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Thoughts on the Palin Email

BY Zephyr Teachout | Friday, September 5 2008

In the last few days I have gotten an email from an inordinate number of friends of mine.

The email they are forwarding purports to be from a woman from Wasilla who knew Palin. It includes lots of claims about her record as mayor and governor along the lines of this:

What did Mayor Palin encourage the voters to borrow money for? Was it the infrastructure that she said she supported? The sewage treatment plant that the city lacked? or a new library? No. $1m for a park. $15m-plus for construction of a multi-use sports complex which she rushed through to build on a piece of property that the City didn't even have clear title to, that was still in litigation 7 yrs later--to the delight of the lawyers involved!

The subject line of the email is often something like "did you hear this about Sarah Palin..." or "Palin info" or "Important on Palin."

Its well-written and very detailed. I don't know that it is false, and am in no position to judge it. What strikes me is that I also don't have any real reason to know that it is true. It is forwarded to me from friends who got it from friends who got it from friends--for all I know Kevin Bacon's inbox influx is crashing his computer.

In other words, it bears some resemblance to the demonstrably false emails about Barack Obama that have circulated for the past year, some of which were forwarded to me by friends whose friends' friends or family received them, with titles like "important information about Obama...."

They are not the same. The claims made about Obama are patently false; the claims made about Palin may well be true, but I need more to confirm it. The claims about Obama are obviously inflamatory; the tone of the Palin emails are much quieter. But I think, for those who have received or forwarded these Palin emails, its a good moment for some empathy to understand how the Obama emails move, and to reflect on how we should take in information.

We can feel, as citizens, as if we're between a scylla and charybdis of information.

On the one hand, the post-modern political reporters and bloggers act as hack theater critics, judging performances not by how they as individuals respond, but by how they believe the mythical "american people," "independent voters," and "women" (and most bizarrely "the media") will respond. The standard role of the most prominent commentator and reporter is theater critic first, fact-checker second, independent questioner a distant third. (The inverted triangle reflects this--five paragraphs of post-modern critique; two paragraphs of fact-checking; an unanswered question dangled like a preposition going nowhere at the end.) The pictures accompanying the articles are not post-modern but pre-modern, either submissive glorious shots of the intended frame, or grotesque caricatures.

On the other hand, we have emails like the Palin ones, which purport to tell us real information about what she did, from a real person, and in our hunger for political storytelling in the classic sense (stories that answer this question: "what does she do when she has power?"), that feel thick and rich and have the added sheen of authenticity.

There's lots of good reporting, too--I heard a great interview with David Kilpatrick of the NYTimes on Fresh Air last night, really "reporting"--that is, describing--what McCain, as an adult, has done: how he has lived, how he has used power, how he has thought.

But when I sit at my computer screen trying to finish an article on extraterritorial electioneering for a law review, and an IM or email pops up, someone twitters, someone texts, someone calls--I check the home page of a few blogs and papers--it can feel exhausting to row firmly between these two crags, to do the work of a citizen, give myself a good diet of information, resist forwarding unconfirmed rumors, resist battling the theater critics on their own terms.

All of which is a long way of saying, I understand the impulse to forward these messages when we are hungry for narratives about power instead of theater. The Palin emails have helped me understand, too, how the Obama emails moved so far and so fast. And, relatedly, I am both horrified by the emails and unwilling to dismiss or hate those who hungrily pass on rumors. Some sympathy seems in order--not too much--but enough to resist painting other emailers as rubes or rogues.

The Obama campaign is doing the right thing by answering the false claims about him on the facts, and calling lies lies. But we have all become responsible for political truth, like it or not. One of the costs of the information era is that we all have a very high level of responsibility when it comes to forwarding information; a level that can test even the best of us.