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Posted at 5:19 PM ET, 01/12/2011

Is Miss America to blame for Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' video?

By Alexandra Petri

Watching Sarah Palin's eight-minute video today about the Tucson tragedy, I was reminded of nothing more than the Miss America channel on YouTube.

A single phrase -- "blood libel" -- has defined this video so far. But there's so much more in it that bears contemplating. The flag. The props. The attire. After I watched all 53 videos made by the Miss America contestants, it all made sense: It's a Miss America pitch.

The talents of Miss America contestants largely fall into one of two categories: an actual talent that is somewhat annoying (ventriloquism, tap dancing, singing, ballet, full-contact yoga) or giving a vague, meandering speech that seems to feel it left a point somewhere but can't remember where.

They deal in broad state caricatures. Miss Hawaii? Ukulele and grass skirt. Miss Kansas? Dorothy outfit.

"Drowning is a leading cause of death in America, and it is my goal as Miss America 2011 to eliminate this from our nation's fears," says Miss Arizona. "It is also my goal to be the Miss America that comes with all the bells and whistles, and one that makes a huge splash," Miss Arizona adds, before ringing a bell, blowing a whistle, and being splashed repeatedly while giggling.

"I still have thirty seconds left, so I'm gonna talk now," Miss Kentucky says. "I absolutely love cheesecake. I have a younger brother. I love to polish my nails in bright colors because I am a bright-colored person."

"Our Miss America also needs to be a woman of compassion," Miss Michigan explains. "And if there's one thing I do kind of okay, it's probably compassion...So if you're looking for a Miss America with a little bit of intellect, a little bit of physical strength, and a little bit of compassion, I might just be your girl." Don't everybody rush to sign up at once!

I have no idea what Miss Utah is doing. She appears to be working out while answering questions from a hair dryer. Then she drops barbells on someone.

"Beans are an excellent source of protein," sings Miss Nevada.

"I am a true testament to what has set apart the Miss America program," Miss Indiana intones. "I stand here today with more than just the dream of becoming Miss America but the ability to truly believe that on the inside and out that will always be one of my greatest accomplishments."

That's Palinese.

It's not the gimmicks (singing dog puppet, Miss Arkansas?) that are most familiar. It's the affinity for props -- guns, tiaras, construction hats. It's the tendency to club people over the head with metaphors. The meandering, aimless speeches.

"The mass will hopefully help begin a healing process for the families touched by this tragedy and for our country," Palin intones, "our exceptional country so vibrant with ideas and passionate exchange and debate of ideas -- a light to the rest of the world." It's the ability to speak without saying anything or appearing to understand what you're saying.

It's the perpetual smile.

Palin's speechwriting style, which compresses the largest possible amount of what might be words into the smallest possible amount of what might be thought, comes to us by way of this competition -- she was, after all, third-runner up for Miss Alaska in 1984. And this vague approximation of style gives us gems like "blood libel."

It's a sad statement about where public discourse is that, in response to this particularly infelicitous choice of phrase, the defense that is used is, "She has no real idea what any of the words mean." This is the sort of thing that gets me, for lack of a better word, somewhat wee-weed up.

So I can't help wondering: Is Miss America to blame for Sarah Palin?

In spite of all its efforts to catch up with the progress that I hear women have made since they first strutted down the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 1921, Miss America has always favored style over substance. The greater public knows this. When it was put to a vote in 1995, 79 percent of people voted to retain the swimsuit portion, better known as "the only portion anyone pays attention to in this competition unless someone's a really good singer."

Still, ever since the alleged bra-burning incident on the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest the objectification at the heart of Miss America 1968, Miss America has been trying to revamp its image. Now it's a Scholarship Competition. But is it really? Not to demean the resumes or achievements of individual contestants, but overall the shift away from straight-up beauty contest has simply had the effect of adding into the mix a section where you ask beautiful people basic questions they seem unable to answer, while forcing them to tap-dance and "advocate."

"I'll be representing the modern young leaders of our generation," threatens Miss Ohio. "I won't be your grandma's Miss America."

No! I want to shout. I'd prefer it if you were! Can we make a deal? I won't ask you to talk to me about the importance of child literacy if you won't force me to look poised in evening-wear and a bikini.

Miss America now epitomizes the kind of mistaken feminism that has gotten Sarah Palin so far. It's the idea that you can still judge women by their looks as long as you force them to talk about hot-button issues. It's still a bathing beauty contest -- but now there's an achievement and personality component. This reminds me of a time I responded to a Craigslist ad that was looking for a woman whose brains matched her beauty. "Hey there," I said. "I'm not that smart, but then again I'm also pretty ugly." Why are we forcing these widely disparate axes onto the same graph?

