Martin Bright

Sarah Churchwell Gets Under the Skin of Republican Philistines

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I now get magazines sent to my home rather than my office, which means that I actually read them from time to time.

The latest issue of The Liberal, for instance, contains a fascinating article by Sarah Churchwell about the home-spun language used by Sarah Palin and John McCain during the US presidential election. She demonstrates that the attempt to paint Barack Obama as an out-of-touch metropolitan intellectual failed, but it is a brilliant analysis of how powerful this particular discourse remains in the US culture wars. "The real winner of the 2008 election," she says, "may yet turn out to have been the English language".        

I was struck by the following passage: "Liberals, associated with over-education, ivory-tower irrelevance and elite effeteness, were understood by extension to indulge in overly theoretical, exclusionary or multisyllabic language, as well as pedantry. Conservatives, by contrast, associated with small-town exurbia, were understood to employ the aw-shucks, down-home, common-sense vernacular of the man on the street."

By way of illustration she quotes the magnificent post-election repsonse by Sarah Palin to CNN's Wolf Blitzer when he asked her whether she had any plans for the future:

"Gah! Nothing specific right now. Sitting here in these chairs that I’m going to be proposing but in working with these governors who again on the front lines are forced to and it’s our privileged obligation to find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don’t get away with that. We have to balance budgets and we’re dealing with multibillion dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees in our organizations."

How different it is in Britain, where it is generally Labour politicians who don't allow themselves to be caught using sophisticated language or seeming too "clever-clever". Even so, there is a long and proud history of Labour intellectuals. Clearly there is a Daily Mail-inspired conservatism which comes close this American anti-intellectualism, but it does not run deep into the Conservative Party itself.