U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fish and Palin in Their City upon a Hill


Stanley Fish’s op-ed in the New York Times this week would not be notable except that his intellectually vacuous reading of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party echoes the lively discussion David Sehat sparked in his recent post on Jill Lepore’s book. Fish uses Palin’s Facebook screed posted in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting to ask us to reconsider American exceptionalism as understood and promoted by Palin and the Tea Party. Early in his essay, Fish argues that Palin’s view of American exceptionalism is a combination of “Calvinist pessimism” and “unabashed patriotism.” Palin’s thought, Fish continues, echoes the beloved characters of Frank Capra films (and their “love” of American scriptures such as the Declaration and the Bill of Rights); Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech; and phrases, pulled utterly out of context, from the usual culprits associated with American exceptionalism: Tocqueville, Crevecoeur, Frederick Jackson Turner, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, John Winthrop.

Winthrop is especially significant here, I think, because no one better understood “Calvinist pessimism,” than this commanding Puritan. So for the moment, let’s accept that Winthrop belongs in this slapdash list of American dreamers and is available to Palin and Fish to serve their argument that we have a government “not designed for ‘perfect men and women.'” Palin’s use of Winthrop buttresses her argument that America is exceptional because it has political system that does NOT try to coerce the people to be better–as Fish writes, “Palin brings together her argument for a certain form of politics ‘to govern ourselves locally without waiting for any central authority to show us the way’ [and that] ‘we have managed to be, for the most part, the moral and upright people that the Founders hoped we would be.'”

I am not the first person to cry foul when Winthrop is used in this way. His sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” has been abused for a very long time–perhaps most famously by Palin’s political lodestar, Ronald Reagan. But the particular issue I take with Fish’s comments on Palin is the way he throws together Calvinist pessimism and “unabashed patriotism” as if they complement each other. If anything, Winthrop’s faith directly opposed the kind of chauvinism inherent in “unabashed patriotism.” In short, Calvinist pessimism was the antidote to the self-love of patriotism. Winthrop admonished those on the Arabella: “If our heartes shall turne away so that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship…other Gods, our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whither wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it.”

Contra Fish, Palin can choose to be a pessimistic Calvinist or an unabashed patriot–she cannot be both and I have a feeling I know which she might choose.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I do believe Fish’s entire column was a (too subtle?) satire lampooning both Palin and writers of book reviews. It’s a two-for-one special.

  2. I wondered if Fish had lost his mind until I got to the paragraph which begins, “There is then a unity to the book, but it is not one Palin proclaims or works out discursively….” I think Fish is saying, ever so slyly, that Palin isn’t remotely capable of engaging with the authors/ideas she quotes, which is why she “lets them” speak for themselves. “The book is really an anthology.” = these are not Palin’s thoughts.

    That really puts the sting in this observation, made early in the essay: “It is such men who in Capra’s films at once represent and inspire grass-roots movements in which decent, average people come together not at the behest of a charismatic leader or a corporation, but at the behest of an idea.”

    Maybe I’m being a wishful reader. Fish is full of surprises. But to say that her “performance” as an author “mimes” the book’s lesson seems to be Fish’s way of suggesting that her political philosophy is nothing but a charade.

  3. Fair enough; I caught myself re-reading that line as I was writing the post and wondered if Fish was trying to have some fun with the idea that Palin has an “idea.”

    Though, why did Fish seem to give such credence to the idea of American exceptionalism–if not in some normative form then as a faith held by Palin, the Tea Partiers and their supporters that deserved some more than ridicule? Palin’s tactic of letting others speak for themselves is not far from so much of what I have seen when Winthrop and gang are trotted out to make the case of American exceptionalism.

    Fish is indeed full of surprises and I have enjoyed many of them in his essays. He might have got me on this one.

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