It’s no accident that Stieg Larsson’s Swedish mystery “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has spread across American coffee shops and airports faster than fear about the H1N1 virus. While Larsson, who spent his career as a reporter studying right-wing extremism, died in 2004, his 2,000 plus page Nordic mystery series tops the bestselling list in United States in 2010. Blame it on Larsson’s iconic protagonist, Lisbeth Salander – the dark metal Sarah Palin.
Salander is truly a maverick, a five-foot tall rogue, who would loathe her popularity. Pre-pubescent in appearance, yet vicious as a grizzly mama, the anti-social, bisexual, cyberpunk misfit is the heroine for today’s angry America, in which, “by almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days,” according to an April 2010 PEW study “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor.” Wronged by an unjust and corrupt system, Salander is pure, righteous rage, an angel of anger sent to avenge the “small people,” as BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg might call us (by the way, he’s also Swedish). She has been called “The best kick butt avenger ever,” one who “gives readers the hope that there is someone who can fix a broken world.” She is a modern David, a tiny tattooed “girl” fearlessly fighting the impossibly large, bloated Goliath of the Powers that Be: taking down corrupt governments, evil corporations and nasty rapists with a swift, surprising jolt of 50,000 volts from her taser and a few savvy clicks on her MacBook.
Salander is as one of the great examples of the “Just Avenger,” as critically acclaimed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa incisively observed. In the face of economic meltdown, of the BP disaster and two ceaseless wars, Salander acts as our Just Avenger, providing us catharsis as she takes the revenge that we cannot.
In other words, in this anti-incumbent, anti-establishment and just plain “anti” political climate, Salander has just the right kind of outsider credentials to run for office. While this sounds like a joke, the Just Avenger is now a standard frame, or political narrative, used to exploit our great well-spring of discontent – primarily by the Tea Party leadership and their heroine, Palin. And while clearly as fictional as Salander herself, these political fairy tales matter, as they exert remarkable power on the hearts and minds of the public. While we may dismiss such PR tales as fantasy, they are powerful fantasies which create very real effects on our democracy and culture, and we ignore them at our own risk.
The Just Avenger in American Politics
Salander’s story – of victimization and revenge – has sold millions of copies not only because it resonates with our current emotional state, but because it taps into what cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls a “deep narrative,” or a story which is foundational in our culture, our minds and hearts.
In “The Political Mind,” Lakoff provides the most famous of American deep narratives – the rags-to-riches story, which we know so well, which is so deeply steeped in all of us, it requires no recital. When we hear this story – which Barack Obama used in selling himself to the American public – we don’t just think of the story, we also feel the story, as it actually triggers emotions physically in the brain. “The circuitry characterizing winning for your hero is neurally bound to dopaminergic circuitry,” Lakoff explains, based on his research, “which produces positive feelings when activated.” Much more simply, when we hear the story of a righteous but impoverished hero overcoming all odds to become president, our brain physically releases chemicals that make us feel good. If a politician can craft such a powerful story – as Obama has quite literally in his bestselling memoirs – he (or she) gains our hearts, our allegiance and thus, our power. Thus, deep narratives are not just mere stories, mere entertainment, but reach beyond our minds and into our spirits, grasping at the bedrock of our identities, of our hearts.
Deep narratives, in short, are one of the most powerful tools a politician or political party can yield in gaining trust, votes and power.
While Salander is a fictional Swede, she taps into the deepest of American narratives, one equally as powerful as rags to riches. Salander’s Just Avenger is the story of the United States, or at least the story that we tell ourselves. The historical mythology of the United States is that we were a small, oppressed colony who threw off the shackles foisted on us by a corrupt and treacherous British empire. We see ourselves as a band of moral misfits, of righteous outsiders who fought against impossible odds for our freedom. We are David and we overcame Goliath – this is the ultimate American deep narrative, even as we have grown from a colony to an empire, we still see ourselves as David, even as we become Goliath.
We are Lisbeth, the victimized, yet virtuous, the Just Avengers with the courage and tenacity to set a wrong world right.
The Tea Party leadership have branded themselves as Just Avengers, attempting to tap into this deep American narrative: they have presented themselves as the victimized and oppressed, wronged by an unjust system and ready to take on the corruption, to take down the evil bureaucracy. The name Tea Party obviously alludes to a pivotal point in the American Revolution, and the modern protesters came out dressed up in garb from the period, as if to make the metaphor literal. Further, “They carry pocket copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” as Matthew Contentinetti, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard and author of “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Media Elite Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star,” explains in his detailed profile of the Tea Party (which is well worth reading). Without doubt, Palin and the Tea Party have woven a powerful deep narrative – much like Obama.
To its caustic critics, the Tea Party appear a costume party of fringe fanatics. Yet, according to the PEW survey, this simply isn’t true: while most aren’t walking around looking like Ben Franklin, nearly 25 percent of Americans agree with their ideals. Further, a recent Gallup poll suggests that the Tea Party demographics are similar to America in general.
In today’s angry America, playing the Just Avenger sells and the public is buying.
The Alaskan With the Dragon Tattoo
Palin is the physical embodiment of the movement, the heroine in the Tea Party deep narrative, their Salander – she frames herself the ultimate outsider from insider politics, the everywoman, the average “hockey mom,” and, thus, the representative from her angry public, the “maverick” ready to take back the country from the slick insider “elites” for the rest of us. More than any middle-aged, rounded white guys in 1700s chic slugging around an oversized copy of the Declaration of Independence, Palin has brought the Tea Party story to emotional life.