I understand that attractive people are often intelligent. I am not trying to demean the program. But I have watched all 53 videos, and if these are in fact the modern young leaders of our generation, I am moving to Switzerland.

We should just crown the best-looking person in a bathing suit. We shouldn't muddy the waters by attempting to crown the best-looking person who can also string together a vaguely coherent sentence about world peace while making a balloon animal.

The full horror of the new Miss America is epitomized by Miss Florida, who recites an alphabetical litany of why she deserves to be Miss America. These disjointed, meandering talking points chillingly summarize the formula that thrusts people like Sarah Palin onto the national scene: "A, action, B, believing in yourself, C, confidence, D, drive, E, education, F, fear, G, goalsetting, H, having fun, I, independence, J, jobs, K, kindness, L, leadership, M, motivation, N, never negative, O, optimistic, P, perseverance, Q, quest or queen, R, reliability, T, time commitment, U, unlimited power, V, victory, W, winner, X, excellence, Z, zest."

"Oh," Miss Florida adds, "I forgot one letter -- S. S is for success." She also forgot Y. Didn't we all.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 12, 2011; 5:19 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  America, Miss America, Sarah Palin, scary  
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Next: New zodiac sign dates are ruining my life! And what's an Ophiuchus?


Personally, I'm more interested in a woman whose sense of humor matches her looks. Alex, based on this column, you must be extremely funny looking (that's a compliment).

My favorite for Miss America is our own hometown girl, Miss DC. She starts off in her medical student white coat, and shows off her rectal exam glove. Then she strips all the way down to bikini and implants. I felt a tingle like Chris Matthews, but in a different place.

You really nailed Sarah Palin this time. I'm sure a lot of men wish they could too, which is how she became governor of Alaska.

Unfortunately, evolution has insured that a man can only think short-term when around a beautiful woman who might help spread his genes. This explains why John McCain picked her, and why she gets more support from men.

But men, if you want to know how Sarah Palin would turn out as president, look at your ex-wives. You used to be attracted to them too.

Posted by: divtune | January 13, 2011 12:13 AM | Report abuse

Thank god this was so long-winded, pointless and meandering, otherwise I would've thought it was just yet another ad hominem attack.

Posted by: bbguy54 | January 13, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

bbguy54, an ad hominem attack is when one diverts discussion away from the merits of an argument by assaulting the person making them. In that case, this article would read something like "Sarah Palin says X, but she is a bad parent and a mental midget, so X is wrong." However, this piece really did nothing along those lines. Rather, in its long-winded way, Petri equates the new criteria for Miss America with the new criteria for political traction, and does so fairly well. Perhaps you're too busy white-knighting for a rich idiot to notice these kinds of things.

See, there I attacked Palin a bunch of times, but none of them was ad hominem, since I wasn't trying to argue against anything she's said. I also don't argue against diapers, for the exact same reason.

Posted by: purpledrank | January 13, 2011 5:49 PM | Report abuse

The blood libel originated during the height of the eunuch trade, when the slave radhanite merchants as per hundreds of middle age sources we economic historians know perfectly at least in Europe - here Mccormick from Harvard, cathedra of history of middle ages economics explains it, castrated children with 66% of death rates to jack up the price from 30 grams on spot buying the child to the peasant father to 300 grams gold in Baghdad. Yet the people mutilated that died of bleeding were thrown to the gutter. Fathers found them and thought the radhanite merchants had drunk their blood. Proto-Cap*talism at its best.
But there is a deeper philosophical question here: how censorship of part of the truth (as wikipedia police 'owned' by Jim, from the same tribe, does) bends reality. Because the merchants didn’t drink the blood of the children. So to say it is a libel is truth and yet they were guilty not the fathers. This is how media controls truth: censorship of full truth converts perpetrators (Israel, bankers) into rescued victims while true victims (Palestinians, the people of this country) are forgotten. deja vu...

Posted by: luisancho | January 14, 2011 12:58 AM | Report abuse

An interesting analysis and anology, Ms. Petri. I hadn't thought of Ms. Palin's style in terms of Miss America, probably because I haven't watched a Miss America contest in probably twenty years, but I'm inclined to think yours is a good analogy.

I especially like "Palin's speechwriting style, which compresses the largest possible amount of what might be words into the smallest possible amount of what might be thought, ...".

Posted by: vklip | January 14, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

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