Thursday, January 13, 2011

Palin Highlights Human Differences

Perhaps you've read the headline above and think you know what this column is about. You're probably wrong.

Sure, Sarah Palin's name has been all over the media for the past week because of all the accusations made against her. But I'd much rather leave that to our editorialist to take on. Somebody in the office once declared that there is nobody in America who either doesn't love Palin or hate Palin. I proved that statement wrong. As with most everyone, I disagree with some of her opinions and actions, and I agree with others. She's just a human being, like everyone else you run into.

For me, that was never more obvious than the night last week when my wife and I watched back-to-back episodes of "Sarah Palin's Alaska" on one of those satellite channels. (I can't tell them apart. I watch something on Animal Planet the other night that didn't have a single animal in it. No wonder I'm confused!)

The Alaska series has finished its run now, but it featured eight one-hour episodes plus a "greatest clips" compilation assembled for those who just don't have eight hours to kill. In it, Palin is more travel guide than public figure, taking viewers on an exploratory trip of America's Last Frontier. And that frontier is a beautiful place. Majestic mountains, crystal-clear waters, and acres of trees, with very few people standing in the way.

The series is a reality show of sorts. The stars are Todd and Sarah Palin and all the kids, the grandchild, various other relatives and friends, and other assorted Alaskan folk, and I'm sure some people didn't even think about watching the show because the Palins are front and center. But as I watched, I picked up on something. The Alaskan culture depicted on the series is at once both very familiar and incredibly foreign to me. I don't know much about salmon fishing, logging or dog mushing, but the blue-collar work ethic I understand. Still, as I sat with my wife and watched, I was as much entertained by the Alaskan lifestyle as I was looking at the bears play in the river.

One of the episodes featured a visit by Kate Gosselin, of (John and) "Kate Plus Eight" fame. The nine of them were coming to go camping and fishing for a weekend with the Palins. However, it turned out to be a real (excuse the expression) fish-out-of-water situation. Gosselin was no more prepared for Alaska than Beverly Hills was prepared for Jed Clampett and his kin. She whined about the rain, the cold, the bugs, the surroundings, the food, and most anything else she could think of. As her eight kids ran around having the time of their collective lives, Mama Gosselin looked for her first opportunity to get out of the Alaskan wilderness.

It was apparent just how few people from outside Alaska would be comfortable there. It's different. They stand around and cut up a catch of fish in one part of the show, including Palin's daughter Willow who is spending her 16th birthday in "fish camp." It's not exactly the Sweet Sixteen party many girls dream of. I mean, who lives like that in the year 2011? But as I marveled at the Alaskan way of life, I was reminded that the Midwestern way of life is just as mysterious and unknown to many others. East coast and west coast dwellers often refer to this part of the world as "flyover country" as if there was nothing of importance in Ohio, Indiana, or countless other states in between New York and Los Angeles. They have no knowledge of corn fields, of counties with only 30,000 residents, or of cities where murders are rare instead of a daily occurrence. And many don't want any knowledge of those things either. We are like a documentary on rural Midwestern life that nobody wants to watch.

Maybe we're too quick to dismiss things -- cultures, people, ideas -- that are different than ourselves. Perhaps we find ourselves judging others as harshly as they judge us. While I'm not booking a six-month Alaskan camping vacation, or planning to turn in my keyboard for a salmon boat in Alaska's Bristol Bay, I'm pretty sure I have no business looking down my nose at those who live in that environment. And no matter what you think of Sarah Palin's politics, you should be able to see that the state she formerly governed is not a backward culture. It's just a different culture. As much as I hate being judged for the area I live, I have to be sure I'm not doing the same thing. I may not want to live in a big-city high-rise or in a tent in sub-zero weather, but I won't be talking down those who do. And just maybe the same thing should apply to people who have different opinions, different levels of education, different income tax brackets, different musical tastes, and different personal habits. We're just human beings, after all.

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