The UnCivilized World of Sarah Palin

On the September 13, 2012 installment of Hannity on Fox, Sarah Palin made the following comment concerning the uprisings in the Middle East:

Yes, Sean. We have to ask ourselves, and I sure wish that reporters would ask our president, how much longer can we afford to spill our blood and treasure, trying to quote/unquote, “promote democracy” in places that do not have any values for a civilized society, values like respecting minorities and women’s rights and independent judiciary and rule of law? How much longer do we now support and fund Sharia democracy?

Sarah Palin has spent the last 4 years peddling ignorance and bigotry in order to make herself into a multimillionaire. Given that history, her pitbull-with-lipstick performances ought to be viewed as disrespectful caricature.

Sadly, however, Palin’s views are representative of the views of a significant portion of the American public. Her fans, many of whom also believe the president is Muslim (and that calling someone “Muslim” is a slur) share her feeling that the part of the world I was raised to believe is the cradle of civilization is, in fact, uncivilized. Moreover, they seem to believe that what’s happening in the barbaric lands of their imaginations is all about us, our interests, our needs, our security, and not at all about them.

Some would call this belief ethnocentrism, that worldview based in cultural chauvinism borne of ignorance. But there’s a political dimension to this belief that leads me to call it racism.

What else but racism would lead someone to overlook the context for the violence we are witnessing?

Here’s is just one piece of the context extracted from one relatively small slice of the history of U.S. hostility toward the region in question:

In 2003 we went to war with Iraq. Among the justifications offered was retaliation for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Attacks in which no Iraqis were involved.

The principle justification, what the U.S. used to build the coalition war effort, was the claim that Iraq was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. But we all know that this claim was a lie. Not a mistake, but an outright, bald-faced lie.

Based on this lie we invaded Iraq. The language of war among many Americans equated Islam with terrorism. We attacked viciously. During the campaign of “shock and awe” that opened the war, precision was specifically and purposely not among “our” objectives.

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 151,000 Iraqis died as a direct result of violence related to the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. This death toll excludes those who died as a result of the damage the war caused to public infrastructure and health care delivery systems. Among the many estimates of Iraqi casualties due to violence, the WHO body count is relatively conservative.

The war also took the lives of 4287 Americans. 30,182 more were wounded. U.S. allies also suffered casualties. All based on a lie.

And many within what commentators refer to as “the Arab world” know as we do that white supremacy has always been at the heart of the project of American empire. And they know that American racism has always been rooted in religious bigotry. This has been true since labels like heathen and uncivilized were put on Native Americans in order to justify genocide.

I sometimes find myself breathless in the face of the human cost of American racism and xenophobia. Racism and xenophobia that blinds us to our shared humanity to the degree that in the name of catharsis and plunder we will commit such atrocities as the one described here. And then in the wake of this atrocity, find ourselves unable to fathom why others might distrust, fear, or even hate us as so many among us distrust, hate and fear them.

If this is civilized behavior, perhaps the people of the Middle East should take Palin’s characterization of them as uncivilized as a compliment.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “The UnCivilized World of Sarah Palin”

What else but racism would lead someone overlook the context for the violence we are witnessing?

I do think there is some racism involved there. But I don’t think we can say it is only racism. Over the last few days we have been seeing a video, where the Republican candidate in effect said that 47% of the American public are lazy shiftless bums. There’s an extremely callous attitude there toward people who are not rich. There’s a failure to recognize their humanity. Apparently people are considered worthless, and it is only money that has value.

That was not a mere slip by Romney. This is a deeply held view in conservative circles. That is part of what you are seeing in Palin’s comments.

Thanks for the comment. I didn’t mean to say that only racism is involved. I do think that racism is the tipper. For instance, that 47% statement is a pretty good distillation of the attitude of conservatives. Having studied conservative ideology through the late 80s and early 90s, that statement was a rare moment of candor when the veil was dropped and the sentiment was expressed. It’s a very Rand inspired worldview. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan offers another kind of example of the same logic. He was elected on the promise of cutting entitlements, but he didn’t make cuts as deep as the right would have liked and by the end of his terms, the religious right had changed it’s strategy believing they needed a bottom up, broad based movement in order to get the kind of elected leadership that would follow through on their worldview. But, the reason he didn’t follow through in part is because those entitlement programs are popular among whites. Particularly in the whitest poor communities in the country, folks poll as though they are strongly opposed to entitlement programs for the poor, seeming to defy their own self-interest. But, what they mean is that they don’t like government funds going to those they believe are undeserving. And when you start to dig into what they mean by that, they mean brown and black people for the most part, not totally, as there is a white underclass that working class whites resent, but what animates their rage is racism. It’s what was appealing to the right’s base about “compassionate conservatism,” and faith-based initiatives. It’s a way to serve the poor that reflects a conservative sorting out of who is and isn’t deserving.

That’s my take anyway. Race and class are at work, but race is the thing that animates the rage we see coming from the right. Class may be the lever, but racism is the fulcrum.

great post. race and Orientalism is rampant in American culture—civilized Occidentals versus those savage “others.” in Watts 1965 the attempted arrest of a black motorist triggered days of rioting. but those riots werent really about that motorist, or even the rumors that followed. it was merely the trigger that unleashed a long history of anger over police abuse, inequity, racism, humiliation, etc. similarly, the anger in the Muslim world isn’t really over a movie and didn’t occur in a vacuum. it was a trigger, an incident that set off fury over drone attacks, invasive wars, an endless “war on terror,” propped up governments and continued perceived humiliations. of course this was exploited by zealots to their own gain (its still unclear whether the attack in Benghazi Libya was even related to the film or a separate incident) and their are internal dynamics (high food prices, unemployment,etc) but the frustration and anger over US and western policies is still real. thus, as with an obscure motorist in Watts 1965, a random incident, in this case a random anti-Muslim film, is the trigger. I’ve listened to not only conservatives, but liberals (whose litmus test of progressive is limited to an ethnocentric secular bias of western so-called rationalism) scratch their heads in wonder, quick to castigate the anger in the Muslim world and implore them to voice their anger in a more “civilized” manner. no one seems to take into account that the weekend before the protests erupted in Yemen, a drone strike killed several women and children. meanwhile, our cities or college campuses erupt into riots if our favorite sports team wins a championship.

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