In the wake of Saturday's horrific shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen other victims, long overdue attention is being paid to Republican Party heroine Sarah Palin's brazen use of violent language and symbols. It's hard to recall a national political figure since George Wallace who played so fast and loose with images of gunplay, demonization and death. For me, it was last March when I wondered if "going rogue" meant going off the deep end. This was when Palin strayed from the realm of politics and directed a particularly toxic stream of consciousness into the world of sports.
At the time, Palin and other GOP party members were facing criticism for using violent, inflammatory rhetoric against their Democratic opponents in the healthcare debate. In a misguided attempt to defend herself, Palin tried to show that violent rhetoric is used across American culture, most notably in the world of sports. In a rambling response that evoked Jonathan Swift crossed with Larry the Cable Guy, Palin took to Facebook to offer satirical words of encouragement to the NCAA hoops teams in the throes of March Madness. She wrote:
To the teams that desire making it this far next year: Gear up! In the battle, set your sights on next season's targets! From the shot across the bow —the first second's tip-off —your leaders will be in the enemy's crosshairs, so you must execute strong defensive tactics. You won't win only playing defense, so get on offense! The crossfire is intense, so penetrate through enemy territory by bombing through the press, and use your strong weapons—your Big Guns—to drive to the hole. Shoot with accuracy; aim high and remember it takes blood, sweat and tears to win. Focus on the goal and fight for it. If the gate is closed, go over the fence. If the fence is too high, pole vault in. If that doesn't work, parachute in. If the other side tries to push back, your attitude should be "go for it." Get in their faces and argue with them. (Sound familiar?!) Every possession is a battle; you'll only win the war if you've picked your battles wisely. No matter how tough it gets, never retreat, instead RELOAD!
To be as charitable as possible, the aim of Palin's "satire" was to point out that violent, martial imagery is constantly used in sports and therefore is an absolutely legitimate metaphor for political debate. Let's leave aside for a moment that unlike sports, politics in the United States has a consistent tradition of unhinged violence sparked by demagoguery. Let's also concede that the world of sports is rife with unconscious military metaphor and language. This is most apparent in football of course, where quarterbacks are field generals, throwing bullet passes and bombs as they encroach on enemy territory.
But the subject at hand was NCAA basketball and this is where we enter the bizarre recesses of Palin's brain. Please take my word for it as a professional sportswriter, a columnist for SLAM magazine and someone who has been playing basketball since he was in utero: I've been around this game my whole life and never heard the opening tip called "the shot across the bow." I've never heard "the crossfire is intense" used to describe anything on a court. I've certainly heard calls from coaches to "shoot with accuracy," but never heard any coach call for players to "aim high." And I've met more than a few coaches who were blithering idiots, but none so blithering as to say, "Every possession is a battle; you'll only win the war if you've picked your battles wisely."
The point is not that Sarah Palin lacks the intellectual faculties to be hired as an NBA coach (honestly, I shouldn't even joke about the prospect, lest Clippers owner Donald Sterling get any bright ideas.) The point is that that Palin revels in the idea that "reloading" against those she doesn't deem to be "real Americans" is a completely legitimate part of national discourse. The point is that behind her flawless façade and frontierswoman packaging, Palin draws strength from visions of violence. The fact that she is a national political figure with an obsessive right-wing cult following makes it all the more disturbing.
We should be honest and say that were Sarah Palin a Muslim, producing gun-sight propaganda aimed at Congressional candidates, she'd be being interviewed by the Feds right now. I personally don't want the Feds interviewing anybody for their words, no matter where they fall on the political scene. But that doesn't mean we the people don't have a collective accountability to stand up to Palin and all who feed the right-wing hate machine. If this weekend taught us nothing else, it's not enough to just "change the channel." It's not enough to say that articles like this one "just give Palin the attention she wants" and "all she cares about being is a reality TV star." No. This isn't about reality television. It's about reality. It's about understanding that the radical right needs to be politically challenged and Sarah Palin—it needs to be said loudly—should have long disqualified herself from national politics. Any political leader that continues to defend her should be seen as endorsing the very discourse she promotes. This isn't about stifling speech. It's about laying down a marker after this weekend, and saying that this is not a game.