Review of Nina Burleigh's "The Baby Palins"
Nina Burleigh, best known to "outsiders" for her reporting on the Amanda Knox saga, is an Adjunct Professor in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as an established journalist and writer with numerous publications on her resume.
Recently, she posted a short Red Room blog titled "Meet the Baby Palins," an excerpt from her article on ELLE.COM titled "The Best and the Rightest," which consists of several cameo portraits [of what she terms "right-wing girl Millennials"] interspersed with largely unsupported, generalized commentary on what she feels is an increasing number of young women seeking the spotlight in the conservative political arena.
The Elle title, of course, is an obvious variation of the colloquial cliche, "the best and the brightest." Given the human mind's tendency to associate opposites, even though one is reading the word "rightest" (which is already connotatively negative), the real operative word/concept ("dumbest") that will inevitably occur reflexively to many readers will make the title actually read, at some level of awareness, "the best and the dumbest." Of course, even without this association of opposites, equating "right" with "dumb" is a long-standing stereotype among cultural elites. Thus, the title's clever phrasing, alone, indisputably establishes Ms. Burleigh's credentials as an exceptional master of subtlety and "suggestion."
As for Ms. Burleigh's focus on political activism, we're long accustomed in this country to the political left's street "visibility" and violence [Can you say the Chicago Seven (1968) and Bill Ayers' Days of Rage(1969)?], but, from Ms. Burleigh's point of view, when conservative activists start speaking up and making their presence known, even in a peaceful way, things are really "going to the dogs" in a most alarming fashion!
In her defense, the Chicago rioting was probably way before her time and hence undoubtedly either never known or long forgotten/repressed by modernists like her with highly abbreviated and selective historical perspectives. But even within her adult years, the left has practically "owned" the streets exclusively during their numerous raucous protests on every imaginable issue. Remember the left's recent take-over and trashing of the rotunda in Wisconsin's State Capital Building?
To anyone accustomed to more scholarly and thoughtful, serious writing, her loosely organized if not eclectic and rambling piece "comes off" as both satirically and flippantly written. Her unflattering animal-like descriptions of her subjects' appearance and behavior ("honey-colored mane" and "twitchy" cat movements) and her calling them "girls" and "goddesses" are early "red flags" alerting readers that the tantalizing verbal hor d'oeuvres she is serving us will be generously seasoned with both crafty satire and subtle bias. [These "appetizers" are already giving one mild indigestion on the way to "losing it" completely near the end of this review.]
Her satiric wit and images are all very amusing, charming and clever. But before one is entirely lost in delightful fantasy and reverie, a disturbing, unsettling thought crosses one's mind, like a dark cloud welling up in otherwise clear blue skies or a gathering wind rippling the water's once mirror-smooth surface: these are actually real people like you and me, not just some scientific specimens to be dissected, analyzed and neatly classified by some detached, self-appointed superior intelligence like Ms. Burleigh.
Her elitest and high-brow arrogance suggests she sees herself as an omniscient Being looking down on others as though they are mere ants pathetically scurrying about in complete ignorance of their total insignificance in HER private universe. "But look," observes this Burleigh God, "Some of these insects are actually trying to disturb my realm, and I shall crush them immediately before they become too uppity. That'll teach these Specks of Nothing to remain in their proper place!"
Let's reverse roles for a moment and see how Ms. Burleigh would like to be similarly placed under a microscope for merciless dissection, have every little flaw magnified, every movement satirically analyzed and distorted for its laughable imperfections, and then described, for example, in demeaning horse imagery or have her human worth as an adult woman questioned by being diminutively called a "girl" ("Hey, Burleigh girl!")for an observer's afternoon entertainment. Now that it's you pinned down and squirming in this biased portrayal of yourself, it's not quite so amusing, is it Ms. Burleigh?
Ms. Burleigh's penchant for subtle animal imagery appears immediately in the blog's title, "Meet the Baby Palins." Although her bio notes that she comes from the midwest, apparently somewhere along the way in her upbringing and education there [maybe Chicago was her undoing], she either never became "conversant" with key midwestern colloquialisms or she chose to use them quite insensitively if not offensively. But given the sophisticated satiric phrasing she deftly wields elsewhere in her writing (e.g., the Elle title), one finds it unlikely that she would be any less conceptually "nimble" here. Thus, whatever deficiencies one might find in her thinking and writing, innocent naivete is definitely not one of them.
To any reasonably aware and "authentic" midwesterner, if one were to do a word association test with the three-word colloquial phrase "the baby__________[anything]," I would wager something very personal ["Do not ask what is it?"], that high on the list of responses for the third word would be the name of an animal species, most frequently ones that are either family pets, adorable birds and wild animals or treasured farm animals. To illustrate, our farm neighbor might phone us, saying "Come over and we'll show you[meet] the new baby pigs."
