Game Change‘s central moments, its main reasons for existing – the behind the scenes exchanges being revealed to and visualized for the world for the first time – had already been brought to center stage, to the main window, had already been extensively critiqued and counter-critiqued, by the time those of us in the nether rings of mediatized power were able to receive Julianne Moore’s Sarah Palin’s display of painfully embarrassing ignorance about national-level political history.
We had already had plenty of time to wonder (actually to wonder again, since most of us had already started wondering about these things four years ago) about what possibly we might be seeing. Did Palin really not seem to know, for example, that the British Queen does not run the British government? If so, how do we or any of the witnesses know beyond doubt whether whatever such display was in each instance 1) more an expression of an actual lack of knowledge, 2) more a transitory lapse, 3) more a miscommunication or misreading on someone’s part, 4) or more the result of an intentional act of dissimulation, disdain, defiance, or refusal rather than of incapacity – the last explanation being what Palin herself claimed as an excuse for her notorious muffs of Katie Couric’s elementary interview questions. Staying on the question of Britain, though the same comments will apply to virtually every example of the famous knowledge gaps, defenders will point to Palin’s public statements of admiration of Margaret Thatcher from prior to the 2008 campaign, then turn the attackers’ own incredulity against them: Of course, say the defenders, Palin knew what the British Prime Minister is – or that Africa is a continent, or that “the Fed” is short for Federal Reserve, not federal government, and so on. So who, then, really is being naive? The Palinists or those willing to believe unbelievable statements about her – or take representations of her at face value?
No resort at that point to whatever public record will or can return some inarguable proof one way or the other – because that is not how knowledge of the universe, of human experience, of private or public history ever works, whether it’s Palin’s knowledge of universe, experience, or history, or some witness’s knowledge of Palin’s knowledge, or our knowledge or assumptions about Palin or witnesses. We do not and cannot know what Palin knew, and not just because perceptions and recollections are unreliable and subjective, and not even because it is entirely within the realm of everyday human experience for someone to seem to know something one day, not to know it another day, and to know it again and seem obviously always to have known it on yet a third day, but because the truer truth is that we do not possess a common and inarguable understanding of knowledge and understanding, or even of what we mean by the word “we.”
The decision on such truth, on the functional parameters of such truths, is in the end always a political decision, rarely or never a derivative of mere fact, and the relative uncertainty of the factual is all the more problematic, more self-defining and self-constituting, in regard to any political decision on political truth. The power to shape such definitions, to determine when and how they will function, is already power itself – what in part was meant in Shelley’s claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but which, as it underlies all discourse, appears everywhere in discourse, sacred and profane, artistic and even scientific, historical and political. Palin was and to some extent even today, well past her moment, remains fascinating to all of us citizen-poets in this age of accelerated self-organizing massification of meaning-creation and -administration because the question of Palin was already a set of questions about who and what we are, and about how we agree to speak about who and what we are as co-definitional of who and what we are.
The answers on the Palinist side happen to constitute an alternative to the decision for Obama. The political system was already in the process of validating the latter, and all of the Free World was in the process of acclaiming it, as the creators of Game Change seem aware, though they take the result as a new and disturbing question about the media and democracy, rather than as a further extension of what democracy always has been, for better and worse. Put differently, the primary reality was that McCain never had much of a chance. His and his team’s accurate estimation of that reality led them to make what appeared to be a risky decision. Subsequent events underlined and confirmed, rather than overturned, the primary reality.
It turns out that Palin’s reported possible/impossible misunderstanding about the difference between Queen and Prime Minister was already a for her typically borderline schizophrenic hallucination of a deeper and insuperable truth. By the time she was asked to join the the wrong team representing the wrong choice and destined to lose, the Free World had already begun to acclaim the rightful bid to its constitutionalized monarchy, under the rules of a game that is less a game than a secularized religion whose liturgy and doxology neither are nor can be easy to change. They called her a modern day Joan of Arc, and they might have called her a Mary Queen of Scots – in some senses, in terms of political result, if not human cost, as far as we can tell, the comparisons are justified.