Sarah Palin’s Alaska


In my previous posts on rugged individualism and self-made men and women, I insisted (rightly) that Sarah Palin was not the point (rather, the point was and is best summed up by the Douglass speech I cited which my interlocutors apparently did not bother to read).

This time, she is.

Or at least the carefully scripted and curated media image projected by the television show Sarah Palin’s Alaska is.   I caught last night’s episode, the third of eight planned one hour shows.  Even granting the hyper-cynicism towards Palin’s “narrative” (or any political narrative in the advertising age) summed up snidely by someone here as “politics as Disney would have written it,” the TV show remains an artifact of the kind of narrative the producers and central character want to write, as well as the kind of narrative they believe may be politically effective.

As I watched, it occurred to me that if one can get past the hokiness and voyerism inherent in the medium of “reality TV,” the show presented one of the “porchiest” portraits of America I have seen in a long time.  It was essentially the story of a five generation family carrying on a subsistence farm (salmon fishing).  The family worked together productively from the great-great grandmother down to the elementary-aged grandchildren; they harvested, prepared, and preserved food; they celebrated the catch and holidays ritualistically with fellow subsistence fishermen in the community; venerated were the ideals of hard work, good work, familial bonds, a household economy, tradition, the natural world and its bounty, protection of the weak, self-sufficiency, liberty, and yes, rugged individualism and the need to be self-made.  The program exemplified the agrarian ideals of none other than Wendell Berry, who wrote in his essay “Discipline and Hope” that:

A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free. He is that variety of specialist known as a consumer, which means that he is the abject dependent of producers. How can he be free if he can do nothing for himself? What is the First Amendment to him whose mouth is stuck to the tit of the “affluent society”? Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free.

Whatever else may be said of Sarah Palin, and nothing here should be construed as a suggestion that she should or shouldn’t be president, I take this small cultural artifact as a sign of hope, as a suggestion that perhaps the Front Porch vision that I wish to champion is not entirely lost to us.

Now if only someone will tell Wendell Berry and Sarah Palin that a self-made man is as likely as a self-made car.  Don’t they know that everything is a gift?

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