I just got back home last night after more than a week away. One of the chores I had to attend to was sorting through a backlog of unwatched DVR’d TV shows that included the week-old episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” Never having seen the show before, I resisted the reflex to punch the delete button so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. When I did, I came away with a much greater appreciation of Palin’s generalship in the culture war.
The centerpiece of the episode was “stunning the halibut.” In case you’re as out of the loop as I am, here’s how it works: Halibut fishing boats lays out long lines with baited hooks. When they’re reeled in, a succession of these gigantic flat fish are hoisted onto the deck. Left to their own devices, the halibut flop around the deck so violently that they reduce their market value by bruising their flesh. So, soon upon their arrival on the deck, some hearty fisherman has to club them between the eyes with sufficient force to immobilize them and then slit their gills to drain them of blood before it stains the meat.
The dramatic center of the show was Sarah imparting a life lesson on Bristol by enthusiastically taking on the role of “stunner-in-chief.” As you might expect, once the fine points of stunning were explained to her, Sarah turned out to be natural, dispatching fish with a single stroke of her club. Bristol, however, was a little squeamish at first. She’d raise the club over her head vigorously enough only to find that she couldn’t follow through when looking into the fish’s glassy eyes. But with a little motherly encouragement she was soon bashing fish brains with the best of them. The show ended with a Palin-family contest over who could cook the tastiest halibut on an open fire—as usual, Sarah complained, Todd won.
I’d never before appreciated that Sarah Palin has opened a new front in the culture war. It used to be mostly about sexual morality. The core of the social conservative position was that young people are paying an exorbitant moral price for having too much sex outside of marriage, and imposing a staggering social and cultural cost on the rest of us in the process. Shame was the principal weapon conservatives brought to the fight. We liberals always felt pretty confident on that battleground because we thought that the other side was fighting with an obsolete arsenal.
There isn’t a hint of that conservative sensibility in Palin's show. The family had planned the whole fishing expedition mostly as therapy for Bristol because she was still reeling from a failed relationship and the pressures of single motherhood. Yet the family never uttered a word of reproach about her being a fallen woman. Indeed, the one bit of explicit advice Sarah offered Bristol was that there were “plenty of fish in the sea.” Getting her to undertake the rigors of commercial fishing was Sarah’s way of easing Bristol back into the sexual game as it’s played in the real world among people who support families by getting their hands dirty.
Sex is at the periphery of Palin's culture war. It's mainly a struggle over perception. The subtext of her show is that the liberals who get “wee-wee’d up” over everything she does inhabit a world in which the material and cultural core of life, dignified work and a familial solidarity, are hidden discretely from view behind a curtain of high-minded abstractions. Palin thinks liberals will bend your ear off about remaking the political economy to their specifications over a dinner of halibut steaks, but they don’t know, or want to know, a thing about how the fish actually got on their table and have nothing but contempt for the people who put it there. That’s why she's shoving the image of herself stunning of halibut in liberals' faces and why a lot of other people apparently like watching her do it. What could be better, from Palin's standpoint, than the theatrical outrage of animal rights activists?
It’s not clear to me that liberals have the arsenal to fight this kind of culture war, or that they should want to fight it all.