‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’
Maria Baltazzi, et al., “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”
TLC: A Discovery Company
2010-2011, nine episodes, forty-five minutes
Surfing the political blogs recently, I learned that former vice presidential candidate (and presumptive 2012 presidential candidate), Sarah Palin, has a nation-wide approval rating of 28%, while 60% disapprove. What amazes me about these numbers is not that Americans reject the former Alaska governor by a 2-to-1 margin, but that fully twelve percent of the American public hasn’t seen enough of Sarah Palin to form an opinion. Given the relentless media attention Palin has gotten over the past three years, what more could these people need to know? Heck, I know more about Track Palin than I do about most of the GOP hopefuls who’ve officially announced their candidacies for 2012.
That’s partly because I just finished watching all nine episodes of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” on TLC, one of many stops along the perennial Sarah Palin publicity tour. In each episode, Palin leaves her Wasilla home with several family members to visit some (sometimes remote, always incredibly scenic) location in Alaska, where they take part in various adventures: halibut fishing, gold panning, sea kayaking, dog mushing. Palin’s narration features superficial facts about Alaska (Palin repeatedly proclaims herself the “Cliff Clavin of Alaska”) and platitudes about self-reliance and family values.
“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” is not, nor does it really attempt to be, about Alaska. Rather, it’s a reality show spotlighting Palin with Alaska as the backdrop. This is Alaska viewed through the prism of Palin’s scorched-earth politics. There is much discussion of “the real Alaska,” reminiscent of the “Real American Stories” segment Palin hosted on Fox News. The purview of “real Alaskans” appears to consist of activities such as hunting caribou, shooting clay pigeons, and tearing through the wilderness on ATV’s. Rock climbing and whitewater rafting? The Palins gamely give these activities a try, but they never receive the official “real Alaska” stamp. Apparently differentiating between “real Alaskans” and everybody else is important, since Palin makes this distinction at some point in nearly every episode. Just as she did during her failed vice-presidential campaign, Palin makes her living at denying the existence of anyone who might rationally disagree with her.
Palin’s so-called real Alaskans embrace some environmental values that I find compelling. In the episode, “She’s a Great Shot”—I’ll bet you can identify the antecedent of “she”—, Palin, her father, and a family friend fly to a remote camp north of the Arctic Circle to hunt caribou. Palin points out that caribou provide “wild, organic, healthy food,” unlike what’s generally found at the supermarket. Fair points. I agree. I think most people would benefit from a closer connection to what they eat; a more intimate knowledge of where our food comes from would surely promote healthier and more thoughtful eating habits.
For all her self-righteous crowing about the moral superiority of hunting over buying meat from the supermarket, though, Palin never mentions the cost—or the fossil fuel consumption—for the bush flight 700 miles north to Kavik. Assuming Palin harvested half the total weight of the small caribou that she shot and assuming the bush pilot got his customary $350 an hour, the meat with which she stocked her freezer “to feed our family for the winter” probably cost something in the neighborhood of $40 a pound, a price most Alaskans couldn’t dream of paying for their winter meat supply.
When Palin discusses her notion of “sustainability,” a buzzword she repeats often, it becomes clear that her ecological wisdom comes from Ted Nugent (whom she actually quotes during the show) rather than Rachel Carson. Palin characterizes Alaska’s timber industry as “sustainable” and “good stewards” because the timber companies—or at least Evergreen Timber, whom she visits in one episode—plant trees to replace those they cut. That the companies clear-cut old-growth forests and replace them with saplings is irrelevant to Palin. And she seems blithely unaware that American taxpayers pay $45 million annually to subsidize timber harvesting in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which is being logged at a rate faster than any other national forest in America.
The point of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” though, is not to provide nuanced discussion of Alaska’s natural environment. Its purpose, rather, is to advance Palin’s politics—an approach that is alternately insidious and dangerous. So when the Palins camp in grizzly country, they ignore the guidelines established by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service: screw those Feds! Instead of storing food in bear bags or bear canisters, the Palins bring guns. They keep their leftover food in coolers, where bears can easily smell it, and rely on firearms to protect themselves. In one episode, a map of Alaska shows the locations of hundreds of bear attacks since 1990. Presumably most of these victims are Palin’s “real Alaskans” whose firearms give them a false sense of security.
Despite having an entire reality television series in which to promote her ideology unchallenged, Palin devotes much of her energy to attacking her critics, real and imagined. In one episode, while making s’mores with her children, Palin claims that Michelle Obama “said we can’t have dessert” as part of her national anti-obesity campaign. (I hope it goes without saying that the first lady never said any such thing.) Elsewhere Palin taunts unnamed “conservationists” and “liberals” who “get all wee-wee’d up” because Palin likes to shoot clay pigeons. At the same time that she ceaselessly lobs grenades at her opponents, however, Palin seems to believe that she and her family are victims of unfair media treatment. Palin laments the “tabloids” that criticize her daughter Bristol, and she repeatedly compares herself to a grizzly sow fiercely protecting her cubs. The important distinction I’d make, though, is that real mama grizzlies don’t generally offer up their dens as sites for reality TV shows. In that sense, it would be difficult to be more different from a reclusive mama grizzly than the attention-craving Sarah Palin.
“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” is an undeniably spectacular place, one I’d want to visit even if it were only populated by so-called real Alaskans. Thankfully, Alaska is more culturally and politically diverse than that. That’s good, because protecting Alaska’s rich biodiversity and natural beauty will take more than mere rhetoric about hard work and self-reliance, which is about all Palin’s ideology provides. Protecting Alaska’s future will require us to acknowledge that Alaska faces real challenges from pollution, overfishing, and climate change—problems that cannot exist within the narrow worldview of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”
Jim Bishop is Assistant Professor of English at Young Harris College in Georgia. Currently, he is co-editing a book manuscript, “Currents of the Universal Being: Explorations in the Literature of Energy,” with Scott Slovic and Kyhl Lyndgaard, due out from Texas Tech University Press in 2012.