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Newsweek on Palin: A 'Pet Pony' and 'Rapture-Ready Extremist'

Newsweek's loathing of Sarah Palin comes through loud and clear in the September 29 issue, which awards most of four pages to atheist author Sam Harris to attack her religious "ignorance" and dismiss her as "a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history." (Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson defended Palin's background in a sidebar.) Newsweek's headline was blunt: "When Atheists Attack: A noted provocateur rips Sarah Palin—and defends elitism."  The highlighted quote is "The joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance – it's what's so unnerving about this pick." That shortens the actual quote, in which Harris claims Palin supporters "celebrate" her ignorance.

It's hard to escape the idea that Harris is speaking for the vast majority of the Newsweek editorial staff as he ripped Palin as the McCain campaign's "Rapture-ready extremist" being led around like a "pet pony." (People who think the media were sexist toward Hillary probably can't find her described as a "pet pony.") Picking up where the passage starts that Newsweek liked best, Harris mocks Palin with an imaginary Charlie Gibson interview:

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represent – and her supporters celebrate – the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world's only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."

"But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind."

"That's just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink."

Harris concludes the article with an apocalyptic vision of an apocalyptic religious politician leading America into being a pariah in the world, detached from "empirical reality" and from the "more thoughtful people" who make the world civilized:

The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery...I believe that with the nomination of Sarah Palin for the vice presidency, the silliness of our politics has finally put our nation at risk. The world is growing more complex—and dangerous—with each passing hour, and our position within it growing more precarious. Should she become president, Palin seems capable of enacting policies so detached from the common interests of humanity, and from empirical reality, as to unite the entire world against us. When asked why she is qualified to shoulder more responsibility than any person has held in human history, Palin cites her refusal to hesitate. "You can't blink," she told Gibson repeatedly, as though this were a primordial truth of wise governance. Let us hope that a President Palin would blink, again and again, while more thoughtful people decide the fate of civilization.

But there's so much left-wing bile in this article to consider. Like other Obama supporters (like Bill Maher or Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone), Harris worries out loud that the American people love mediocrity and suspect intellectual training:

The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth's surface (she didn't have a passport until last year), or that she's never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter's microphone, saying things like, "I'm voting for Sarah because she's a mom. She knows what it's like to be a mom." Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.

Harris thinks Palin is ignorant because she is religious. Atheists are intelligent, since they have discovered the Godless truth; believers are delusional and mentally suspect:

Her relative ignorance is guaranteed on these fronts and most others, not because she was put on the spot, or got nervous, or just happened to miss the newspaper on any given morning. Sarah Palin's ignorance is guaranteed because of how she has spent the past 44 years on earth.

I care even more about the many things Palin thinks she knows but doesn't: like her conviction that the Biblical God consciously directs world events. Needless to say, she shares this belief with millions of Americans -- but we shouldn't be eager to give these people our nuclear codes, either. There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn't ready for? He wouldn't. Everything happens for a reason. Palin seems perfectly willing to stake the welfare of our country -- even the welfare of our species -- as collateral in her own personal journey of faith. Of course, McCain has made the same unconscionable wager on his personal journey to the White House.

Harris then embarks on a mind-reading journey, guessing what she heard inside her Assemblies of God church. Perhaps the most offensive passage to many Americans would be Harris's assertion that Bristol Palin's pregnancy isn't a sign of lust, but another leading indicator of religious ignorance:

Teen pregnancy is a misfortune, plain and simple. At best, it represents bad luck (both for the mother and for the child); at worst, as in the Palins' case, it is a symptom of religious dogmatism. Governor Palin opposes sex education in schools on religious grounds. She has also fought vigorously for a "parental consent law" in the state of Alaska, seeking full parental dominion over the reproductive decisions of minors. We know, therefore, that Palin believes that she should be the one to decide whether her daughter carries her baby to term. Based on her stated position, we know that she would deny her daughter an abortion even if she had been raped. One can be forgiven for doubting whether Bristol Palin had all the advantages of 21st-century family planning – or, indeed, of the 21st century.

Harris's real loathing for Palin's faith comes through in this passage:

For all my concern about Bush's religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to "talk the talk" between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to "walk the walk" until the Day of Judgment.

But Harris doesn't just oppose "religious extremism." He opposes religion, period. In her Culture and Media Institute report, Apostles of Atheism, Kristen Fyfe found that Newsweek has a pattern of providing pages for atheists:

Newsweek and ABC both led their competitors in the amount of coverage they gave to atheism and atheists. Stories about atheism, atheist commentaries, or mentions of atheism were present in 51 percent (25) of the 2007 issues of Newsweek, compared with 35 percent (17) of the issues of Time and just 2 percent (1 issue) of U.S. News and World Report.

Tim Graham is the Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.