I’m not certain that intellectual snobbery is not inconsistent with a Christian mind, but I’ve never been much bothered by the undercurrent of it that hums along noticeably in a lot of the articles in Chronicles. Forty years ago, when I, then a small childish high-school student in Houston, would take a packed, gloriously smoke-filled city bus to school in the mornings, at least half of the businessmen, attorneys, and secretary-receptionists aboard would be taken up with a paperback. They would be reading Austen, Shakespeare, Trollope, and others worthy of attention. In April or May 1968, enough Americans were still interested in genuine poetry that Life thought it worthwhile to print an article about which poets were supporting McCarthy and which were supporting Kennedy. I ache with nostalgia for a culture still so hardy. It’s as gone as the Titanic, but Chronicles does its noble best to pick up the few gasping survivors like me.
But during my dozen years as a Chronicles subscriber, the April issue is the first I’ve read in which a truly mean assertion of class superiority has appeared. It is grotesque and does indeed clash with Christianity, as well as with Chronicles’ telegraphed claim for itself as a tribune of the ordinary but honorable people who keep the country from metacollapse.
I’m referring to Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s disgusting statements (“Sam Francis’s Mad Tea Party,” News) that Sarah Palin “and her family are really only trailer trash from the trashiest state in the Union,” and that Palin, “a blue-collar girl reared in Wasilla, is not prepared to govern anything more civilized than the state of Alaska.” Maybe there was something contextual in the article that made the whole thing satirical and therefore a delight, but if so, I didn’t get it. So it may be that Mr. Williamson, who has manifested himself as a buckaroo paleoconservative, is really a limousine paleoconservative when we’re not looking.
I’ve never had it in for millionaires, even if they got their bundle from inheritance, and am filled with admiration if they got it in particularly clever, conniving ways. Although I’ve never been one, I knew many throughout my childhood and adolescence. Only a few were rich trash; most were aristocrats, authentic aristocrats. I discerned from their conduct that the real aristocracy is a quality of soul, and that whether they were Christians or not, they knew innately that the soul must be guarded. I’ve always felt that their money had little more to do with their graciousness than the color of their hair, and that the temptation to wealth or class snobbery would have repelled them.
As I finished the last paragraph it struck me that Mr. Williamson may be right about the trailer-trash thing after all—I remembered that one of the Palins’ daughters got herself knocked up, something that, as far as I know, has never happened to a girl of what I can’t not assume is Mr. Williamson’s upper class. One of the few glowing aspects of our time is that such girls are so becomingly and appropriately represented by the excellent and virtuous Miss Paris Hilton, whose radiant gentility keeps many of us from caping ourselves with our Confederate battle flags and shotgunning our brains out. I suppose Miss Hilton’s emblematic time has passed somewhat, but she will always make those of us who value the true lady sentimental and has a lasting place in that shrine which includes Lady Randolph Churchill and the duchess of Windsor.
And Mr. Williamson may be right about Mrs. Palin’s unfitness to govern the country, too. It’s true that she was unprepared for national consideration two years ago, and I’ll grant that she may never rise to the philosopher-queen level. But for a roaming wilderness critter she does seem to have some interesting qualities. I can’t know (but confess with shame that I wish I could), but I’d bet she doesn’t have a body piercing or a tattoo. She may not be an intellectual, but she’s bright and witty, a natural phrasemaker, and has a knack and a relish for political performance that no one in public life who is on the general side of Chronicles readers can begin to match. (The look she shot Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live is a classic.) My impression is that her instincts are terrific, that she has a readiness to learn, and that she has outstanding courage and an unshakable core.
I think Harry Truman, if he were as vigorous as he was when he served heroically in France, could never be a Chronicles reader, because he would be dead after a single day’s exposure to contemporary American anticulture. During his political career he couldn’t have known what everyone in the world but the villainous morons who are running the country now knows, that socialism doesn’t work. He was so trashy he never even got to college and struggled economically much of his life. But he studied all of his life and was one of the last Democrats to show intermittent signs of sanity. And I think he would have taken instantly to Sarah Palin.
Truman would have spotted what Mr. Williamson misses, that Mrs. Palin is a born member of the non-upper-class, brilliant if largely self-taught and intuitive Americans guild, some of whose other members are Truman, Andrew Jackson, Stephen Foster, Herman Melville, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Eugene O’Neill, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, James Thurber, Harry Houdini, Orson Welles, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Frank Sinatra (who once said, “Don’t ever tell anyone your dream, you’ll only get it pissed on”), Frank Loesser, Ronald Reagan, unknown millions of remarkably inventive craftsmen and entrepreneurs, and John Dillinger, whose spectacular career I with the greatest reluctance mention last only because of its lamentable brevity.
But for me the argument for Mrs. Palin’s trailer-trashiness buckles alarmingly if one considers that she seems to be a strong Christian and an obvious lady, and that she chose, when in middle age, to give birth to a Down-syndrome baby instead of doing the merciful thing that the civilized women of Mr. Williamson’s class would probably have done—having him cut to pieces or scalded to death.
I’ll admit that my lifelong deep revoltingness as a possible romantic figure to every girl or woman who has set her eyes upon me for a half-second may have contributed to my becoming an evangelical loony and studio-apartment trash, but between revenge fantasies I just can’t shake the notion that America may be under divine judgment. I doubt that more than a half-decade will pass before homosexual “marriage” is the law of the land, and after that the only societal blasphemy America could commit that she hasn’t yet is the open sacrificing of preschoolers by fire. So I don’t expect we’ll be blessed with a Palin presidency. It would be dissonant with the ascending series of curses I suspect God may have been hurling enthusiastically at us for the past half-century. But until America is on fire from sea to flaming sea, I’m sure I’ll find Mr. Williamson’s words to be a near-miraculously quick and thorough purgative if I feel I need one.
I mustn’t be an ingrate. I did learn one fascinating thing from Mr. Williamson’s article: that Alaska is the trashiest state in the Union. It had never occurred to me that in contemporary America it was possible to make such a determination.
Mr. Williamson Replies:
I suppose snobbery is in the eye of the beholder and dependent upon whether one is used to drawing class distinctions, which I was brought up to do.
Sarah Palin is, simply and wholly, a media creation, first of John McCain’s ludicrous presidential campaign of 2008, and subsequently of the media, which enjoys showing the American public how vulgar American “conservatism” really is, while scaring the leftist portion of it with thrilling hobgoblins like Mrs. Palin. But the point, it seems to me, is this: Societies are best governed from the top, to which Sarah Palin certainly does not belong. The role of an aristocracy, whether hereditary or of the talents, is to govern, having been trained up from childhood for that purpose. The paradox is that we have no aristocracy today but simply a collection of interpenetrating elites, a faux aristocracy united by their hatred of traditional society, reflecting their envy and resentment of the true aristocracy that governs such a society. It is not clear to me by any means that Mrs. Palin’s political instincts, sympathies, and ideas really are the correct ones, but it should be obvious, in any case, that simply having the right ideas and favoring the right policies are not, in themselves, qualifications for high office. America’s greatest presidents were the first four or five, chronologically speaking, to hold the office, all of them representatives of the country’s upper class. They have been followed, mostly, by trash, some of it of the log-cabin variety, the log cabin having been the precursor of the mobile home, as David Hackett Fischer pointed out in a book of his. One of them even accused his successor of having a “bungalow mind.”
Frederick the Great once remarked that his enlightened reign was owing entirely to a “happy accident”—that accident being himself. Should Sarah Palin ever become president, and a good one, that would be a still happier event, and an even more unlikely accident.