Conversely, in midwestern cultural settings, one would never say, unless utterly "tone-deaf" to colloquialisms in this context or deliberately intending to diminish the worth of or outright question someone's essential humanity, "Could we come over and see the new baby Goldbergs?" The Goldbergs might justifiably respond, "Are you suggesting we had a litter or what?"
The obvious point is that Ms. Burleigh's title, at a minimum, obliquely suggests that the new "girls" (her word) with ambitions to be conservative leaders are morally equivalent to a new-born litter of some animal species. Worse yet, this colloquialism conjures up images of a "litter of babies" in the Palin family itself. Talk about demonizing and reducing your political opponents' standing! This title clearly takes first prize in any competition because it completely removes one's adversaries from the human race.
One realizes even more fully the inexcusable awfulness of "the baby Palins" phrase by citing this parallel example: How "comfortable" would you be reading several unflattering cameo portraits of zealous leftists, written by a right-wing ideologue, in an article titled, "Meet the Baby Obamas?" The same reductive animal imagery (as well as demeaning caricatures of little Obama "creatures" running around) that comes to mind would be equally if not even more horrifying to contemplate. [At this thought, one's indigestion from Ms. Burleigh's diet/fare becomes acute and irreversible.]
Additionally, for some strange, unfathomable reason, I have an irrespressible feeling that the mainstream media, and rightly so to a reasonable extent, would go, shall we say, absolutely bonkers or berzerk in its 24-hour coverage of such an offensive reference to our President's family.
Meanwhile, the writer of such unspeakable abominations would immediately be denounced as a racist and fascist, leading to yet another agonizing and frenzied round of cultural self-reflections and righteous condemnations of our checkered past, troubled present and uncertain future in the moral sphere.[e.g., "If Fascism Comes..."] No doubt before the uproar subsided, with Armageddon imminent, we would all be under pressure to do a collective national penance, and whoever wrote or uttered the original insult would have to resign whatever position he/she had in journalism, business or government and sleek away into complete disgrace and eventual oblivion.
Strange, that in the case of Ms. Burleigh publicly demeaning and reducing both young conservative women(read "girls") and, by implication, any actual Palin babies to "litter" status, she apparently gets to go merrily on in her subtle almost-disguised bigotry without having any accountability for her words! It is especially appalling to contemplate that Ms. Burleigh, being on the graduate faculty of journalism at Columbia University, is supposedly a model whose foremost responsibility surely has to be the setting and maintaining of journalistic standards.
One recoils at the thought of how she might be shaping the impressionable young minds placed trustingly in her safe-keeping. Could it be that the bigotry and arrogance of her privileged class so evident in "The Baby Palins" are being subtly instilled in her journalistic acolytes? Perish the thought that anything this heretical and unprofessional is actually occurring! I've had inklings and heard rumors of journalism's decline but must confess I never imagined its fall had been this precipitous. [To those following this review's extended metaphor on digesting Ms. Burleigh's diet/fare, the mere thought of her teaching journalism, objective or otherwise, makes one "lose it" instantly.]
What Ms. Burleigh, with her elite status and credentials propping up her self-assurance, is actually engaging in is a subtle but nevertheless vicious kind of cultural bullying. Though the underlying boldness and brazenness is both astonishing and intimidating, I, along with many others, in our growing awareness of this assault questioning our very humanness, will speak up in justifiable defense of our beliefs and lifestyle.
For starters, she and all others who portray us in such condescending and disparaging verbal cameos apparently need to be reminded of certain elemental principles of decency being flagrantly violated. We will not grant others discretionary license to suggest, even subtly or satirically, that our mothers have litters and that our daughters, speaking up for conservative values, have animalistic features and behaviors, lest in their elite self-absorption and insufferable arrogance they next consign us to the status of savages or worse in Huxley's Brave New World. Unless such behavior is challenged and confronted, there would be no end to this leftist crescendo until we "retards" were totally eliminated as an inferior sub-species, the Neanderthals of this millennium.
If and when Ms. Burleigh writes her next article about a "foreign" culture or sub-culture, as she apparently sees the litter of "baby Palins" living in, for her benefit, let's hope she first becomes knowledgeable about its key colloquialisms or, in an alternative scenario, at least holds in check her liberal impulses to de-humanize those with whom she disagrees politically, so that she will not again, in exposing her ignorance and/or insensitivity, make a complete fool of herself as well as disgrace her profession. This constructive counsel comes from one who studied linguistics on the graduate level under the distinguished linguistics scholar, Harold B. Allen, who among his other credentials, is known for having written a definitive linguistic atlas of the midwest.
To finish this review, I can not think of a more appropriate context than this one for once again asking Chaucer's age-old question when he looked at corruption among the elites who, similarly, had the responsibility in his time of setting and maintaining standards in both church and state, "If gold rust, what shall iron do?" Any answers or other guidance for us, Ms. Burleigh, through our cultural wasteland?