Monday, September 29, 2008

Conversationalism + Identity + 2008: Sarah Palin + Katie Couric

Required Viewing

I felt a deep pathos for Sarah Palin during that interview. Many of her positions are abhorrent to me, and I am shocked that anyone would have believed that she would be good on the ticket. But she struck an emotional chord within me, a chord of fear, while watching specifically these sorts of moments in her interview, and having thought about it, I'm starting to realize what it is.

Sarah Palin is trying to learn a foreign language.

When I was growing up, I was taught Hebrew, because I was Israeli-born and American raised. My family all spoke Hebrew, and indeed from my parents' generation upward Hebrew was the dominant (if not the only) mode of communication there was. When I was young, the frustration of learning a language drove me wild--I hated it, and I consequently dropped Hebrew lessons.

Part of me regrets that to this day, but my abortive attempts to learn language since then have made me feel that I was correct in my choice. A year of Spanish I in middle school, four years of French in High School (culminating in a 2 on the AP French exam), and, just this year, studying introductory Czech--and each time, I have not done well.

But there is something more fundamentally frustrating or disturbing than not doing well in language classes, which I only realized today. It's a frustration I feel when I try to speak to a Czech person in Czech, and they respond in English (recognizing instantly my inability to communicate). It's equally the frustration I feel when I have to dumb down my language to get across to someone who thinks they know English, but don't.

Before action, comes the word, and part of my self-awareness is my self-awareness about how I communicate. Part of the urge that creates a writer, after all, is the love of words--and furthermore, an identification with words and communication. Before I am anything else, I am a creator--and the first step in the act of creation is writing and planning; placing ideas in definite grammatical structures. George Carlin talks about how you start with an airy, indefinite thought, and then you attach a word to it, and BAM-- you're stuck with that word for that thought.

But what happens when it becomes impossible to communicate? I can imagine myself happier unable to walk than unable to speak. I have a definite fear of loss of speech, which is in fact tied into my fear of death. I identify myself with my thoughts, my ideas, and my opinions; death extinguishes them. So the solution to death is to spread my thoughts, my ideas, my opinions. Shakespeare's body may have died, but his thoughts/ideas/opinions live on because they have gained traction. I not only fear dying, but I fear dying and taking everything I think and feel with me.

That's why I write: if no one will listen to my ideas and thoughts and opinions, I must write them down, so that if the time comes that someone is interested in them, they will be waiting for them. I have a fantasy in my head that, after I die, people will come through my computer, looking for my ideas and thoughts and opinions. And they'll discover that I laid it all out--my computer is laid out with a highly organized filing system, so that people will know what I thought, what I was here for.

Imagine if I lost all of that. Imagine if I lost the opportunity to make myself known. Imagine if I dealt with someone who is trapped in seeing me as "The Other" because I cannot make myself clear to them. Imagine that. It is the same tragedy as a paralyzed athlete: he who identifies himself with physical action will mourn the loss of that action, and he who identifies himself with communication (not just thought; communication) will mourn that in a deep way.

I have trouble watching Sarah Palin in these interviews. It was alright for me when she was just speaking, saying foolish things like "Thanks but no thanks" or "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull...". She knows how to speak like a politician. But watching her try to speak like a statesman, is like watching my comrades in Czech 1 trying to form a sentence about their family when they've forgotten all the vocabulary involved.

You can see her clutch to phrases she knows. Take, for instance:

"So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americas."

Let me diagram this sentence for you:

[Positive initiative 1] + [positive initiative 2] + [positive initiative 3] + [positive initiative 4] + [positive initiative 5]

Furthermore, if you notice, Positive Initiative 2, 4, and 5 are all the same initiative: raising taxes. They're just different phrases for the same thing.

She memorized the vocab, and she's struggling to deploy it. It deeply unsettles me, emotionally, because I can't imagine the horror of being tested on language I don't know. The inability to communicate, in its sharpest form.

If Sarah Palin's nomination only accomplishes one thing, let it be that it gave me a little more insight into the darker side of myself.

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