Just like Salander, that Palin is a woman makes the Just Avenger narrative all the more compelling, all the more emotionally charged. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” would not have been an international phenomenon if Salander were a man – Larsson’s story would likely just be a mystery consigned for a few printings and the used bookshelves. Salander, as a woman victimized by both individual men and a male system, becomes all the more oppressed and, thus, all the more virtuous. Larrson takes special care, over and again throughout the series, to illustrate her as the weakest looking of women – spindly, childlike, a “girl.” Over and again, she is mistaken for being a teenager, for being weak, for being incapable, even stupid. This makes the odds against her seem all the more improbable and the victimization all the more evil – and when Salander overcomes, it makes her victory over the unjust system all the more powerful, the catharsis all the more satisfying, the dopamine rushing through our brain’s neural network all the more pleasurable.
Women, thus, become the perfect mavericks, the ideal Just Avengers and, thus, the ideal face for the Tea Party. Linguist Robin Lakoff observes just this, that “women are pure. Women raise our children,” and, thus, “we don’t envision them playing games along with men in their smoke-filled rooms.” While women are in reality just as fallible as men, Lakoff continues, we don’t see women, participating in the corruption. In specific, we don’t see mothers conspiring in the “smoke-filled rooms,” especially those caring for a developmentally-disabled child, as Palin emphasized throughout her campaign.
Palin’s lack of expertise, her astounding ineloquence, her departure from her elected position midstream, all of it qualifies her all the more to run for office, demonstrating that she is a pure, uncorrupted outsider to the corrupt system. And as you can see from the title of Continetti’s biography – “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Media Elite Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star” – the conservative media frames her as a victim of the powerful, aligning herself with the public. Thus, Palin, the Just Avenger, becomes symbolically the perfect person to lead a revolutionary charge against “big government” on behalf of the marginalized public.
Family Photo Propaganda
Without doubt, Palin is a powerful symbol. And symbols, as Lakoff persuasively argues in another article, aren’t just an arcane subject of study by stressed doctoral candidates and bored high school students, but are central to how we think, how we feel and, thus, how we vote. Symbols are central to democratic dialogue and thought, Lakoff believes.
Candidates don’t gain power by their track record, by facts, but by the stories we believe about them and how well those stories reach our hearts. Lakoff claims that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both won not on qualifications, not on their stance on issues, not on policies, but on symbolism – on their “values, communication, (apparent) authenticity, trust and identity.” They won, in short, because enough people related to what they stood for, or what the public thinks they stand for. They won on emotion. Bush won because we could have a beer with him, because we could see him on the ranch, because he spoke in a “folksy” way, not because of anything he did in his tenure as governor. In much the same way, Obama did not win for his track record, which was unquestionably short, but because of his inspiring story – the rags-to-political-riches tale, which became the very fabric of his candidacy, and he won for this, for what he appeared to represent. No doubt, he also won because he is African-American and appeared an “outsider,” one not connected to the white institution, to the powers which drove us to war and economic implosion. This, no doubt, deepened the emotional power of the deep, richly American narrative Obama wove, which made him a “grassroots” success.
And in much the same way, Palin and other potential candidates are using these “deep narratives” to persuade us, to gain the public’s trust, their votes, their power. Like Obama’s bestselling autobiographies, Palin’s “Going Rogue” isn’t about policy, nor facts, nor her qualifications, but about getting her story out to the public. “Going Rogue,” Michael Kazin claims in a very insightful review “God and the Woman at Wasilla,” is a “cleverly crafted work of political propaganda,” dressed in memoir. She provides personal anecdotes and a full “24 pages of family photos … [which] help to freshen a politics that otherwise just parrots the secular right-wing gospel as handed down by Reagan and Gingrich.” And a month and a half before even going on sale, “Going Rogue” was a best seller.
Palin’s book, no doubt, is part of what George Lakoff calls the conservative’s “cognitive strategy,” in the “battlefield” for the American mind. In a 2008 lecture on “The Political Mind,” he claims that conservatives have invested four billion dollars over the last 35 years engineering a persuasion system to get conservative ideas and perspectives to the public. They finance think-tanks to strategize and refine the message, have booking agents to ensure their pundits are on air to spread the message and own media (as you can see in Robert Greenwald’s OutFoxed) in order to keep conservative deep narratives in the public mind, in order to win the war on our minds and, thus, retain power.
Conclusion: Draft Lisbeth in 2012
While Palin’s story strikes all the right emotional chords, while it effectively exploits our anger and fear, the policies she advocates for actively defend the elite and powerful, directly at the expense of Joe Six Pack, as I discuss in the next essay in this series, “Trickle Down Reagenomics: Populism for Plutocracy.” Even as Palin – and the Tea Party leadership, generally – claim to be representatives of the dispossessed, they are part of a long-term conservative strategy to retain ideological power and are working on behalf of big business interests, who are heavily invested in their “free market” principles. They represent a rebranded, Reagan, Republican, pro-business agenda, which have only served to dramatically widen the chasm between the rich and poor, creating a country, which the infamous leaked Citigroup memo “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances,” (featured in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story”) describes as a plutocracy, or a nation in which the wealth is centralized in the upper 1 percent ( Also, see “The Nation’s Inequality in America,” for more information on the increasing gap between rich and poor). Palin, in other words, defends the plutocracy in the name of the people.
Palin Is No Just Avenger. She Is No Salander.
Lakoff argues that we need to fight fire with fire, weaving our own compelling “deep narratives” to move the hearts of the public – to, in essence, take a page from the Republican playbook. Maybe. But more so, we need to ensure that our politicians don’t just provide us emotional catharsis, entertainment or democratic spectatorship, but that they are true – that the Just Avenger, in short, really does fight for the little guy – or gal, and not on behalf of corporate interests, on behalf of the top 1 percent wealthiest, on behalf of Goliath.
If only Salander wasn’t fictional and Palin was.