 bounty for those citizens who bring in the foreleg of a wolf as a way of eliminating the animals. She is a lifelong member of the NRA and favors shooting grizzlies and polar bears from helicopters, to hell with whether the EPA thinks they're endangered. She is being investigated for a possible breach of ethics when she apparently used her public position to pressure the state law enforcement officials after she felt that they didn't sufficiently punish her brother-in-law, a state trooper, for allegedly battering her sister and tasering her 11-year-old nephew. Her office is decorated wall-to-wall with dead animal skins, heads, carcasses.

I suspect this is at least partly why so many otherwise "feminist" women are willing to overlook the ironic contradiction inherent in Bristol's situation, given her mother's public posturing regarding "abstinence only" and "just say no." It's as though they've got pixie dust in their eyes, blinding them to the reality that, regardless of sexual politics, there's a lot else to worry about in what Palin endorses. She wants creationism taught in public schools. She doesn't believe in global warming. But all that potentially vital controversy is treated as secondary to the fact that she is a peppily suggestive version of Thelma or Louise. She is no long-suffering, good-wifely sort. You get the distinct impression that she'd pick up a gun and shoot Bill or Larry or Eliot or John in a heartbeat.

Surely there's something deeply visceral going on in Palin's apparent appeal to women who've "been done wrong." But there's more than mere sentiment: for too many people, this translates into a deep, anti-democratic, ultra-libertarian failure of ethical engagement. What is putatively most wrong about our accumulated scandals, in other words, is not the sex per se but any breach of fiduciary relationship in the political realm, rather than in the domestic or religious realm.

With regard to the matter of her allegedly battering brother-in-law, for example, Sarah Palin could have done what Senators Obama, Clinton and Biden did: work to write, pass and enforce laws like the Violence Against Women Act. Instead she did the vigilante thing--she apparently took the law into her own hands, using her role as governor to pressure and ultimately fire the head of her state public safety commission. However sympathetic one may be to her sister's plight, what Palin is alleged to have done is corrupt. Yet in an age when movies extol the lonely righteous outlaw, the line she crossed is so often trampled that we don't see it or appreciate it anymore.

But the ethics of executive responsibility mean that you can't use or abuse the enhanced power of your public or fiduciary authority for personal ends. There is a rationale, a logic, behind the due process that is at the heart of our justice system. Our institutions of governance require that there be distance between the meting out of either reward or punishment and the passions of overly-emotionally-involved decision-makers--whether amorously smitten (as in instances of nepotism) or furiously wounded and "bitter" (as in Palin's sister's divorce).

The term "frontier justice" is always put in quotes for a reason. It is not the mark of a great civilization. It is messy and often results in mistakes of terrible magnitude. Ultimately, this is what worries me about men or women in public life, whether married or single, who engage in the conceit of indulging personal ends by taking advantage of the power of their positions. Clarence Thomas evaded answering questions about his behavior toward Anita Hill by declaring that it was none of anyone's business what he did in the bedroom, as opposed to the boardroom. But however the media framed it, the ethical concern in that hearing was precisely founded upon the fact that the encounters did not occur in the bedroom; furthermore, at the time of the alleged misbehavior, Thomas was the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission--the very agency charged with prosecution of harassment in the workplace.

My evangelical friend believes that "sinning" is a public matter, and that the government has a responsibility to discourage all premarital sex. She wants to recognize fertilized ova as persons with full legal rights. She also believes that a husband's straying is adequate defense in a court of law when his wife hops in her SUV and drives over him a few times. I do not.

Here's my bottom line. John Edwards, Larry Craig and Bristol Palin may have committed excruciatingly painful breaches of "family values," but that's a private matter. It's really none of my business.

What is impermissible, however, is the use of public power either as a personal weapon or a personal reward system--for example, using public funds to pay for one's prostitute, as Governor Eliot Spitzer is alleged to have done. Or promoting one's mistress to a cushy job, as Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is said to have done. Or demoting someone for failure to do your private bidding, which is exactly what Sarah Palin seems to have done. For that is the ideology of banditry. No matter how well-intentioned, such deployment is irresponsible, because responsibility to others is the first rule of representative government. And this, rather than the prurient details of who boinked whom, is what we need be most concerned about. The kind of narcissistic entitlement that hides in, wallows in or takes actual pride in unaccountability is the antithesis of the role demanded of a public servant.

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