Sarah Palin has started another Facebook flame war, this time with a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. On Monday, Sudeep Reddy took issue with a line from a recent Palin critique of the Federal Reserve’s new program of quantitative easing: “Everyone who ever goes out shopping for groceries knows that prices have risen significantly over the past year or so,” Palin had said. Reddy pointed out that this was not true, according to the official statistics:
Grocery prices haven’t risen all that significantly, in fact. The consumer price index’s measure of food and beverages for the first nine months of this year showed average annual inflation of less than 0.6%, the slowest pace on record (since the Labor Department started keeping this measure in 1968). Even if you pick a single snapshot — say, September’s year-over-year increase in prices — that was just 1.4%, far better than the 6% annual increase for food prices recorded in September 2008.
The overall consumer price index was up 1.1% in September from a year earlier. Apart from September 2009 (when prices were down 1.3%), that was the slowest annual inflation rate for September since the early 1960s. That’s not strong evidence to argue about rising prices today.
Then Palin shot back in a fashion that has become all the more fashionable in recent years. She pulled common-folk rank–since who among us is dumb enough to believe anyone with actual authority anymore? Wrote Palin:
[J]ust last Thursday, November 4, I read an article in Mr. Reddy’s own Wall Street Journal titled “Food Sellers Grit Teeth, Raise Prices: Packagers and Supermarkets Pressured to Pass Along Rising Costs, Even as Consumers Pinch Pennies.”
The article noted that “an inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America’s supermarkets and restaurants…Prices of staples including milk, beef, coffee, cocoa and sugar have risen sharply in recent months.”
Now I realize I’m just a former governor and current housewife from Alaska, but even humble folks like me can read the newspaper. I’m surprised a prestigious reporter for the Wall Street Journal doesn’t. [Emphasis mine.]
Go humble people! She really put that fancy pants in his place, right? Wrong. If you actually bother to read the article she references, you will see that it confirms Reddy’s point, not Palin’s. The lead sentence points out that we have just experienced “the tamest year of food pricing in nearly two decades.” The article goes on to point out that the price pressures on food arise largely from growing economies overseas, not a devaluation of the dollar along the lines that Palin suggests.
Costs are being driven by growing demand for meat in China, India and other emerging markets. That’s driven up grain prices, which in turn boost the cost of chicken, steak, bread and pasta. Grain prices also have been nudged higher by drought in Russia, planting problems around the world and speculative trading.
Food prices are rising faster than overall inflation. The consumer price index for all items minus food and energy rose 0.8% over the year to September, the lowest 12-month increase since March 1961, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. The food index rose 1.4%, however. The U.S. Agricultural Department is predicting overall food inflation of about 2% to 3% next year. The current pressure is nothing like it was in October 2008, when food prices were rising at an annual rate of 6.3%
None of this rules out a future spike in food prices if inflation takes off, but Palin’s point was retroactive. She said prices had been rising significantly. In fact, they had been rising far slower than in recent history.
But the point of this blog post is not inflation or Sarah Palin’s reading habits. It’s this ironically detached posture that dominates our public discourse, one that I have engaged in many times before. The reasons for this pose, which dominate the savvier cable news shows (I’m looking at you Shep Smith) and the Comedy Central news roundups, is no secret. All authorities have basically failed America–the banks, the media, big business, the government, the elected process. So the way to give yourself credibility is to mock the idea of credibility. Sarah Palin is not a national politician who might run for President and thus must carry the subsequent burdens of having to be accurate and responsible for her words. She is just “humble folk” making fun of fancy people.
Jon Stewart plays much the same game. In his response to criticism of his march on Washington by MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, Stewart said last night, “I can understand how political pundits/comedians aren’t always going to understand comedians/political pundits like me.” Because after all, he is just a comedian, a point he loves to make whenever he is targeted for criticism, and should be judged that way. So it follows: Comedian/pundits get to critique the substance of pundit/comedians, but not the other way around.
But that line is just as bogus as Palin’s humble folk dodge. Stewart held a rally on the mall that was about something very serious–a moderate critique of cable news and the absurdities of the national political debate–as he explains later in the same segment. It was not all comedy and irony. He should be judged accordingly.
In the same way, Palin is no more humble folk than I am an overpriced tomato. She is a major partisan and ideological warrior in our popular culture and politics, a millionaire public speaker and a potential frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the most powerful job in the world. She doesn’t just get to pull “current housewife” rank to win debates where she misstates the facts.
This is not to say that the ironic disposition is always nefarious or false. In a time of institutional bankruptcy, however, this disposition cannot be abused as a foil by those who are actually real authorities, who really drive the debate, who must be held to the same high standards that we expect of our fallen institutions.
In a letter to Nixon in January 1969, which was recently excerpted by New York magazine, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that, “[W]e retain a tradition of revolutionary rhetoric that gives an advantage to those who challenge authority rather than those who uphold it.” This is a fine and proud American tradition, but it does not exempt the revolutionaries from being held to account for the things they do and say. And they have a responsibility to all of us to engage that criticism, not just to disqualify the critics.