Conservatives as victims, as victimizers, as fascists

I’m not interested in the story about the Sarah Palin movie. But the U.S.-Israel double flag pin in the accompanying photograph (fig. 1) caught my eye.[1]

Sarah and Todd Palin
Fig. 1: Sarah and Todd Palin
Map attributed to SarahPAC targeting congressional incumbents.
Fig. 2: Map attributed to SarahPAC targeting Democratic congressional incumbents

We need to put this in a bit of context, following the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, when media attention focused on a U.S. map Palin had used in her campaign indicating targeted districts (fig. 2). The map used symbols, crosshairs, that many people associated with a rifle sight; districts where representatives who were retiring were already marked in red. Some people thought this might have inspired the shooter. Seemingly wounded, Palin lashed out at her critics, accusing them of “blood libel.”[2] As I wrote at the time,[3]

That Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head by someone apparently out to kill her, is Jewish[4] makes Palin’s use of the term [“blood libel”] particularly offensive.

Joan Walsh thinks “Americans won’t forget that while Giffords and other shooting victims were still hospitalized, Palin was tending to her own psychic wounds. So very petty, so hugely unpresidential.”[5] But I’m not buying that this will stop her from being elected president. Walsh also makes a fairly compelling comparison between Palin and Nixon—and the latter was not just elected president in 1968 but re-elected in 1972.[6]

This particular controversy has indeed died down. But it does not appear that the same is true of Palin’s sense of victimization at the hands of what she calls—and I suspect more than a few people envy her for coining the phrase—the “lamestream media.” The way that women are treated in the media is often suspect for placing undue emphasis on appearance at the expense of substance; consider, for example, coverage of then-Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s cleavage (fig. 3), in which David Hershkovits rightly dismissed the spectacle as ridiculous, only to suggest a change of topic to her hair.[7] (The Washington Post, which carried the article that started the uproar, insists that the columnist in question, and its coverage generally, focuses equally on men’s and women’s appearances; the paper further notes how candidates exploit what they see as inappropriate coverage to solicit sympathy and donations.[8]) Similarly, television news operations are notorious for the absence of older women in front of the camera—early this year, Miriam O’Reilly won an age discrimination claim against the BBC for being dropped from a rural affairs program.[9] But while Palin, and for that matter, Michelle Bachmann may object, it is hard to imagine that a focus on their substance would advance their causes.

Hillary Clinton on C-SPAN 2
Fig. 3: Hillary Clinton on C-SPAN

In general, it is rarely a surprise to see appearance used to divert attention from substance, as when now-Secretary of State Clinton asserted that Israel has a right to defend itself against an unarmed flotilla seeking to break Israel’s illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip.[10] Flotilla organizers have accused Israel of sabotaging two boats and inducing the Greek government to prevent the ships from setting sail. “‘Greece sold its body to the banks and its soul to Israel and the United States,’ [flotilla activist Dror] Feiler noted angrily, ‘I don’t think — I know — that Israel and US pressure caused this.'”[11] Such actions only raise international attention to the plight of Gazans and to Israel’s continued illegal behavior; to have invited this kind of publicity seems irrational and counterproductive—it paints Israel and the United States jointly as the oppressor, as exercising undue influence in the affairs of other countries.[12]

Which is why I was noticing Palin’s flag pin. For me, it seems to connect Palin’s hyper-patriotism for the United States not with friendship but rather with patriotism for Israel, as if in fact the two countries should be seen as a single entity. Thus in a Palin presidency, as if Israel’s oppressive policies toward the Palestinians were not already U.S. policies, they would become even more so.

In the last class of Richard Shapiro’s I was able to attend at California Institute of Integral Studies (I had conference calls with Saybrook University, which I begin attending this fall, scheduled for the remaining weeks of the class), Shapiro explained Israeli logic this way (I copy this from hurried notes; apologies if quotations are incorrectly indicated)[13]:

  • Jews are persecuted as Jews and have always been persecuted.

  • Persecution is inevitable for a stateless people; only a state protects people from persecution.

  • To build a state requires continual vigilance against empires.

  • Enemies are those who oppose a Jewish state or challenge Israeli policy.

  • Jews must keep memory of their persecution alive so that they may never be victims again.

  • It is only through the maintenance of the image of Jews as victims that the mandate to never be victims again remains powerful.

Shapiro argues that Israelis reduce Nakba, an Arabic word used to refer to what Palestinians see as the catastrophe which created Israel, to the defeat of an enemy; that Israelis abolish thought and foreground protection in a memorialization that obscures the history of their founding violence; that they forget their relation to the widow, the orphan, the dispossessed; and thus that they negate what is valuable in Jewish heritage—a devotion to justice as an unachievable end which nonetheless must never be abandoned—in order to save Jewish heritage. He argues that they elevate their wound such that it becomes their identity: “I am wound and only my wound matters.” (He labels this a “narcissistic wound.”) Israel thus becomes a fixed, frozen, traumatized victim as a way to avoid being a victim. And he says, “If I am victim, the other is always only the perpetrator.”

Shapiro concludes that this logic constitutes the Romanization of the Jewish ethos—which I associate with the legend of Masada[14]—to die as a free man rather than to live as a slave. Israelis are thus transformed to the inverse of how Jews have historically been portrayed.[15] They are not weak, not feminine, and not, Shapiro says, like diasporic Jews.[16]

It is no wonder that Sarah Palin, with her rhetoric spiced with violence-laden references to firearms and “Mama Grizzlies,” seeks to identify with Israel. And this attempt to identify with Jews transcends the perception of a political advantage that demands obedience to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Because “Mama Grizzlies” are far from the only aggrieved conservatives.

