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?


  1. Keep banging your head against that there wall, son. You’re insisting on poisoned language that you know full well people here (who agree with your real point!) are allergic to. If you truly wish to reclaim that language then do so (take note of RAF’s way of speaking of his “Socialism” for a good example). Your current tack is juvenile and self-defeating (and self-absorbed).

    • You sound like such a fraud. You don’t agree with the “real point” at all – which I think is the point of this and the other postings in this line. ISTM aimed at a certain part of the FP “community” who love the idea but hate actual people who achieve it to a far greater degree than they. Probably because someone like Sarah Palin’s personal example puts the lie to their pretensions. Can’t have tacky proles walking the walk while correct-thinking academics only talk the talk, can we?

  2. I did read the Douglas quote – and still disagree with you in that I find nothing uniquely American about virtues of self reliance etc. I’d also say that us intellectual types here understandably over emphasize “ideas” at the expense of physical environment, sources of wealth and the availability of resources that promote wealth re: the formation of communities. That sort of dull stuff often has more to do with the existence of community and how such communities are organized than our theoretical and philosophical musings.

    As for the Palins – we may not have watched the same episode – but 1) this is the first time (as said by Todd) the Palin family ever did this – an event staged for the cameras. 2) there was clearlysome tension among those 5 generations – the kids in particular didn’t seem to be onscript re: the 5 generation self reliant family thing – Willow notes at one point that she had never done this before and Track and Dad sure were at odds.

    I admire the notion of multi generational family run enterprise – but I despise the phony image making, fabrication of events that is on display in this silly show. The display of one’s family doing things they never did before for the sake of creating a marketing image seems symptomatic of the disease eating this country alive and most assuredly not an example of the virtue of self reliance.

  3. I love your defense that surely none of us who disagree with you could have read the Douglass quote, because if we would have but read it we would have seen your position rightly. A little hubris with your morning oats today?

    You’re still wrong and even more wrong about the Palin show. I was with my family this weekend and was finally compelled by convention (do as the family does when together) to watch. It was, in a word, silly. As Cecelia points out it was utterly staged–the young women pointed out that they never did anything like this nor does anyone they know. It is a fabrication just as much as the larger thread of your recent columns on this website.

    I am confused. I am beginning to suspect that you do not believe in what you are posting (it seems so obviously thin) and perhaps you are deliberately attempting to evoke criticism of just this type. Forgive me if I assume too much.

  4. Thanks for reminding me of your wonderful commencement address, which I encourage the others to read. I’ve sent my sister-in-law, who is about to graduate herself.

  5. I don’t know, I suppose if pert Sarah, master of passive aggressive politics were staying in that bit of lower-48 commercial blight along the highway between Anchorage and Denali, she might be subscribing to “Porcher” aims. But she isn’t, she’s having great fun and reaping buku bucks on embracing the national comedy of Federal Politics. Her carnival is following the standard MO of championing “rugged individualism” while embracing a typical personality cult of nannying aims. She is, in short, “self-refudiating”. This makes her a fine candidate in this era of High Stakes Irony as National Reality Parody.

    She does drive that insidious Mark Hanna wannabe Karl Rove a little nuts and for that alone, she should be richly enjoyed. Karl Rove of course has made a career confusing a cult of rugged individualism with a fawning embrace of the malevolent Unitary Executive. They are not anti-government, they are just vigorously covetous of their own government.

  6. What happened to Mr. Stegall? It appears he up and vacated FPR altogether. Why? I, for one am disappointed by this. I found much inspiration and interest in his writings. What a shame.

  7. Stegall’s taken his ball and gone home? Bummer. I really wish he wasn’t such an egotistical drama queen. He’s a smart guy and powerful writer.

  8. For me belief in self-reliance goes hand in hand with belief in tyranny. I, either a paranoid wacko or not – and asking my wife is not a fair way to resolve the question – tend to see tyranny all around. Heck – take college. Average student comes out with how much debt? The price of entry into the economy is beyond many; thinking about it – it’s indentured servitude, is it not? – we’ll house, feed and train you for 4 or so years, and you’ll work for us for 10 more. This is simplified, but then again, how many of us are working for ourselves? Banks employ far more than walk into the building each day.
    The arguments against self-reliance obscure the issue, in my mind. For me it’s not some affirmation of Ayn Rand, it’s being able to see, in all it’s seriousness and farce, the connection between deciding to ride a bicycle to work and Indians deciding to spin their own cotton.

    I have no idea if that’s where you’re going with this, but I’m not from Kansas, never have made it across the Cumberland Gap, so we’re just going to have to live with it.

  9. The Palin’s are a model of self-reliance. What about the airplane they flew in? Why, they built it themselves and power it with foot-pedals. And their multi-million dollar home? Self-made, like a log cabin or igloo. And their state-of-the-art freezer. Sure, cooled by snow they collected outside their home. And their high-price arctic clothes and hunting equipment? Sure, made out of seal skins they bagged with spears cut from driftwood. What’s this ridiculous farce about “self-reliance.” They’re as totally dependent as a Wall Street stock broker or a Detroit steel worker.

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