Sarah Palin: Fishing for American Exceptionalism

Watching "Sarah Palin's Alaska" is like stepping back in time -- not to a time when Americans lived off the land and the sea, but to a time when our desire to be #1 was celebrated and not scorned.

A recent episode of "SP's Alaska" was about Sarah Palin's oldest son Track trying to prove to his father Todd that he was worthy of taking over the #1 fishing site in Bristol Bay.  As Sarah Palin said, "Todd has the #1 site in this Track has to work very, very hard and prove to Todd that he deserves to fish the #1 site."

Let us pause for a moment to take that in.  A young man working hard to prove that he is worthy of being #1.

There was a time in America when young people were taught that being #1 was a good thing, and that anyone could grow up to be president, which is the #1 position of power in the world.  Now America is led by a president who bows down to the world and apologizes for America's power, while criticizing powerful and successful Americans at home, scorning them as "fat cats," and saying that "at a certain point, you've made enough money."

Contrast President Obama's attitude about success to that of his biggest challenger, Sarah Palin, who said in TLC's "Alaska" that "[i]t's very important to remember that the more successful fisherman is going to be the harder-working fisherman.  The harder you work, the more money you're going to make, the more fish you're going to be able to pick.  That, again, is a life lesson that so many should, and could, be learning."

The desire to succeed and be #1 is deeply ingrained in the American character.  Some even call it the "American spirit" or "American exceptionalism."  But American exceptionalism is under attack by a new and potent belief system that assigns virtue and scorn along an "axis of power," between the power-haves and power have-nots.  Those who have less power can do no wrong -- even when they do wrong -- and those who have more power (the rich, the successful, the United States) can do no right -- even when they do right.

I gave this belief system a name -- Underdogma, the reflexive belief that those who have less power are good because they have less power, and that those who have more power are bad because they have more power.

This anti-exceptional belief system permeates our culture through movies, television shows, the news, and even now through the words and deeds of the president of the United States.  The underdog is reflexively cast as the good guy (even when he is not), and those who have achieved success and wealth and power are cast as villains, criminals, or even enemies of the state to be singled out for scorn by the president.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska" offers a more optimistic view of what it means to be #1.  Nine-year-old Piper proudly said, "I think I'm the best fish filleter in the whole third grade."  Husband Todd said, "There's competition amongst fishermen, and it's all healthy fun.  We all wish each other the best, but we have to have a little competitive spice throughout the summer."  Eldest son Track said, "I compete with my dad when it comes to fishing, because he's had some pretty big numbers over the years."  And a non-Palin crewman named Kaleb said, "Someday, Track and I hopefully will be able to pass Todd.  It's kinda one of those goals.  You wanna be the best."

All of this "exceptionalism" on screen, and in Sarah Palin's new book America by Heart (which devotes an entire chapter to American exceptionalism), has the media all "wee-wee'd up" to the point where they have revealed their latent Underdogma at last.

USA Today warned that this "outbreak of 'American Exceptionalism'" has angered some "theologians who consider it blasphemy."  In "The Errors of Exceptionalism," Paul Pillar laments that American exceptionalism "inhibits appreciation of the limitations to what the United States can accomplish."  And Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, in the Washington Post, confirms that the core of Underdogma is a deep-seated love/hate relationship with power when she writes that "this myth of American exceptionalism is naive about power[,] and that makes it downright dangerous."

Dangerous to whom?

Michael Prell is the author of the forthcoming book Underdogma: How America's Enemies Use Our Love for the Underdog to Trash American Power (January 2011).
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