Thomas Frank points to a conservative anti-intellectual backlash against liberals. He writes that conservatives perceive liberals as labeling them as stupid, as politically incorrect, as unwelcome in mainstream political discourse. “Conservativism, they believe, can never be powerful or successful, and backlashers revel in fantasies of their own marginality and persecution.”[17] He goes on:

The leaders of the backlash—the same canny people, remember, who are responsible for such masterpieces as the political strategy as the Florida 2000 election result and the campaign for Social Security privatization—have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers’ feelings of powerlessness will be dramatized and their alienation aggravated. Take, for example, the backlash fury-object du jour as I write this, the Alabama Ten Commandments monument, which was erected deliberately to provoke an ACLU lawsuit and which could come to no other possible end than being pried loose and carted away. Or even the great abortion controversy, which mobilizes millions but which cannot be put to rest without a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.[18]

Sadly, as anti-choice legislation proliferates and Planned Parenthood faces yet another political attack,[19] it can no longer be said that a conservative victory is impossible. Indeed, as President Barack Obama continues to make his term in office an extension of the Bush presidency, the remaining difference between his disdain for progressives[20] and Israeli disdain for Palestinians is that progressives do not yet face an ongoing genocide.

However, poor women, who find their access to abortion and reproductive health care increasingly constrained, do face a cataclysm; as do the poor, whose insufficient but necessary benefits are essential to their survival,[21] and people of color who have been particularly hard hit by unemployment.[22] As Rodney Green put it,

The truth is that almost no one wants to depend on a patronizing and often humiliating “safety net.” People want and deserve living wage jobs with career paths. . . . But present and past administrations have demonstrated no stomach for such plans [to put living wage job creation on the nation’s front burner]. They are able to provide hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street while Main Street stands in the unemployment line, with the country’s enormous racial disparities deepened even further during this extended economic crisis.

Various measures of unemployment, since 1948
Fig. 4: Various measures of unemployment, since 1948

It isn’t just racial, but class disparities that have been deepened. If the economic cycle (fig. 4) can be viewed not merely as a means of containing labor costs, but as a means of depriving workers of job security, of keeping them in submission, then the current economic situation, used as an excuse for austerity against any economic sense,[23] should be viewed as an intentional attack upon disenfranchised people. As Warren Buffet said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”[24]

That’s fascism, by nearly any definition.

  1. [1]Andrew Malcolm, “Sarah Palin documentary ‘The Undefeated’ to roll out to other cities,” Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2011,
  2. [2]Sally Quinn, “To Sarah Palin: It’s not all about you,” Washington Post, January 16, 2011,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Can Sarah Palin be elected?”, January 12, 2011,
  4. [4]Sam Dolnick, “At Giffords’s Synagogue, Prayers for Recovery,” New York Times, January 9, 2011,
  5. [5]Joan Walsh, “Sarah Palin will never be president,” Salon, January 12, 2011,
  6. [6]Walsh, “Sarah Palin will never be president.”
  7. [7]David Hershkovits, “Hillary’s Cleavage Wars,” PaperMag, July 30, 2007,
  8. [8]Howard Kurtz, “Cleavage & the Clinton Campaign Chest,” Washington Post, July 28, 2007,
  9. [9]John Plunkett, “Countryfile’s Miriam O’Reilly wins BBC ageism claim,” Guardian, January 11, 2011,
  10. [10]Matthew Lee, “Clinton: Gaza flotilla a bid to provoke Israel,”, June 24, 2011,
  11. [11]Yuval Mann, “Gaza flotilla activists determined to set sail,” Ynet News, July 2, 2011,,7340,L-4089982,00.html
  12. [12]BBC News, “Gaza aid flotilla: Irish crew accuse Israel of sabotage,” June 30, 2011,; Amira Hass, “In dealing with flotilla, Israel is anything but smart,” Haaretz, July 7, 2011,
  13. [13]Richard Shapiro, “Secular/Post-Secular? Emancipatory Jewish Thought” [lecture], California Institute of Integral Studies, April 11, 2011.
  14. [14]Joseph Telushkin, “Masada,” Jewish Virtual Library, 2011,
  15. [15]Ann Pellegrini, “Whiteface Performances: ‘Race,’ Gender, and Jewish Bodies,” in Jews and Other Differences, Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997)
  16. [16]Shapiro, April 11, 2011.
  17. [17]Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Holt, 2005), 120.
  18. [18]Frank, What’s The Matter With Kansas? 121-122
  19. [19]Guttmacher Institute, “States Enact Record Number of Abortion Restrictions in First Half of 2011,” July 13, 2011,; David A. Lieb, “Mo. gov. to let late-term abortion bill become law,” Associated Press, July 14, 2011,; Sofia Resnick, “Congressional leaders to discuss potential investigation of Planned Parenthood,” Washington Independent, July 13, 2011,
  20. [20]David Benfell, “Obama’s ‘negotiating’ style is now too much even for the Center for American Progress,”, March 24, 2011,
  21. [21]Rodney D. Green, “A Seriously Frayed System,” New York Times, September 17, 2010,; David R. Jones, “Security in Vocational Skills,” New York Times, September 17, 2010,; Jeffrey M. Jones, “A Matter of Political Will,” New York Times, September 17, 2010,; Elizabeth T. Powers, “We Can Afford Aid Programs,” New York Times, September 17, 2010,
  22. [22]Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” February 5, 2010, <a href="” target=”_blank”>
  23. [23]Paul Krugman, “Self-defeating Austerity,” New York Times, July 7, 2010,; Paul Krugman, “When Austerity Fails,” New York Times, May 22, 2011,
  24. [24]Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, November 26, 2006,

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