Stanley Fish’s op-ed in the New York Times this week would not be notable except that his intellectually vacuous reading of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party echoes the lively discussion David Sehat sparked in his recent post on Jill Lepore’s book. Fish uses Palin’s Facebook screed posted in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting to ask us to reconsider American exceptionalism as understood and promoted by Palin and the Tea Party. Early in his essay, Fish argues that Palin’s view of American exceptionalism is a combination of “Calvinist pessimism” and “unabashed patriotism.” Palin’s thought, Fish continues, echoes the beloved characters of Frank Capra films (and their “love” of American scriptures such as the Declaration and the Bill of Rights); Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech; and phrases, pulled utterly out of context, from the usual culprits associated with American exceptionalism: Tocqueville, Crevecoeur, Frederick Jackson Turner, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, John Winthrop.
Winthrop is especially significant here, I think, because no one better understood “Calvinist pessimism,” than this commanding Puritan. So for the moment, let’s accept that Winthrop belongs in this slapdash list of American dreamers and is available to Palin and Fish to serve their argument that we have a government “not designed for ‘perfect men and women.'” Palin’s use of Winthrop buttresses her argument that America is exceptional because it has political system that does NOT try to coerce the people to be better–as Fish writes, “Palin brings together her argument for a certain form of politics ‘to govern ourselves locally without waiting for any central authority to show us the way’ [and that] ‘we have managed to be, for the most part, the moral and upright people that the Founders hoped we would be.'”
I am not the first person to cry foul when Winthrop is used in this way. His sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” has been abused for a very long time–perhaps most famously by Palin’s political lodestar, Ronald Reagan. But the particular issue I take with Fish’s comments on Palin is the way he throws together Calvinist pessimism and “unabashed patriotism” as if they complement each other. If anything, Winthrop’s faith directly opposed the kind of chauvinism inherent in “unabashed patriotism.” In short, Calvinist pessimism was the antidote to the self-love of patriotism. Winthrop admonished those on the Arabella: “If our heartes shall turne away so that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship…other Gods, our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whither wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it.”
Contra Fish, Palin can choose to be a pessimistic Calvinist or an unabashed patriot–she cannot be both and I have a feeling I know which she might choose.