It’s morning. It’s cold. It’s fall. And tonight I teach my first classes for the college term. As I reflect on my last post (the musical number), I find myself a bit embarrassed at what wicked pleasure I took in that song. Why did I find it so very funny?
It reminds me of my last year in college, when I had a similar reaction to a young man whose path regularly crossed mine. We were both readers for one of the College Writing teachers. We were both tutors in the Writing Center. We both contributed regularly to the creative writing outlets around campus. And every time I dealt with him I came away feeling like a porcupine that’s been petted the wrong way.
I wasn’t alone in this. One night after the writing center closed several of the tutors were sitting around (the young man was not one of our party) and we started talking about him. The question that perplexed us was why we all responded to him exactly the same way. We started sharing the awful things we had said to him. As the list grew I started writing them down. By the time we finished the list was very long indeed. We sat and looked at each other.
“Why do we do this?” someone asked. “We’re not mean people.”
“Yeah. It’s like I can’t help myself,” someone else said. “I see him and the awful stuff just slips out.”
“But it’s like he’s teflon–nothing seems to stick,” somebody else offered. “He’s just so convinced that he’s superior to everybody in the school that nothing dents him.”
And then we went on to talk about some of the awful–and foolish–things he had done. He was savage when marking freshman essays. Classes where we English majors critiqued each others’ papers with him became exercises in both humiliation and frustration. “Comments” might include questions like, “What is this crap?” from him. Comments made on his papers, no matter how thoughtful or well-intended, were dismissed as the maunderings of puerile minds. The worst of it was, he could not write. He spent so much time trying to be a great writer that he couldn’t be bother to be a clear or logical one.
A teacher heard us and offered an opinion. “He invites abuse,” she said. “When somebody sets himself up as superior, as above criticism or the necessity of kindness to others, people line up to prove that he’s not perfect.” She left. “Sometimes people do that because they’re really afraid they’re not as good as everybody else, but they can never, ever, admit it.”
We looked at each other. We looked at our list. “Wouldn’t it be awful if he actually turned out to be a great writer?” somebody finally asked. We looked at each other again. And then we stood up said our “good-nights,” and closed the Writing Center for the night. I took that awful list home with me so I could be sure he’d never find it.
I stuck it deep in a box. I thought about other people in my life who had provoked me to cruelty. I don’t know about the others who were there that night, but while I didn’t like this young man any better, and while he continued to behave in exactly the same fashion as he had, I never again succumbed to the need to take him down a few pegs. Also, he lost his job reading student papers, and we who took classes with him quickly learned to find other critique partners. We minimized the damage he might cause–and for me, at least, the need put him down faded to a weary tolerance. I learned to let his arrogance roll off me, rather than goad me to cruelty.
Why? I’m not certain. I know that the pleasure I took in the belittling, clever remarks fed a part of myself I didn’t much like. I also know that before that night in the Writing Center I was able to tell myself that it was just me, that he had other friends, that some people didn’t find him as grating as I did. After that night, I had to acknowledge that I was being a bully–and so were my friends. And we were good, normally kind, people.
Maybe that’s why, when I read Frank Bailey’s book, I saw something of myself in it. I, too, have felt the dirty pleasure of hurting someone who I have convinced myself deserves it. I, too, have looked in a mirror and not liked what I saw. There’s an old saying, that what we despise in others is what we despise in ourselves.
In a very real sense, Bailey’s book is about a culture of bullying–of an elected official who uses her position not to serve but to settle scores, to intimidate, and to feed a need for which no amount of adulation will ever be enough. It’s about a man who becomes part of that culture. It’s about how far people will go to not just get even, but to destroy the opposition.
It’s a book about my old college mate. It’s a book about me. How do I know? Because when I watched that musical video during the election, when Sarah Palin was riding high and spin was fast and furious, and I was terrified that someone who I saw as seriously wrong for elected office might actually achieve it, this video seemed like just what the doctor ordered. I watched it. I laughed. I showed it to my son. He laughed, too.
Time has passed. Sarah Palin has, if anything, become shriller than ever. But in her constant quest for what she sees as her due she has become largely irrelevant, except to the ever-shrinking Tea Party, and to her die-hard fans. She has chosen fame, reality TV, and fortune over the life of service she claimed she wanted. She has chosen a world in which spin and rigged polls are reality.
And I find myself looking at her another way. I still think she’s seriously unqualified. I still think we had a lucky escape. But when I watched the song last night that had amused me so very much two years ago I didn’t feel amused. I felt like a bully. I was participating in something that seemed uncomfortably like what I read about in Bailey’s book.
So here’s the question. Is Sarah Palin like my college mate? Does she invite abuse by demanding nothing short of adulation? Is her drive for worship compensation for a broken inner landscape? While she stood to possibly attain a position that would put the nation and possibly the world at risk there was, I believe, a need for correcting the spin, for balancing the orbit. But now that she has essentially removed herself from serious consideration for public office, perhaps it is time to say, “Go in peace,” smile indulgently at her tantrums, and keep a weather eye out for anything she might break. I think it is, for me. In the end, maybe the true question is not what Sarah Palin deserves, but who I choose to be. Karma is powerful. We all face it in the end. Sarah will face hers. But I don’t have to be the one to see that it happens–or even decide what her karmic reward will be. The world is full of people who “deserve” all kinds of things. And that doesn’t change for one second my own responsibility to choose who I will be.