Sunday, July 5, 2009

Vanity Fair: Palin is a narcissistic religious nutcase but still fertile.

Sarah Palin doesn't deserve the vicious hatchet job she just received at the cutting edge of August's Vanity Fair. Coincidentally, the article was written and published just before Palin's Friday resignation as governor of Alaska and it most definitely reads like a pre-emptive strike on her future political ambitions.

Vanity Fair national editor Todd Purdum drips with sarcasm, innuendo and irony. The piece is full of special pleading and zealous, even gleeful, use of fruitless speculation. (His tone is heightened in the column of Maureen Dowd over at the NYT).

This doesn't mean there is nothing a rational person can learn from the piece but be warned: if Sarah Palin is your great white hope for a pro-life, small government conservative movement, then steel yourself for a full-face spray of acidic disdain.

There are two spatters in particular that hit me as I read and did a little background reading myself.

, Purdum eliminates positive quotes from Palin former co-workers. Almost all the evaluative remarks in the article are negative. He did interview key figures close to Palin, McCain and the 2008 campaign but, according to the interviewees themselves, he refused to include evaluations that would shine a softer light on her shortcomings.

Second, he employs a tactic commonly used by writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. It works this way:
an odd, controversial or eccentric behavior, mannerism, conversation, decision in a right wing political figure.
it to some psychological weakness or character flaw. Then
it to the person's faith or religious practice. Suggest that religion may be the cause for her oddity and worry that she may be a loopy religious nutterbutter and therefore unsafe for major office. If you can make it sound as though the person has a divine pipeline to God and actually believes that prayer works, you've done well. Imply the question: Are they delusional about their importance to God? Do they take direct orders from Yahweh? Are they Christian jihadists?

The Theoparanoids used this with great effect against George W. Bush.

Carl Bernstein tried to portray Bush as dangerous because he hadn't consulted his father George H.W. Bush before the war in Iraq. Rather, Bush, said, he had consulted others including his heavenly Father. Of course, in context, Bush was simply playing off Bernstein's introduction of Daddy Bush into the conversation. No, he was saying, I haven't talked to my dad about this but I have prayed about it with my other Father. Bernstein made George W. Bush appear as though he was a shaky decisionmaker trusting more in a pipeline to God than to sober consultation with competent and experienced elders.

Vanity Fair's Purdum plays right along with his sabotaging of Palin (who often doesn't need help undermining the confidence of even her friends). He writes: "More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”—and thought it fit her perfectly. When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatives, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig’s condition; she wrote the e-mail not in her own name but in God’s, and signed it “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”

Notice the implausibility of the first claim in the paragraph: unprompted, several people independently consulted the definition of "narcissistic personality disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Is Pudrum spending an excessive amount of time developing relationships with Alaskan psychiatrists? Good heavens, have you ever seen a copy of the DSM IV? It costs $90, runs a thousand pages and is organized multiaxially with Axes 1-5 to assist you in your diagnosis from five dimensions. It is the standard professional diagnostic volume for clinicians, psychologists and psychiatrists. Most of us just don't happen to have one hanging around the house.

So can you imagine several people telling Pudrum that noting excessive self regard in Sarah they were driven to locate the nearest DSM and access it. Now to do so, they would have to join the APA and purchase one, or break into a clinician's office and pull it off the shelf, or call up a shrink friend and say, "Uhh, I've just got this feeling that Sarah Palin might have "narcissistic personality disorder." Would you read me the multidimensional data you've got sitting there in your trusty old DSM IV.

Most people don't even know of the DSM's existence never mind consider consulting it.

To get some further idea of how implausible are Purdum's unprompted survey results derived from DSM confirmations, think of it like this. Several motorists while driving over the Mackinac Bridge think that the bridge looks a bit shaky. What do they do? They immediately go home and consult Ryall's Manual of Bridge Engineering under the specifications for suspension bridge wind stressors and weight-bearing loads. Nonsense.

He then takes it to the next expected level. Link her narcissitic self regard with some presumption to divine favor. Purdum then writes: "When Trig was born, Palin wrote an e-mail letter to friends and relatices, describing the belated news of her pregnancy and detailing Trig's condition (Down's Syndrome). She wrote the email not in her own name but in God's and signed it 'Trig's Creator, Your Heavenly Father.'

This is another instance of how far apart prestige journalists are from mainstream churchgoing Americans. Any practicing Christian would likely immediately recognize Palin's writing in the divine name as a literary device. Go to any Christian bookstore and you will find a half a dozen daily devotional volumes that are formatted in the "words" of God speaking directly to us about life's situations.

Christians of a certain bent of spirituality commonly write letters in times of trial or blessing expressing their understanding of God's love and purpose. These pieces almost always include exhortations like, "My child, I've given you Trig to bring blessing to your family, provision to him and glory to My Son, etc., etc., etc.

It's not queer, psycho, dangerous. It's a standard literary and devotional device. People, especially those from Pentecostal backgrounds, write in the divine first person not because they imagine themselves to be divinity but because they are trying to understand the mind of God on a topic.

This attempt to portray men and woman of faith as psychologically defective is championed by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Sam Harris questions whether Christians should be allowed to parent children. With a few of these writers, religious education, Sunday school, First Communion catechesis is a form of child abuse. So Purdum is playing according to a script which I think is being circulated among those determined to marginalize Christians and set them back on the sidelines of the culture war debate. More on this in the near future.


  1. How ironic. If it weren't for narcissism Vanity Fair would not have a magazine. As if I needed another reason to regard it as irrelevant trash, we now have this article.

  2. It's called "Vanity Fair" for a reason.

  3. "Locate an odd, controversial or eccentric behavior, mannerism, conversation, decision in a right wing political figure.
    Link it to some psychological weakness or character flaw. Then
    Lash it to the person's faith or religious practice."

    This here is a straw man fallacy. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. do no such thing.

  4. Anonymous - the ad hominem fallacy runs throughout Hitchens’ work. Al's comments are especially applicable to the theo-paranoids on the political left who have tried to cast socially conservative active Christians as a threat to the Republic, and whose leaders are especially dangerous.

  5. I guess I am going to have to see specific examples. Don't get me wrong, I don't like Hitchens's tact, and and for the sake of this argument I'll grant you that he uses ad hominem arguments (But if I did not contest this to say that the fallacy runs throughout his work would require a lot of evidence on your part). However I contend that neither Dawkins nor Harris uses that tactic, and I have read both of their books, so I'm going to need to see some specific examples. And since you are the affirmative it is up to you to provide them.